06/01/2020 No. 156
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Pizza Cathay
By Alijandra Mogilner
February 1, 2008

When visiting China on business, your hosts will make sure you see local sights and are treated to some of the wonderful foods in that area.  Unless you are in Shanghai and want a Western style Chinese restaurant, don't expect the foods to resemble what you get in the U.S. - especially when your host says they are serving local delicacies at dinner. For example, in Hangzhou one specialty is Drunken Shrimp which consists of live shrimp soaked in a bowl of alcohol for five minutes and then eaten.  They twitch in your mouth until you bite them.   In less westernized cities you might visit a snack market in the evening if the weather is nice.   Family businesses line the streets and homemade signs may read Ma Family Mutton Soup or Ci Xi's Chrysanthemum Jiaoze.  It is great fun to go from stand to stand trying the homemade foods. 


One should also not expect the standard question in Chinese restaurants in the West: steamed rice or fried?  Not all areas of China depend on rice as a staple: some places use noodles, others dumplings, etc.  In fact, even in areas where rice is traditionally a basic part of the diet it has seemed to be in short supply during the last few years.  Rice was plentiful on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing during New Year, but other than that it was rarely served.  Even if ordered, rice has not always been available.   This may be a reflection of the push to industrialize land that was formerly dedicated to farming.  If you go to visit the terracotta warriors in Xi'an you will pass miles of farm land standing fallow and their small cement houses empty.  The area already has a thriving science and technology industrial complex outside of town and the empty land is earmarked for further development.  Unlike a half century ago China is able to feed its people, but the available foods are often one reflection of national policy. 


One thing did not change throughout China: Maotai (or Mautai).  Maotai is a grain alcohol roughly equivalent to chemicals used to strip paint.  Maotai, or its more refined cousin simply called Five Grain, is used to toast people, contracts, or anything else that sounds close to reasonable.  Served in little porcelain cups, everyone pounds them on the table and someone gives a toast. The glasses are quickly emptied, then refilled, and the ritual continues until either the liquor is gone or there is a general consensus to give up since one still has to walk out the door.  You may find two tricks useful if the toasting goes on beyond your tolerance for strong drink.  Moist towels are often provided with dinner and people often wipe their mouths after a toast.  What you don't see is that sometimes the liquor, whether it is Maotai or cognac, is discretely spit into the napkin.  The other is that since Maotai is almost always served in opaque cups it is easy to cover the cup with your tongue and appear to drink it.  The latter works best if the cups are being refilled by a waitress and not your host.  All that needs to be said about Maotai is summarized by an incident at the Xi'an airport.  A businessman had Jack Daniels and Maotai in a carryon bag. He was told he could put the JD in checked luggage, but not the Maotai; it was classed with explosives. 


After a month eating local delicacies, some Americans are desperate for anything remotely like American food.  Outposts of familiar fast food and pizza chains are not uncommon in the large cities.  The standard configuration seems to be a McDonalds on one side of the street with a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the other.  Like the regular restaurants, don't expect the chains to be exactly what you find at home.  McDonald's has grilled chicken burgers, McNuggets can have a chili garlic dipping sauce, and you can order crispy chicken wings.  The deserts are a big hit since they are rarely served with meals elsewhere.  KFC is the largest Western food chain in China and has a Col. Sanders that looks like Confucius.  The chicken is all original recipe, but value meals include soup, noodles, and steamed vegetables.   Pizza Hut is often a sit down full service restaurant and is so popular with locals they often require reservations.


American style restaurants are not always available and it would be foolish to only eat there anyway; you would miss a great opportunity to explore and enjoy the real China.  Most foods offered you would probably expect to be as delightful as they are.  There are entire restaurants dedicated to Peking Duck in Beijing.  Hot Pot restaurants let you choose what you will cook at your table and a little adventurous spirit pays big culinary dividends.  On the other hand, some foods may sound put offish, but if you think about them they almost all have direct equivalents in American or European cuisine.  Fried beef intestine isn't any different than chitlings in the Southern U.S. and horse can be found in fine restaurants in France, Belgium, and Italy, among other countries.  Ever had black pudding in Scotland?  Drisheen in Ireland? Boudin noir in France? Morcilla in Spain? or Blutwurst in Germany?  Then you are ready for ox blood jello.  You will seldom be offered these more exotic sounding foods, but if you take a chance and try them, you may be very pleasantly surprised.


The dinner table in China can be likened to the golf course in California.  Decisions on a contract, if they are affirmative, are often announced around the dinner table and the conversation is often more telling about how the day's negotiations went than the business meeting itself.  Many deals in Chongqing are finalized over fresh fish from the Yangtze or sucking meat off of the bones of cha shao pork in Guangzhou.  


Food in China, like any place in the world, is an entre into the culture of the country and, sometimes, onto a better understanding of the economy and even government policy.   Paying attention to the number and kind of restaurants gives the visitor a quick view of the economic development in an area.  The presence of American or European chains quickly establishes how much Western business has penetrated the local market.  Paying attention to what is served, and what is not, may say a good deal about unarticulated government policy that may affect your business. 


China is a huge nation and there are many cultures contained within its borders.  However, two things remain true: throughout the country friendships are made over dinner and here is a joyful exuberance over food and drink you will be hard pressed to find elsewhere. 

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Dr. Alijandra Mogilner is Executive Vice President of Faucon International, a business development company.She has visited the Chinese mainland on business several times over the past three years and worked in a half dozen cities there. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. She is the author of several books and hundreds of magazine articles. She has taught at the University of California San Diego and Alliant International University. She is listed in Marquis Who's Who in America and Who's Who in American Women. She can be reached at 619-277-5223 voice,
619-299-9207 FAX andmogilner@
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