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Food in Chinese Culture

by K.C. Chang

The importance of food in understanding human culture lies precisely in its infinite variability--variability that is not essential for species survival. For survival needs, people everywhere could eat the same food, to be measured only in calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins. But people of different backgrounds eat very differently. The basic stuffs from which food is prepared; the ways in which it is preserved, cut up, cooked (if at all); the amount and variety at each meal; the tastes that are liked and disliked; the customs of serving food; the utensils; the beliefs about the food's properties--these all vary. The number of such "food variables" is great.

An anthropological approach to the study of food would be to isolate and identify the food variables, arrange these variables systematically, and explain why some of these variables go together or do not go together.

For convenience, we may use culture as a divider in relating food variables' hierarchically. I am using the word culture here in a classificatory sense implying the pattern or style of behavior of a group of people who share it. Food habits may be used as an important, or even determining, criterion in this connection. People who have the same culture share the same food habits, that is, they share the same assemblage of food variables. Peoples of different cultures share different assemblages of food variables. We might say that different cultures have different food choices. (The word choices is used here not necessarily in an active sense, granting the possibility that some choices could be imposed rather than selected.) Why these choices? What determines them? These are among the first questions in any study of food habits.

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