Food in China and the Challenges of Limited Palates


I love food. I love to try all different types of food. If I’m on the street in Thailand, I can’t wait to try all the spicy, interesting looking dishes and the fresh juices and exotic looking fruits. In India I want to taste all the chaat and samosas in the street and each dish served with roti in the local dhaba.  In Bhutan I’ve tried to taste every version of ema datse (chilles and cheese) to discover the subtle differences of flavor. In Spain I want to taste every tapa and each type of fish and seafood. In China, I am delighted to have available a huge array of foods to taste and regional cuisine to experience. If I see something new to taste in the street, I can’t bear to walk by without purchasing even a very small portion to try.

As we have moved into a neighborhood surrounded by restaurants of various Chinese regional cuisines and food of minority groups, I am elated. I can’t wait to try it all (I’ve just got to wait for this Spring Festival to pass so that all the restaurants will re-open!). The problem, however, is my family. Manu and I are on opposite ends of the food spectrum in terms of valuing trying new things. He knows what he likes and sees little reason to expand his palate. His simple Mediterranean taste has served him well for almost forty years and he believes that trying new things is overrated.

Then there are the kids. Isabel seems the most open to trying new things, probably mainly because she hasn’t developed the toddler pickiness yet that she’ll inevitably exhibit. Although both Sophia and Dylan are into separate, plain food (meat, vegetables, and starches should all be with limited spices and without sauces), Dylan’s a little more open to trying things in sauces (which could get him far in China). Sophia, on the other hand, is very good at making faces that say, “you think I’m going to try that?” when a new food item is put in front of her (as the older sister, she has a powerful impact on Dylan’s opinions, so I have to remind her over and over again to limit her vocalizing).

We’ve been cooking either lunch or dinner at home each day to make sure that the kids eat at least one balanced meal that we know they’ll eat. The other we’ve usually eaten out. Sometimes the kids have only eaten rice (but they’ve gotten more practice eating it with chopsticks!). My concern, though, is that they start figuring out how to try things, as they’ll soon be in school for up to 9 hours a day (we may take them out some days early to do other activities) and will be eating lunch there (we don’t have the choice to not pay $60/month for each kid to eat the “balanced and nutritious” meals they told me would be served). I keep reminding Sophia and Dylan that they will soon be eating at school and will have to be willing to try more things, or it is very likely they’ll be famished by the end of the day (and probably beside themselves with hunger on the walk home).

Today we were out for a walk around lunch time and Manu asked where I wanted to eat. He was eyeing the Pizza Hut and the KFC (both of which are appealing middle-class establishments in China) on the main drag in front of Minzu, but he responsibly kept his ideas to himself. On the other hand, I thought it’d be good for the kids to get another experience trying new foods, so I suggested a local fast-food noodle chain called “Xiaodou Noodles” (the kids love pasta and I thought it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find something they would eat). As soon as we looked at all of the pictures of the food, most of which appealed to me, I had my doubts. Still, we ordered two bowls of noodles with veggies that looked relatively plain. When it arrived, Sophia made the usual face and it seemed she may eat nothing at all.

I reminded the kids again that they were going to be at school eating Chinese food in two weeks and that they really better learn to at least try what was offered. Dylan tasted the lightly sauced noodles first and had a positive reaction, and my little speech must have touched Sophia a bit, because she took the tiniest bite, with trepidation. Surprisingly, she found it acceptable and they both ate enough to feel satisfied. They were so occupied with their own meal that I don’t think they observed how few bites Manu was taking or that when we got home he warmed himself up a slice of pizza.

I’m determined to pass on to our kids my sense of the value of trying foods across cultures, as I think it’s one of the important ways we can understand another society through what foods, flavors, and methods of preparation are considered important and why. I’m aware that my efforts might gain little traction, but I’m hoping that at least one of our three children will come to appreciate food as I do.



4 responses »

  1. Pam, our son Ben was a very picky eater until we went to Spain to visit friends! One night they fixed squid in its ink. I braced myself because I knew this was WAY out of his comfort zone. But somehow manners won out (amazingly) and he knew he’d better at least try it because it would be rude not to. He loved it and it really turned him around. Granted, he was a bit older than yours – seven, maybe? – but perhaps once you have Chinese friends invite you over (if that’s what happens there), that might help.

  2. Jan, that’s such a nice story! I’m impressed that Ben had the manners and sense to try it (maybe we haven’t done a good enough job with our kids in this regard…) and then to admit that he liked it. Is he a foodie now? And, Susan, yes, I do hope to raise at least one foodie!

  3. Pingback: My Adventures in Extreme Eating, Beijing Style | Beijing Days

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