By Jennifer 8. Lee | July 19, 2007
Oliver August‘s new book was released yesterday — Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China’s Most Wanted Man (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). It is the product of seven years of working, hunting for Lai Changxing, a country-boy turned billionaire fugitive and a fascinating tale of how China is wrestling with its new freewheeling wealth.
Oliver, who is a former Beijing bureau chief of The Times of London and a Chinese-food aficionado, spends a lot of time dwelling on cultural importance of food in the culture.
“Food is — and always has been — not only a key to identify but a signpost to power. Many Chinese remember their first dining out experience like Americans do the Kennedy assassination. Where were you when…?
And he has some great food-related slang. Like guotie (é‹è²¼), or potsticker, is someone who doesn’t want to leave a job with a state-owned company, or chao youyu (ç‚’é·éš), to have one’s squid cooked, is to get fired from one’s job.
But the most amazing statistic of all in the book. In 1976, at the time of Mao Zedong’s death — there was 1 restaurant for every 3 million people in China. (the equivalent of 100 total restaurants in America, or just under 3 for New York City) It serves as a reminder that restaurants/culinary scene is very much the product of having a middle class/leisure class. (The rich had their own cooks at home). After all, it was the French middle class that helped to propel the birth of modern restaurants after the French revolution which is why so many of the words we use in restaurants are French in origin — menu, maitre d’, entrÃ©e, hor d’oeuvres. (Nicholas M. Keifer argues that restaurants existed in Hangzhou China (pdf) in 12th century Song Dynasty)
Point being, since communism is a real damper on middle class, Communist countries aren’t known for their vibrant dining scene. So many years the most exciting developments in Chinese cooking were happening in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Chinese are catching up as of late though
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