Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design


Canton Favorite: Bones

In the west, Chinese food means bright red sauce, rice, and puffy chunks of breaded boneless meat. Meat without a positive identity. In Canton, food has bones. Also, sometimes a head or foot.  Westerners are left to fret they are eating a pet at their local chop suey joint, while Cantonese people are not squeamish about knowing exactly which one.  Seriously, eating dog meat is fairly common for Cantonese people.  However, they will usually draw the line at cats.

Leaving in some identifying parts has its benefits. For one, it assures customers that they're being sold the real product. Counterfeit things are a pervasive problem in China, and it leads to a kind of paranoia.   A persistent but probably false urban myth in China that many people believe says there is a factory somewhere in the countryside churning out fake eggs  (there is even a purported training video on YouTube about how to make them).  One of my English students insists that 75% of restaurants are using counterfeit cooking oil derived from middle-eastern crude.  But, the Cantonese are under no illusion where real animal products come from. In contrast, many urbanite westerners are a little vague about it all. A family member who raises chickens and sells the eggs was once asked where his egg factory is.

In China, fish is not "seafood", its just another kind of meat; and its served whole body style, almost without exception. Fish fillets are unheard of, except the Fillet-O-Fish.  It's not really very popular anyway; it seems a bit suspiciously anonymous to the Mainland consumer.  A Cantonese person will soldier through a whole fish, swallowing everything with relish, while foreigners will try to pick through a fish and spit the bones out. But a host will accept such sensitivity to fish bones in a foreign guest.

On the other hand, it's completely acceptable to spit out mammal bones. Usually this is done by positioning one's mouth over an empty spot on the table, and letting drop. In serving a dish, whether there is significant meat on the bones is not considered important. One popular dish is pork knees in sauce: pig legs sawed close above and below the joint, with the tender skin and fat crisply roasted, but little meat to speak of.

Significantly, the fast food chain KFC has gained a noticeable advantage over McDonald's in mainland China.  Perhaps it's because KFC offers more products with genuine bones included. But in Canton, it's not only full chicken legs and wings that get bones-in treatment. Every good meat dish is sliced with a heavy cleaver in a Cartesian fashion, creating a neat grid of chops overlaying the organic bone structure. Predictably, the bones splinter into an array of wondrous chips and marrow.

Appreciation for bones is widespread in Canton, but not universal in China. According to an interview I read with one of  Mao's old chefs, the former Chairman required that he be served only de-boned meat. He was quite picky. Someone once said he was the anal leader of an oral fixated people.  True enough, leaving bones in does give you something to occupy your tongue. Freudian analysis aside, it also can add taste and nutrition to your food.