Rachel Laudan

Chinese Tourists Don’t Eat European Food

This week’s Economist has a fascinating piece on what Chinese tourists seek out in Europe.  And at just the point where you are beginning to think the author is being a tad condescending about their apparently strange choices (Trier for Marx´s birthplace, Metzinger for Hugo Boss suits), he (or she) restores our confidence by pointing out that eighteenth-century Brits doing the Grand Tour behaved in much the same way.

That’s not the point of this post though.  It’s about this particular paragraph.

Tourism is certainly not about discovering new food. A 2006 survey of Chinese coach travellers found that 46% had eaten “European” food only once, and 10% not at all, during holidays on the continent. Clients at Ansel Travel are typically offered foreign food once in each country: seafood in Paris, ham knuckle in Germany, pasta in Italy and so on.  After that, “it’s Chinese all the way.” Many stay in suburban hotels and eat noodles.

This is because excitement and acquisition are prized over pleasant, relaxing experiences.

What the author is assuming here is that eating foreign cuisines is a natural, pleasant, relaxing part of tourism.  And that has certainly been the default assumption in, say, Britain and the United States for the past 70 years.

For most of history, though, and still for much of the world it is not the default assumption. Quite the reverse.  Eating foreign food is unnatural, unpleasant, tense-making and disgusting.  History is replete with Greeks who detested the way Scythians ate, Byzantines who loathed the food of Gaul, Jesuits who hated tofu, Spanish who had no use for corn tortillas, Japanese who thought French haute cuisine horribly oily, English who believed Americans only ate canned food, Americans who knew (know) that there was nothing decent to be had in the British Isles.  And that’s just the beginning.

Now before we decide that we are the first enlightened generations in history and that before us there was nothing but unwarranted prejudice, it’s worth remembering two things.

1. Traditional nutritional advice was that the healthiest food for any individual was the food of the place where they grew up.  The further you moved away, the more dangerous the food.   And it was not just that it might make you sick but that it might change your whole personality.  Northern Europeans were adjusted to butter, meat, etc and to eat a diet rich in olive oil and vegetables, so they were warned, would upset their stomachs and change their temperament to one more ready to anger, for example.  The reverse was true: it was dangerous for those born in the Mediterranean to begin eating a northern diet.   You changed your diet very much at your own risk.

2. Travel did make people sick (often it still does) and they had no idea why.  The historian Philip Curtin did a fascinating study of British military records in the nineteenth century and in every overseas posting (except New Zealand and the Pacific Islands) soldiers died at many times the rate of their colleagues in the British Isles.  We might now put that down to malaria, cholera, typhoid, and lots of other nasty diseases.  But given the nutritional advice above, it was natural to assume that food had a lot to do with these problems.

So back to our Chinese tourists.  I suspect two things are going on, neither of them having to do with excitement and acquisition.

First, I suspect they still take traditional nutritional theory very seriously.  I have known many Chinese who say surgeons for broken bones, aspirins for headaches, but traditional nutritional theory to keep the body generally balanced.  Not a crazy way to go at all. And that would mean stick to Chinese food when you travel.

Second, the Chinese are proud of their own culinary tradition and enjoy eating their own very varied dishes.  Not necessarily odd at all.

To conclude.  Our search for culinary novelty, our belief that trying new foods is part of travel, perhaps even a reason to travel, is the oddity, not the default position.  It’s a sea change in attitudes to food that is very recent. In part it has to do with modern nutritional theory, in part to the fact that we now attribute many diseases to germs, in part due to the fact that we usually have access to safe water or soft drinks, and in part to political and social attitudes, though the latter is for another posting.

