Food as cultural anchors
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
The food that Indians and Chinese eat and their cooking techniques may be very different, but one of the most distinct similarities between the two cultures is the importance of food itself in the cultures! In fact , when visiting Indian-Chinese homes, one begins to see immediately the important of food in everyday life.
“Culture” in most old civilizations like China or India, cannot be used in the singular because of regional differences in geographies, histories and sociologies in these vast and ancient lands, but somethings cut across regions and histories and in China (like India) food was one of them . It’s not long before you discover that cooking is an alibi for many things including love and friendship and food is a language in itself. Firstly, the Chinese have foods that announce a betrothal, a marriage, a pregnancy, a child’s arrival, a job promotion, success in exams, and practically everything and most foods symbolize something. Fish is considered the most auspicious food, because its Chinese name, yú , is pronounced the same way as the words for fortune and abundance. Pomegranates symbolize fertility, because it is full of seeds and a picture of a half opened fruit full of seeds is often a wedding gift, a wish for a hundred sons. From the various symbols I read about, I loved this little nugget the best, “Apricots can symbolise a beautiful woman, but when a red one is given to a husband, it would tell him that his wife has taken a lover” !
Chinese Kali temple in Tangra
In India fresh flowers are offered to at alters and to ancestors, the Chinese offer fresh fruit and cooked food that you see in most alters in homes. There is also a Kali shrine in Tangra in Kolkata, called the Chinese Kali Mandir . The idol has a Chinese face and the daily prasad offered is Chowmein. Food plays a large part in Chinese rituals which usually end in a large feast.
An unforgettable experience I had was also in Tangra, at a “bone-picking” ceremony, (which is no longer practiced in China but the desi-Chinese still perform it). 2-3 years after a person’s death, his or her grave is dug open before dawn, and the bones are removed, washed and ceremoniously placed in an urn and put into in a crypt in the same graveyard. The ceremony includes offerings made of some of the things that the departed person liked to eat and drink , along with paper imitations of the good things in life like clothes, jewellery, perfumes, and money. At the ceremony I attended, the departed soul of Mr. Tan was offered the customary paper models of luxury goods but also lots of real Scotch along a whole roast pig. The Scotch was poured out, with a prayer, into the flower bed in front of the crypt but the roast pig was served to guests during the ensuing feast !
As part of a food project I was working on, I visited several desi Chinese families in many parts of India. Despite claims of authenticity you will hear from numerous new, sometimes pricey, Chinese restaurants all over Indian cities today, you have to visit an Indian Chinese home if one wants the “real thing”. Home cooked Chinese food has all the freshness, variety and subtle flavours that I had only heard about from people returning from China and that I have since come to associate with Chinese home cooking. However, the part of the meal I enjoyed most in my desi-Chinese friends’ homes, was gathering around the dining table. Eating with them really opened windows to this large hearted, fun-loving community who love food and Bollywood movies as much as we Indians do. Being at home with them reminded me very much of being at my parents in suburban Bombay. The messy, lived-in warmth of a home arranged for lounging around and always an open-house to friends, a bustling kitchen always wafting out delicious aromas. More often than not there will be Hindi film music playing somewhere in the home, even while someone else is watching a Hindi film on TV and it was really nice to hear a kind of HinChin being spoken in the family. A hybrid of Cantonese and Hindi with some English words thrown in.
Like the Indian diaspora, the desi-Chinese, even after 2 or 3 centuries of being in India, have remained Chinese at heart but desi in may delightful ways.