Serious Eating

Food is strongly connected to identity in China, where regional differences in food customs and tastes are so dramatic that you can tell what region a person is from by the foods they prefer.

Stark regional differences in food tastes aren’t unique to China. Lu likened regional Chinese cuisines to the differences between, say, Louisiana jambalaya, a New York hot dog, and Chicago deep-dish pizza. But she sees diverging American and Chinese cultural attitudes toward food and eating. For example, in Chinese restaurants it’s typical for all those seated at a table together to serve themselves from a communal plate, instead of ordering individual entrees. Lu maintained that restaurants in the United States have a different way of promoting community. They offer a wider range of food that may represent and even blend regional tastes—something Chinese restaurants would not cater to so readily. Lu said, “If you don’t like Sichuan food, don’t come to Sichuan Province.”

Lu attributed these regional differences in cuisine to the Chinese agricultural system. “Chinese farmers are very resourceful and can produce a huge variety of crops on very little land,” she said.

As she explained the diversified, small-scale, food-based farming methods that contribute so much to China’s cultural identity, I saw their similarity to what Nebraska’s sustainable-minded food producers are striving to do in our own ways.