Do Chinese people eat more things than white US people? Why?
November 10, 2015 4:03 PM   Subscribe

It seems like white people in the U.S. are grossed out by lots of things that Chinese people eat, but not vice versa. Is this is a real phenomenon? Why does it happen? Examples inside.

Things that Chinese people commonly eat that I've heard lots of white people in the U.S. describe as gross: feet*, heads, eyeballs, tongues, ears, tendon, meat with any of the above still attached, liver, kidney, turkey tails, fish collars, sea cucumber, jellyfish, century eggs, chou dou fu ("stinky tofu"?).

* Although for most of the animal parts, they're not grossed out if you grind them up first, so maybe it's just the shape?

Things white people commonly eat that I've heard Chinese people describe as gross: I literally can't think of anything. I know a lot of people who aren't into salad, and some lactose-intolerant people over-compensate to the point of avoiding even lactose-free dairy products, and probably a lot of them would join the majority of white people in turning down hakarl or surstromming. But basically they'd all be game for anything off the menu at your bog-standard diner fast food or fast-casual joint.

It's such a stark difference that I don't think it's just confirmation bias. I don't think it's a matter of assimilation, because Chinese people straight off the plane seem pretty game to try anything here, whereas I've heard lots of U.S. tourists tell "horror stories" about things they were offered in China. I don't think it's that Chinese people are feeling disgust but not admitting it to be polite, because most of my Chinese examples happen among friends and close family, or anyway without any white people around.

Maybe the recent famine in China has created a cohort of artificially un-picky eaters? Maybe my friends and family happen to be unusually adventurous? Maybe in the U.S. there's a social convention of substituting disgust for some less accepted reason to refuse food, like instead of admitting you don't know how to eat a chicken foot you pretend you just hate it?
posted by d. z. wang to Food & Drink (55 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure about China, but I do know that generally speaking Japanese people think licorice and root beer are both pretty unpalatable.
posted by Nevin at 4:10 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I read an article awhile back (probably linked from the Blue, I think NYT) about Chinese tour groups in Europe and how the tour companies arrange for them to eat Chinese food all the time because European food was considered too "exotic"..? That doesn't sound right now but I know I read it.
posted by bleep at 4:17 PM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't know about eating more things, but perhaps more animal parts? There's this concept in the US that it's ok to eat meat, as long as it's unrecognizable. In fact, at my office, they served a whole pig once. They carved it up and then reassembled it. People complained about it for weeks.

I think what you're actually looking at is the fact that American culture is popular. There are fast food restaurants in China, so most Chinese people in the US (i.e. Chinese people who have enough money to be in the US, so have probably been exposed to western food in major Chinese cities) have already tried a lot of these foods.

You also run into the fact that American "Chinese" food is not Chinese. (I'm Chinese, and I like Chinese food, but I avoid American Chinese restaurants like the plague.) So, I'd much prefer a burger that I don't have particular expectations for--even if it's from McDonald's--than a dish that's a poorly made imitation of my expectations.

Also, I have tried both hakarl and surstromming. I liked surstromming. But I might be adventurous even for being Chinese.
posted by ethidda at 4:19 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's economics. The average per capita income in China is $7,594, compared to $54,629 in the US—over seven times more.

And it's not just China—most of the world can't afford to be as prissy about food as Americans are.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:21 PM on November 10, 2015 [19 favorites]


Might want to refine what you mean by "white" people. Why white-as-can-be grandmother grew up eating all of the "exotic" food you mention. Like "escape from the potato planet" said above, it's far more about economics than the color of one's skin.
posted by sideshow at 4:26 PM on November 10, 2015 [11 favorites]


* Although for most of the animal parts, they're not grossed out if you grind them up first, so maybe it's just the shape?

Most US people are of course fine eating sausages, but they will be quite uncomfortable if you remind them about what went into the sausages. There's even a proverb about politics: "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." Out of sight, out of mind.

I think you are absolutely right about this. I would guess rather than famine in China changing the food culture, it's more that the norm for humans is to eat tendons, offal, etc., but years of prosperity and refrigeration has made people in the US artificially picky.

