One of the first things that occurred to me when the idea of moving to Changchun came up was that it was likely I would lose weight while I was here. In part because I wouldn’t have a “desk job” and would be more likely to be out and about. In part because I wouldn’t have a car, and short errands would involve walking instead of driving. In part because Chinese cuisine is less geared toward getting obese than that found in the States. And in part because I would not have the normal stress of daily working life pushing me to eat comfort foods to get through the day.
Some of those things have turned out to be true in my first three weeks here. But there are other factors as well. The food in “Chinese” restaurants in the US is very different from the food actually eaten in China. Yes, some dishes are directly transferred. And if you try Shanghai Soup Dumplings (xiaolongbao) in Shanghai, you will find them to be very similar to what you would get at a dumpling restaurant in the States. But let’s face it, most Americans who love “Chinese food” have never eaten in a restaurant that offers xiaolongbao. They love sweet and sour pork, beef with broccoli, pork fried rice, lemon chicken, etc. If you’re lucky enough to be in a city with a Chinatown, you have the opportunity to try authentic dishes, but most Chinese food in the US is as far from authentic as Taco Bell is from real Mexican food.
China is a huge country. And you can no more describe its cuisine with a catchall “Chinese food” than you could American cuisine. The dishes in Sichuan are very different from those eaten in Hunan, or Yunnan, or what you find as traditional Dongbei (Northeastern China) cuisine in Changchun. A couple things do stand out, though. Unlike a plate in America with a large meat course, a large carb course, and a small vegetable course, a Chinese meal is likely centered on a quantity of vegetables with a small amount of meat added to it. Rice is a small portion, usually a third the size of what you might see in the States from a “Chinese” restaurant. Rice is a palette cleanser and is for soaking up juices from the veggies and meat. It isn’t the centerpiece of a meal.
This focus on vegetables first means that you are likely to be full before you have overeaten meat and carbs. And that is certainly one factor in why The Bearded Giant is losing weight. But probably just as big is the way the meats themselves are prepared. Restaurants in China are big on freshness. Consumers won’t frequent a place if the ingredients are perceived as not being fresh. So if you order a fish in Changchun, expect that the fish you are about to eat is currently swimming in a tank in the restaurant. And it will probably be served to you with the head still on (in part to “prove” it was fresh). You see this in US restaurants that serve lobster, but rarely with other items. Here, your meat course that cost a whopping $4 will get the same treatment. And it isn’t just fish. Those cages with pigeons outside the restaurant? Those aren’t pets. They’re on the menu. And they will be served to you whole.
There are no deliveries of boneless skinless chicken breast coming in on a Sysco truck. The items you eat in a Changchun restaurant were likely still alive when you sat down and ordered them. And they will be served to you bones and all. It’s this last factor that has had a huge impact on my consumption. When you have to diligently pick and scrape and gnaw tiny bits of meat away from the bones they are attached to, it is very difficult to overeat. Where in America you might put away 18oz of meat before your stomach even realizes a meal is underway and long before it has time to cry uncle, in China the process of eating meat is slow and tedious. I’m not talking about eating a ribeye steak with a large bone in it. I am talking about pieces of barbequed meat that are no bigger than an Oreo cookie and have three different bones in them. In the time it takes to down 900 calories of a Five Guys cheeseburger, you’d be lucky to finish 200 calories of meat in Changchun.
Thankfully, the grilled vegetables are extremely tasty. 🙂