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Peking duck, anyone?

Let the Chinese eat what they like. Leave it to the scientists to find out if their eating habits are causing periodic outbreaks of diseases

On a recent weekend, I, along with my wife and son, went to a popular multicuisine restaurant in Gurugram for an early dinner. As we sat down at a table, a little girl came running towards us, calling out yeye. Even without her calling me grandpa in Mandarin, I would have guessed that the little angel was from China as her sprightly gait was unmistakably that of the hundreds of little empresses I had seen during my stints in the Indian diplomatic missions in that country.

Her grandfather back home must be a retired teacher, I thought. I had seen hardly anyone other than some elderly academics and a few retired journalists in urban China who have not dyed their grey hair black.

As I turned to look for her parents, I saw a small group of young couples huddled together at a corner table.

The mother was waving at the daughter to return, possibly hesitant to walk towards us through the restaurant nearly full with weekend diners.

While the little girl was oblivious of the havoc COVID-19 has unleashed in her home country, her mother was clearly conscious of the sensitivities of the other diners and seemed unwilling to move away from the sanctuary the corner table seemed to provide the Chinese group. We waved at the young lady who gave us a half-smile that seemed to thank us for the gesture.

Authentic tastes

As we waited for our order, the elderly Caucasian couple at the table next to ours were served their meal. The Chinese chef came to their table, rousing my curiosity. I noticed a roast duck sitting on a platter, skilfully sliced, skin first followed by the meat in well-rehearsed, regimented movements unique to Chinese chefs.

The aroma of the dish that had wafted across by then reminded me of our visits to popular Peking duck restaurants near the Forbidden City in Beijing. I was pretty sure instantly that my gong bao chicken was going to be great. As we were leaving post-dinner, the girl’s father waved us goodbye. As I walked up to their table for courtesy’s sake, the quizzical look of the Caucasian couple seemed to ask me, “Are you sure?”

The group was from central China, not far from Wuhan. The girl’s parents were in India on a business-cum-pleasure trip with friends and had decided to extend the stay for a few more days for the sake of their only child.

The Year of the Pig that just ended witnessed a slowing down in their business, but the Year of the Rat has brought bad luck to their nation, the young man said in a choked voice. He said my unruly grey hair reminded him of his ailing father back home, and invited me to join them for a quick drink. I thought he would break into tears if I stayed longer. I wished them and the entire Chinese population good health and prosperity as I left.

I did steal a quick glance at the meal they were having. For, the best food for the Chinese anywhere in the world is Chinese food. The Chinese, like most Indians, are not adventurous as their Western counterparts are in trying out unfamiliar cuisines.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, friends have been sending me videos of Chinese wet markets, asking if it was true that they eat all the wild animals and birds figuring in the footage. Yes, several videos are genuine, but certainly not as scary as the Western commentators have made them out to be.

Friends in academic circles in mainland China have often told me that the Chinese do not go after “anything that walks, creeps, swims or flies” on purpose. In fact, as in India, they have one of the exquisite range of dishes that varies from region to region.

China was hit by several droughts and famines, some of which lasted years on end. Stricken with hunger, millions perished. Those who were lucky to survive went into the forests, foraging for wild berries, fruits, roots and leaves. And animals and birds that they knew were tasty. For those in the coastal regions, the sea provided sustenance.

When even that became scarce, they caught and ate whatever was available. It was not a question of taste or sensitivities, but a simple matter of survival.

When conditions improved, some of the people were already hooked on to several “exotic” animals, birds and other lifeforms normally not relished in other parts of the world. That too varied from region to region in a large country like China.

Spice challenge

It is generally a trying experience for a number of Chinese to savour spicy Indian cuisine. So is the case with most of the Indians on short visits to China. Trying out various exotic dishes even during official banquets has been a challenge to visitors and even many of those Indians working in China. We all go searching for Indian restaurants not only in China but in other parts of the world as well.

After all these years, I have come to realise that no food is good or bad. It is just a matter of getting used to the taste.

Let the Chinese eat what they like. Leave it to the scientists to find out whether their eating habits have led to the periodic outbreaks of diseases caused by viruses jumping from animals and birds onto humans.

Let us wish the billion-plus people of our neighbouring nation well. Even as we take precautions, let us not follow the West, but continue to respect the sensitivities of the visitors from China. After all, for us, athithi devo bhava is not just another proverb.

muraly.nayar@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:35:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/peking-duck-anyone/article30890311.ece

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