Some of your other examples, though (like hundred year eggs) I would classify along with hakarl and very strong cheeses. That is, weird fermented food products that seem pretty gross to anyone from another food culture. Anecdotally, I've heard of Chinese people being horrified by things like Roquefort.
posted by vogon_poet at 4:29 PM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe strong cheeses? Some other possibilities in this Reddit thread.
posted by crazy with stars at 4:30 PM on November 10, 2015


Huh. I have definitely had experience with some Chinese and Japanese visitors being grossed out by Americans' embrace of cheese. But perhaps it was just those individuals.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:30 PM on November 10, 2015


I was hanging out with a friend, eating various antipasto delights, including dried apricots stuffed with blue cheese. His Chinese-Singaporean housemate wandered in and we ended up having a discussion similar to the one you've raised - about how squeamish white people can be about Chinese food. The housemate was waxing lyrical about century eggs and telling me that I just HAD to try one, because he was sure my reaction would be hilarious. I offered him an apricot. The way his face turned from intrigue to utter horror and betrayal as he bit into it was kind of wonderful. So yeah, I think most cultures have some foods that really don't appeal to others.
posted by embrangled at 4:54 PM on November 10, 2015 [18 favorites]


We are Taiwanese immigrants to the US and I can assure you there are plenty of things Chinese people think are gross. As an example, most "traditional" desserts in the US are overly and sickly sweet and just taste like downright eating spoonfuls of sugar.

My dad HATES non-Asian food, he finds it super weird. The most he'll accept is a steak and that is pushing it. This is true of most of my first generation immigrant friends' parents as well. That is why, as someone has pointed out upthread, there are Asian tour groups in other countries where the participants are arranged to have their own country's food.

One Christmas when we went to Vegas (another thing Asian people love to do) we had to eat at the same restaurant almost every single day because my dad and uncle found the ONE crappy noodle restaurant in one of the casinos that was run by Chinese people.

As for why people in the US don't eat all the parts of the animal, I can't really say. Is it because the US has generally been a prosperous enough nation to allow for food waste on a pretty monumental scale? That might be an entirely different question. As for me, I'll eat whatever organ meat because I starting eating it prepared deliciously as a kid and never saw anything wrong with it, if you're going to eat a pork shank I don't see how one of its organs is really that different.
posted by raw sugar at 4:56 PM on November 10, 2015 [10 favorites]


A lot of this is generational as well, at least for Americans. Several generations back, unless you were very wealthy, you at all sorts of offal. Only eating certain muscles is so very wasteful and most people couldn't afford to waste a large percentage of the animal. With the growth of relative wealth as well as changes in food processing, eating muscle at the expense of most other parts is now the norm. Besides the highly fermented/aged foods you mentioned, I think that a large part of the issue is not really taste, but squeamishness at the idea of eating non-muscle parts of an animal. Most people just don't even try them. Some regional meaty foods that aren't muscle are still enjoyed in specific areas, but increasingly as a nostalgia thing.

Fermented and aged foods are more of an acquired taste. If you don't grow up eating funky foods (whether that's cheese or stinky tofu), you're unlikely to love them the first time. Or, the first dozen times.
posted by quince at 5:08 PM on November 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Americans are picky eaters. In Asia being a picky eater is generally associated with childhood and something you grow out of (no! I won't eat brussels sprouts!) while in the US people are picky eaters for their entire lives. And it's not just the Chinese, and it's not about being rich or poor. You don't just automatically become a picky eater and eat really bland food when your country gets rich. Americans are notoriously picky eaters even when compared to other rich countries. After all, Japan is a rich country and people in Japan eat many foods that Americans would consider "exotic" or "weird." Just look at the episode listing for "Bizarre Foods" and it lists all sorts of foods from various countries that American audiences would find "bizarre."

Why? I can only speculate, as I imagine most people in this thread will. Here's my take:

1) Cultural food preferences. For example, in China they generally like to eat meat with bones in it, not because they're poor, but because they like the texture. Chinese people like foods with lots of different textures and mouthfeels.

