Zhang Lijia’s Guardian piece ‘Dog meat at a Chinese restaurant inYorkshire’ – why do such myths spread? was prompted by the story of a Chinese restaurant that has been put in financial difficulty by a local rumour of a diner choking on retired racing greyhound’s microchip.
While I have sympathy for a business that suffers due to vindictive rumour mongering, the article presents a number of strands of criticism that don’t really tie up. Zhang takes the opportunity to comment generally on the fascination of westerners with the oddities of Chinese cuisine, calling our obsession a form of racism. To my mind, she throws out the “R” word too freely.
I understand her frustration, for example, that UK prime time television documentaries on China are more likely to end up with a donkey penis feast than a serious social discourse. However it is hard to deny that examining the eating habits in other countries can be educational and entertaining. And for those who are interested, programs on China’s social, economic and political issues are also common (recently, BBC Four’s excellent Storyville series Law of the Dragon).
Always an alternative
But I was most surprised by Zhang’s claim that although “China has a fabulous and sophisticated cuisine, westerners always focus on the tiny percentage of what we eat that is weird”. This seems factually unsound.
Chinese food is one of the globe’s “3 Grand Cuisines”, a feature of every UK high street and a major draw for visitors to China (and perhaps part of the reason some stay). However it is reproduced, Chinese food is hugely popular worldwide, and not for being weird.
But secondly, since she brings it up, there is no way that it is only a “tiny percentage” of what is eaten in China that people in the UK might consider weird. You can eat dog. Generally, many more parts of many more animals feature on menus. When living in Dalian I saw the phrase 天上龙肉 地上驴肉 (In heaven dragon meat, on earth donkey meat) adorning restaurant exteriors. But nobody’s going to force you to eat anything you don’t want (note: that is not true).
Some elements of Chinese, or any other, cuisine may not be to everyone’s taste. But Zhang doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the majority take an interest in aspects of cultural diversity for making the world a more interesting place.