Conversation on Food: What's Cooking for Dinner Tonight?

Editor’s note: With the school year starting back up and ministry among Chinese international students launching into full swing, today we finish our two-week series offering some practical advice to Americans desiring to make friends with Chinese internationals. Although by no means comprehensive, we hope these posts can help those with little prior Chinese cultural experience to be more confident in serving and befriending their Chinese neighbors by helping them better understand the areas of conversation, hospitality, and food. Thousands of Chinese students are arriving at American airports this month to start degree programs across the country and we encourage readers to consider befriending them in Christ’s name. Make sure you check the other posts in this series: 9 Tips for Being Other-Centered in Conversation and Friendship with Chinese, 3 Tips for Hosting Chinese with a Capital H, and A Conversation on Food: Do the Things Coming Out of Your Mouth Affect What Goes Into It?

In my previous post, I introduced several ways to connect with your Chinese friends over Chinese food. For those of you who are familiar with Chinese cuisines, you are perhaps aware of the diversity of flavors and dishes listed on a Chinese menu. Such variety testifies to the creativity of the Chinese people, and their relentless, audacious pursuit of new things – an audacity that leads many of them to eat exotic items like lotus roots, snakes, cow stomach, and basically anything they can lay hands on. Unfortunately, this ingenuity and audacity also created a nation of picky eaters. This can often be intimating to Americans who want to invite their Chinese friends over for dinner. What can you prepare to satisfy your guests’ palates? The truth is it may not be as difficult as you imagine, but there are certain preferences that your friends might be too polite to say. I hope the following suggestions can alleviate some of your anxieties and help your Chinese friends gain a deeper understanding of American culture along the way.

1. Cook something that you feel comfortable making. Just because you want to make your Chinese friends feel welcome does not mean you have to prepare Chinese food for them, and I would strongly advise against ordering Chinese take-out. This will only stress you out even more and make your guests feel awkward, creating a situation in which neither party is comfortable. If a Chinese friend accepts your invitation to dine at your house, it means she is also curious to learn more about your culture. Prepare something that you are familiar with, like your favorite holiday food or something from your own ethnic background. If it’s something that is not available at restaurants, even better! While you eat, share some of your memories associated with these foods. This can help your friends appreciate the food even more and may lead to further conversations about life in America.

2. Hold back on the diary and tomato sauce. It is perhaps not news to you that most Chinese people do not like cheese; one thing that is less commonly acknowledged is that some Chinese people also prefer less tomato sauce, because its strong flavor tends to dominate everything else. This does not mean you have to stay away from Italian food altogether, but if you can find a way to tone down the diary and tomato sauce, it may be greatly appreciated. Chinese people are more used to complex flavors. Creating a pleasing aroma is perhaps half the battle. If you can find a way to create a variety of flavors, your guests will stand up and call you blessed. If all fails, Tex-Mex or barbeque are always good go-tos.

3. Go for many, not simply more. It is characteristic for Americans to cook one large main dish, and share that with everyone at the table. If there are more people to feed, then Americans tend to just make more of the same dish. That is very different from the usual practices of Chinese people. Instead of making more of the same thing, we create a variety of different things and share among each other. Chinese people appreciate variety, and we prefer to have 2-3 bites of 10 different things to having 10 bites of only 2-3 things. That does not necessarily mean that you have to create more than one main dish. If your general practice is to have one main dish for your family, then consider preparing less of that and increase the number of side dishes instead. This will give your friends a chance to try out many different new things.

4. Go fresh. In many Chinese cities, it is very common for vegetables and meat to go from a farm to the dinner table without ever being refrigerated or processed. This is one reason why we have live seafood on display in Chinese restaurants. We like things fresh! We strongly believe that refrigeration and processing takes the flavor out of the food. This may be difficult for some people, but be creative in where you get your ingredients. The shorter the supply chain, the better it will taste!

5. But not that fresh. Having fresh groceries does not mean we prefer things uncooked. It is actually quite rare for Chinese people to eat uncooked vegetables. With that said, we also prefer vegetables that are not simply boiled. When you are serving vegetables, sauté them, add some spices, or just a little soy sauce. This can greatly enhance the natural flavors of the vegetables.

6. Cut down on the sugar. One common complaint I hear from my family and Chinese friends is that American desserts are way too sweet and too rich. Whenever I follow an American recipe to bake a cake for my family, I always use only half of the sugar suggested and cut down on the frosting. If you are not sure what to serve for dessert, fruit is always welcome and even preferred.

While I hope that these suggestions may be helpful to you, they are also influenced by my own personal preferences. Before you prepare anything, don’t forget to check with your guests what they like to eat. What they tell you may be a surprise to you, or me.

Ryan Zhang currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.