Another one is dark meat vs. white meat. This isn't even a Chinese vs. American thing, this is really the entire world vs. America. Americans generally prefer white meat even though most non-Americans consider it to be bland and dry compared to dark meat. Why? Who knows, but from this preference we can infer Americans dislike "gamy" meat (lamb is also extremely unpopular in the US compared to other meats) and they don't like meat with bones in it.

2) Acquired tastes. A lot of the things you mentioned are acquired tastes. There are some things that taste universally good that children will enjoy. Fried foods. Sweet things. Bitter, on the other hand, takes longer to get used to. Same for fermented things. American food, for whatever reason, is extremely low on foods with acquired tastes. I remember as a child (growing up in a Chinese-American household) I had a hard time eating many foods that I enjoy as an adult today, like fermented tofu.

3) Relationship to food. Americans tend to have an extremely utilitarian relationship to food. Eat to live, rather than live to eat. If you eat to live, you're not going to try "weird" things for the sake of discovery. You're just trying to provide fuel for your body. China (and really most of Asia) is much more of a "foodie" culture.

4) America is a fairly young country and most of the expansion across the country was done really recently (like last 100 years recently). The local cultures and culinary traditions were wiped out, and replaced by settlers, mostly of European background. A lot of the ingredients people used to use were unavailable. And let's imagine you want to sell food to other people - not everybody is from the same ethnic group as you, so you have to adapt your food to have as broad an appeal as possible.

5) For a long time meat was extremely expensive for most people in China (and really most of Asia) so they had to eat the entire animal and all the offal parts. China has a lot of people and relatively little land that can be used for farming and even less that can be used for grazing animals. In contrast, the US has tons of wide open grasslands that can be used for raising animals. Meat is cheap so Americans can "afford" to only eat the "good" parts. I say "afford" because Chinese people these days don't eat offal because they're poor, it's because they developed ways of cooking it over the past few centuries and it has become part of their cuisine to the point where people actually enjoy it.

Think about Chinese-American food and how it's different from food in China and I think you will have the answer to your question. It is sweet. It is fried. It doesn't have bones in it.
posted by pravit at 5:12 PM on November 10, 2015 [13 favorites]


A Chinese-born coworker described Coca-Cola as "carbonated cough syrup."

She did not mean it as a compliment.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:14 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


My Japanese husband was horrified in college the first few times he encountered a meal involving crayfish. To him, they aren't food, they're dirty animals you hunt for in muddy ditches as a kid. In the same class as bugs.
posted by telepanda at 5:28 PM on November 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Both America and China are pretty big places; there are certainly parts of the US where e.g. pigs feet are quite popular, and I'd wager that there are places in China where stinky tofu is not considered a typical dish.

America, by virtue of the media, tends to project a very homogenous culture which is pretty milquetoast. When people think of "American food" they're probably not thinking of fried chicken gizzards or pigs feet, even though any of those have as much or more claim to the title of "American food" as Chicken McNuggets. So I think you need to be cautious that you're not comparing the Western Media Stereotype of American Food to the Western Media Stereotype of Chinese Food. In addition to the media portrayal of American culture as more homogenous than it actually is, there's also a long tradition of playing up the idea of the Exotic East, and you sometimes still see this in food journalism and writing especially.

Setting those things aside, there may still be something to your point, although I don't think it's the gaping difference that American xenophiles, particularly travelers and expats, sometimes imagine it to be. What actual difference there is between what Americans will eat of (actual) Chinese cuisine, vs what the average Chinese person would eat of American cuisine, is probably due to the balance of power in the trade relationship between China and the US over the decades. To put it bluntly: if someone thinks that a particular Chinese food is likely to sell well and appeal to Americans, it's probably being imported and sold here, because this is where the money has been, historically. That is not necessarily the case in the other direction. For a long time, there wasn't much money to be made taking American-style food and selling it in China at scale.

There's lots of food originally from China that's popular in the US (whether you like what Americans have done with it is a matter of aesthetics and taste, of course), and in each case, these dishes represent someone's feeling that "I think Americans would like this". The foods that are, at this point, still only available in China are basically by definition the foods that nobody is importing and selling widely in the US. (Or they're things that US laws prohibit, e.g. dog meat and some types of fermented foods that aren't viewed as safe by the FDA.) And so they're they're necessarily the "exotic" ones.

As China's middle class grows, I think you'll see more American cuisine going the other way. Eventually, there will be some remainder of weird "American food" that you can only get in America, which will be just as subjectively weird to foreigners as their only-available-at-home ethnic food is here.

My bet is that root beer will always be high on that list. If I was in the FBI, that's how I'd detect The Americans-style sleeper agents 100% of the time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:38 PM on November 10, 2015 [13 favorites]


I think this is confirmation bias. I would be shocked if there is a particular ethnic food which could not be found in the US - from "real" versions to the "Americanized" versions of every dish imaginable. These restaurants certainly cater to a specific clientele, but you would be hard pressed to find a category of restaurant which only serves that clientele (race, ethnicity, etc).

This certainly doesn't say that all Americans eat all foods, but I would bet the percentage of Americans which have at least tried foods drawn from a diversity of countries is at least as high as other countries of the world - perhaps higher just because of access.

If you are referring specifically to "parts" - you need only look a generation back to find that most older Americans have eaten exactly the same animal parts as countries like china. As the standard of living rose so too did the quality of the meats served - but again you can find just about anything imaginable in local supermarkets all over the US - so the demand still exists...and amazingly enough the things that were eaten in the past as "cheap" meat become expensive delicacies as they become less prevalent...
posted by NoDef at 5:45 PM on November 10, 2015


> I'm not sure about China, but I do know that generally speaking Japanese people think licorice and root beer are both pretty unpalatable.

I recently heard that celery is to Japanese kids what broccoli is to American children: the archetypal gross vegetable. I learned this in the context of one of the Pixar movies, I don't know which one, which showed a young girl rejecting broccoli, and that was actually changed to celery for the Japanese localized release of the movie.

Obviously, both cultures are wrong, and it's mushrooms that are the true enemy.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:46 PM on November 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


When I taught in Korea, I had discussions about food with my students. They were pretty horrified at the idea of eating wild game you'd hunted yourself, rabbits especially. They also told me that root beer tastes like medicine.
posted by peppermind at 5:46 PM on November 10, 2015


Things white people commonly eat that I've heard Chinese people describe as gross: I literally can't think of anything.

This article (about a group of very well-regarded Chinese chefs taking a trip to Napa Valley, including a meal at the French Laundry) has a whole bunch of examples. Cheese is the first one (the author gives the chefs Stilton and Roquefort), but as she says
The most striking [taboo] is the visceral dislike of rawness. In China, the consumption of raw foods was historically viewed as a barbarian habit, and most everything is still eaten cooked. The chefs are horrified by the rare, bloody meat they are offered in America.
posted by asterix at 5:51 PM on November 10, 2015 [12 favorites]


I'd be curious to know whether this is a *quantity of things* issue, or a *types of things* issue.

Most of the "things Americans don't eat" which Chinese people eat are body parts. Americans prefer muscle tissue and not feet, heads, organs, and the like. So it's probably true that Chinese people eat more types of animal parts than Americans do.

On the other hand, there could easily be whole categories of food additives, recipe types, flavor profiles, presentation styles, etc. that Chinese people don't eat. Chinese cuisine features little to no dairy, which means you can make a list of dairy products as long as your arm that Chinese people don't eat, but Americans do: milk, cream (plus sour cream, creme fraiche, etc), butter, yogurt, fresh cheeses, hard cheeses, moldy cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, ice cream, frozen yogurt, shakes, milk sweets (fudge, tres leches, et al), and on and on and on. My boyfriend is Chinese-American and lactose intolerant. We're adventurous eaters, and I've come upon a lot of "Oh, you've never had an Egg Cream? We've got to go out for them one day!" conversations wherein I remember that the item in question is not only dairy based but will literally make him sick to eat. So, yeah, sure, there are a LOT of foods (from my perspective as a lactose-tolerant American) that "Chinese people"* don't eat.

In sum, I'm not sure this is a meaningful thing to quantify.

*In quotes to highlight the fact that it's super odd and probably unfair to single out over a billion people worldwide as a monolith that share the same food culture. I'm sure there are lactose-tolerant Chinese people who fucking love dairy products, and I would hate to lump them in.
posted by Sara C. at 5:58 PM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


All my Asian family find my Australian husband's preference for chicken breast completely gross and unfathomable.
posted by shazzam! at 5:59 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, there are a lot of foods that are on the mainstream American "ew" list that are widely eaten in the US, often by minority cultures (for instance I grew up in Cajun country, where we eat a LOT of things mainstream Americans find revolting) or by people who are too poor to eat the prestige steak-and-potatoes diet.

It's worth noting that a lot of Americans use food disgust as a class or status issue, and that claimed disgust bears little resemblance to whether Americans actually eat a certain item in question.
posted by Sara C. at 6:01 PM on November 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm Chinese-American and think pop tarts are some of the worst things to grace the earth, but I fucking love hot cheetos. I also grew up eating all the delicious offal and blood and gooey gelatinous treats like century eggs and tendons, and am always down to have more.

I think perhaps 5,000 years of Chinese culture, various periods of war and starvation, combined with rich wealth and a huge population of immensely talented, creative cooks with regional variations makes everything and many things very delicious. America is what, an infant compared to China? And it routinely enjoys homogenizing and watering down every immigrant culture for the sake of assimilating into the melting pot.

It's the Americans that are the weird ones. (Perhaps the ultra white, middle class suburban ones who had racist and classist attitudes towards "lower food" is what I am pointing to, particularly. And the immigrants and people of color who picked up these attitudes as well...but I won't speak for any of them.) 'It's not why I eat offal, it's why you don't.'
posted by yueliang at 6:33 PM on November 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also plenty of Chinese people eat dairy, but a lot of people are also lactose intolerant. I think there are regional ancestries that account for that, which is dependent on the ingredients avaliable in each region and what grows well. (aka why Thailand and Vietnam and Southern China use fish sauce vs Northern China and soy sauce.)

The country itself is just so freaking diverse, that it is impossible to make generalizations like that. From my parents' hometown, Běi jīng suān nǎi is a daily summer treat.
posted by yueliang at 6:38 PM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's from a very small sample size of visiting Chinese but I've found that rare (bloody) BBQ steak was a problem.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:58 PM on November 10, 2015


Another anecdote: there is this fancy new coffee place that opened up in my town, whose baristas were gushing over and over again about something called "Kyoto coffee."

I understood that it was meant to be Kyoto-style cold brew, so I gave it a try since I love the stuff. But surprise! I had to try really hard to not spit it out. Whatever this incarnation was, for some reason it tasted like a famous Chinese medicinal herb drink I drank growing up to ward away fatigue and a bad cold. (Works great though!) I had to return it, feeling mystified that there are Americans who have considered this a viable product. They asked me what was wrong, and I told them the honest truth, and they were beyond puzzled...and so was I.

I'm pretty sure these same people drink root beer...
posted by yueliang at 7:04 PM on November 10, 2015


I don't know about the Chinese in particular but I gather peanut butter is considered vile by many not from the US. I've had it explained to me that if you didn't grow up eating it, it can be a difficult taste to acquire.
posted by town of cats at 7:13 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was a New Yorker article about Chinese tourists in Europe, possibly the one referred to above.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:39 PM on November 10, 2015


This article in the New Yorker is probably what bleep was referring to.

And Pixar switched broccoli to green peppers in the movie Inside Out for the Japanese market (and not celery as Sunburnt said)
posted by topogopo at 8:07 PM on November 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: The explanations based on relatively recent affluence, acquired tastes, and class signifiers are interesting, though.

Also, I had no idea the suan nai drink was actually sour milk! That's amazing. I guess the fermentation destroys enough lactose, same reason I can eat most kinds of yogurt. Egg creams, on the other hand, contain no dairy (if made correctly).

Maybe I'm now playing no true Scotsman, but the points about lactose intolerance and flavor profiles seem like a different kind of objection than what I was asking about.

There's a difference between, "This is gross!" and "This started off as a thing that will make me violently ill, and may or may not have been processed to destroy that property, but given that I only encounter this stuff twice a year at the holiday parties, I don't care enough to find out."

Similarly, the objection based on taste. The people who, e.g., won't eat chicken feet, won't eat chicken feet steamed or boiled or fried. They won't eat chicken feet salty or sweet or spicy. They just won't eat chicken feet.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:09 PM on November 10, 2015


I'll never forget the horrified look of that French lady watching me eat (actually relish) my dried crayfish in a Paris bus. I wouldn't be caught dead eating steak tartar.
posted by Kwadeng at 8:12 PM on November 10, 2015


Egg creams, on the other hand, contain no dairy (if made correctly).

An egg cream is basically chocolate milk plus seltzer. What they do not contain are eggs.

but given that I only encounter this stuff twice a year at the holiday parties, I don't care enough to find out

This is exactly where most Americans stand on the issue of offal. Something you get at exotic restaurants and, if you come from one of a few ethnicities, holiday parties.

I don't really understand how you're drawing the distinction about what people won't eat if "people won't eat this" isn't enough of a distinction in and of itself.
posted by Sara C. at 8:13 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know fellow white people in the USA who have a huge problem with bubble tea, because they can't get over slurping up huge, dark brown tapioca pearls from their drink. The entire concept of the drink is repulsive to them. I've heard the tapioca pearls described as 'creepy', 'slimy', and 'looking like eyes'.

That's even before getting to some of the flavors, like avocado, red bean, and kumquat.

Personally, I can't get enough of it. More kumquat bubble tea for me, please. Extra pearl.
posted by spinifex23 at 8:37 PM on November 10, 2015


I would think it's because all of the meats we eat, they eat, but they eat types of meat we don't. Generally, weird types of meat gross people out way more than, say, a weird vegetable. But that's just a guess. I think they probably find some of super-sweet candy we eat gross, or the super deep-fried crap, but it's certainly a different kind of gross than random animal body parts.
posted by AppleTurnover at 9:02 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Two of my Taiwanese classmates in grad school were absolutely repulsed by cinnamon.
posted by darkchocolatepyramid at 9:20 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Cheese definitely seems like a big one for Chinese people who don't have as much access to American fast-food and stuff. I have a Chinese in-law who moved out of a shared apartment because she could not handle the amount of cheese her roommates used in their cooking.
posted by Pizzarina Sbarro at 9:48 PM on November 10, 2015


As someone who spent three years making egg creams for a living in a Jewish deli, I can tell you that they most definitely do contain dairy.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:48 PM on November 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


One thing Chinese people do not want with their American meal is ice water. This is not something that is done in China. Water should be served hot, or not at all (e.g. have some nice millet soup with your meal instead).
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:45 PM on November 10, 2015


My Korean parents don't really care for American food because they find it rather bland. But they'll happily eat it if you serve some kimchee on the side.

Which does remind me of a story. My non-Korean husband was at my parents' house and my mom sympathetically comments to him "Oh, our house must really smell of kimchee to you." He responds politely, "Um, well, it's not that strong." And she snaps back with a smile "Well, you know Koreans think all your houses smell of cheese."
posted by like_neon at 1:48 AM on November 11, 2015


One thing I have noticed (as a different sort of Asian) is that the horror is less about what Americans (read: White people) eat as it is how they're made. The over-processed factory nature of a lot of food, particularly the prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup and substitutes for everything, is puzzling at best - mostly disgusting.
posted by divabat at 2:34 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


So just off the bat, white American culture has more variety than you're talking about, and most subcultures will eat offal. (People descended from Poland, Germany, and Eastern Europe; the Dutch, the Amish, and the Jewish) In the south and midwest, there's the culture developed among ranchers and farmers, where any animal part is fair game if you can fry it. Chili con carne grew popular in that culture in part because it will disguise any kind of mystery meat. And, uh, mountain oysters aren't actually oysters.

The weird thing is, you can't find this stuff in a typical supermarket, and not in the city at all. You have to go to a butcher shop. So it's not that Americans won't eat it - we certainly have a tradition of eating it - but we certainly pretend like we won't. Classism plays a part, like people noted.

(I don't know how true this article is, but: How Snobbery Helped Take The Spice Out Of European Cooking)

But - this is just a hunch - because I'm pretty sure that America's upper-class was defined by the wealthy people from New England. Like the Kennedys, Rochesters, Roosevelts, people who go to the Hamptons, &c. And New England's culture is descended from the Puritans who settled there, who were so ascetic they were practically anti-pleasure. That's where the stereotypical WASP plate comes from. (Unseasoned steak or pork chop; boiled green vegetable; baked potato. Or plain white rice.)

(This is why I started cooking as soon as I could see over the stove. Hey, dad, did you know you can sautee vegetables? did you know you can put salt in the rice? please? please dad. hey you can stop cooking the pork chops. they're done. please stop dad i promise they're done please)

We still use the word "puritan" (lowercase) to describe this sort of strict, rigid moral orthodoxy - this insistence on purity and cleanliness in all things. This worldview shaped New England's culture, even as the religion itself has died out. And ....... for a lot of historic reasons, those values have been broadcast across the whole country.

According to Wikipedia: "At the universities, nutritionists and home economists taught a new scientific approach to food. During World War I the Progressives' moral advice about food conservation was emphasized in large-scale state and federal programs designed to educate housewives."

Which sounds a lot like the WASP culture's diet was broadcast as the Right Way to Eat, and everything else was considered "ethnic". (pseudoscience Bingo - moralizing, classist, racist, and ethnocentric!) And that is why your typical modern supermarket won't have organ meats, or chicken feet, or eel, or ... whatever else. I think. Maybe I'm wrong.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 2:51 AM on November 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


According to this article about Inside Out the switched veges weren't celery but green peppers.
posted by divabat at 4:31 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a generational aspect at play. Liver & onions used to be quintessential diner food, and is often still available in old-school diners but I'd say it's nowhere near as common/popular as it was in my grandparents' day. Since then people have gotten further from farms and old-world traditions, and foods that would have been luxury items are now commonly & cheaply available. All that said, the "no frills" supermarket in my neighbourhood stocks a wide variety of organ meats -- although I think it's primarily consumed by the recent immigrant and first-generation Canadians who live in this area.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:02 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


My initial thought was a take on the idea of "the sacred and the profane" - i.e. there are some cultural (or religious) markers that are vastly different from culture to culture. Some foods will be seen as "profane" (i.e. inedible) by one culture and "sacred" (i.e. edible) by another. I bet you there are big tomes out there exploring food in this way.
posted by kariebookish at 7:48 AM on November 11, 2015


One anecdote from the flip side of OP's question.

I went to shanghai to visit my ex's parents. They offered me fruit which I ate as is while they were peeling the skins from grapes and apples. This absolutely stunned/amazed them on eating fruits without removing the skin.

Another odd side is Chinese families will not drink cold water , all water is boiling hot which is off-putting coming from a western culture.
posted by radsqd at 7:57 AM on November 11, 2015


kariebookish: "sacred and profane" is oversimplifying things. For instance, beef is not eaten by Hindus precisely because it's sacred.
posted by divabat at 8:53 AM on November 11, 2015


I know some people who immigrated to the US from rural areas of China who were horrified by dairy products (they may or may not have been lactose intolerant, but there is no way to know because they'd have to try them to find out), and sketched out by many processed meats. Which I guess is the flip side of being freaked out by meat from an identifiable animal. But my white also primarily rural grandparents thought unidentifiable meat was weird, too. Could be a city folk thing.

And yeah, raw foods are not for humans to eat. I was told that seeing someone eating a salad was like seeing them grazing on grass like a cow or eating leaves off a tree like a monkey. I was also informed that it is hilarious. (Or maybe they just meant that's how I personally eat salads.)

But I grew up pretty danged white and American, and in my experience, pickiness was something you were supposed to grow out of as a toddler. We ate organ meats and fermented and pickled foods and things like that all the time.

So I suspect it's less a nationality thing than it is a Big Food thing. It is in the processed food industry's better interests to average out food preferences as much as possible and settle on some sort of lowest common denominator of food to appeal to the largest possible audience. Generic "American food," like generic "Chinese food" is an artificial construct. It's just a selection of the blandest and most inoffensive interpretations of traditional foods. America is a very young country. Most of our foodstuffs are from other areas of the world or from countries we used to be, so a lot of the most identifiably American foods are foods that are primarily commercially produced.

Not that it doesn't suck. Many Americans do, increasingly, eat like toddlers. However, I'm pretty sure that's a worldwide trend.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:10 AM on November 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


I mean, I'm English and living in the US and I think a lot of US foods are gross. Sugar all over breakfast foods, cinnamon in everything. It's cultural.
posted by shesbenevolent at 9:12 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


I heard an interview with the maker of the documentary "The Search for General Tso" and apparently many Chinese folks they spoke to did not recognize this dish as actual food.

A Chinese-born coworker described Coca-Cola as "carbonated cough syrup."

Wait'll she tries Cheerwine!

posted by chaiminda at 10:09 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


My Japanese husband was horrified in college the first few times he encountered a meal involving crayfish. To him, they aren't food, they're dirty animals you hunt for in muddy ditches as a kid. In the same class as bugs.

China isn't Japan, and many Chinese people (at least in southern China) enjoy crawfish.

In my mind there's a difference between the visceral disgust with which some Americans view offal, fermented foods, etc, and Chinese people just not enjoying some American foods. For example, my Chinese wife doesn't really like heavily breaded deep-fried food. Other Chinese people do. Her mother won't eat anything raw, including salad. Other Chinese people like sashimi and rare steak.

I can't think of anything that Chinese people in general view as disgusting as Americans in general view congealed blood, chicken feet, century eggs, and dried squid snacks.
posted by bradf at 10:25 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


There have also been some high-profile foodie/celebrity chef types trying to get Americans back on board with eating things like tripe. Anthony Bourdain, for one, talks about it a lot and frequently features street food, restaurants and chefs that showcase it. I think the movement is frequently called "nose to tail." It still feels kind of hipster-special, though, and is positioned as against the mainstream. Also, it's counteracted by shows like Bizarre Food with Andrew Zimmern, which manages to combine "hey, this is good food!" with "I'm so brave to eat this!" in a way that's probably just confusing.
posted by PussKillian at 10:33 AM on November 11, 2015


Not American and not Chinese, but echoing others above, I find American processed food disgusting. Specially cereals for breakfast - how can you guys eat that? Crunchy peanut butter is OK, on German black bread and with slices of apple on top. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches? Bleargh. Root beer, cherry coke, and most other US soft drinks - not even if I was thirsting. Chicago style pizza? Never, ever. Mac & cheese from a package - nope. But there have been delicious recipes here on the green, thanks.
Some of these things, I liked as a very young child, but grew out of. Others I have always disliked.
posted by mumimor at 1:39 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's worth noting that a lot of Americans use food disgust as a class or status issue

Yes. For example, sushi. If the reaction is a disgusted "eat raw fish?!" I'm guessing the source is ignorant, conservative and lower-class. As for old-school Chinese vs. Japanese my perception is a greater percentage of Japanese find the concept of dairy esp. cheese revolting, but for the most part their kids love it. Not my Taiwanese co-worker, however -- the worst foods to her are curry and cheese. But there's always exceptions -- this born-American can't stand white meat, so dry and tasteless. Or celery.
posted by Rash at 1:51 PM on November 11, 2015


OP, which part of the US are you from? I feel like it also makes a big difference, since I grew up in California and I have plenty of non-Chinese friends who are down for all the Asian foods, and plenty who also just aren't exposed to it, and all for a multitude of different reasons. (Hell, even my grandpa who worked in California for a bit loves a good salad.) We can really go all out on the nuances of your question!
posted by yueliang at 4:41 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


QFT: "It's worth noting that a lot of Americans use food disgust as a class or status issue, and that claimed disgust bears little resemblance to whether Americans actually eat a certain item in question."

I would say like 98% of food disgust expressed by Americans has little to do with whether they've tried the food they find disgusting or, if they've tried it, whether they've liked it. Saying you will or won't eat something is an element of a personal brand. There are lots of white Americans - I know many, and am one - who would definitely rather eat a 100 year egg than a chicken McNugget. And they like what this says about them.

As China gets more prosperous I expect we'll see a lot more Chinese people who will or won't eat certain things. Ultimately being able to turn up one's nose at edible food for reasons of personal style may be the ultimate luxury good.
posted by town of cats at 10:11 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


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