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18 thoughts on “Chinese Tourists Don’t Eat European Food

  1. maria

    greeks behave in similar ways to the chinese in terms of food – they search out their own race in their travels, they ask other greeks for suggestions on where to eat in foregin places (despite the plethora of information avialable), and in general, they do like their own food and prefer it wherever possible – not odd at all, as you say

  2. Vivette

    Interesting. I wonder if the same happens with Japanese travelers. The other day half the floor at Suntory Del Valle was reserved for a large group of Japanese men and women (none of them spoke Spanish) who, I assumed, were on vacation in Mexico City. The sight only reinforced my idea that this was good, even (maybe?) traditional Japanese cuisine. Arigato.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I think two things go on. There are those who for very traditional reasons just see no reason to bother with foreign cuisine. And there are many others (almost everyone, I think) who after a period of experimentation just want a rest. It’s not food but I remember once going to the Browning Museum in Florence when I could not face another Renaissance anything. And I have often wanted what the English would call a nice cup of tea and (say) a piece of bread and butter however much I loved the cuisine in the place I was visiting. I am not sure which group these tourists came in.

      And as to Japanese cuisine, it’s changed almost as dramatically as American in the last hundred years. Hard to know what counts as traditional, at least for me.

  3. Bea

    My country has a long colonial history, but I still ALWAYS look for Chinese restaurants after sometime in Europe. In my country (and in other Southeast Asian ones, at least, as I’d learned in conversations in said restaurants), we hardly feel a meal is a meal without rice.

    The answer for us, at least, is that we just aren’t used to their food. We consider sandwiches as snacks. Sometimes we find their food too creamy and bland. Sometimes we find it too oily. Sometimes there are weird flavors in it. Sometimes it is a cold meal, which is very strange for us. We miss our dipping sauces. Our usual meal configuration is rice and “ulam” or a cooked savory dish. Any deviation makes us miss the original.

    As explained by an Italian friend who visited here, and ate nowhere but Italian restaurants, “It’s not my fault, it’s my mama’s fault.”

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Bea. So did all my students from Hawaii when they went to the mainland. The fact that they couldn’t get rice in McDonald’s as they could in Hawaii was a cause of major cultural shock. Love your examples of why western food doesn’t fit.

  4. maria

    a nice cup of tea and a scone or a gingernut biscuit would be just fine for me too (none of which we can really get where i am unless i make them all myself), and i don’t even have to be on holiday to yearn for that!

  5. NiCk Trachet

    It is often said that ‘home’ cuisine is the last thing to be abandoned with integration into a new country.
    I’m not a Christian since generations, but I still have christmas dinner.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      And I bet it’s still the case that many of your non Christian compatriots still eat fish on Friday.

  6. NiCk Trachet

    Indeed, but that’s also a question of availability. Ambulant fish mongers appear only on thursday (or friday morning) in areas where there are no fish shops.

    The Spanish/Portuguese tourism regions are amazingly focused on ‘Northerners’ who do not like the local food. They are only interested in beach and sun. I remember visiting Albufeira (Algarve, Portugal) some ten year ago. It was impossible to find any bacalao dish in the restaurants, but plenty advertisement for “genuine plougman’s platter with real branston Picle”

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      And there are tourist areas in Mexico that have real Tex-Mex restaurants for Americans. Complex set of reasons for why food habits change or don´t change.

  7. Kay Curtis

    Foreign Children
    R L S
    LITTLE Indian, Sioux or Crow,
    Little frosty Eskimo,
    Little Turk or Japanee,
    O! don’t you wish that you were me?

    You have seen the scarlet trees
    And the lions over seas;
    You have eaten ostrich eggs,
    And turned the turtles off their legs.

    Such a life is very fine,
    But it’s not so nice as mine:
    You must often, as you trod,
    Have wearied, not to be abroad.

    You have curious things to eat,
    I am fed on proper meat;
    You must dwell beyond the foam,
    But I am safe and live at home.

    Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
    Little frosty Eskimo,
    Little Turk or Japanee,
    O! don’t you wish that you were me?

  8. Josh Strike

    I just came across this and found it interesting. I think there’s a huge reason you may have overlooked that explains modern America’s willingness to experiment with new foods while traveling. We come from a place where waves of immigrants brought their national cuisines and set up restaurants which were, on the whole, far less “dumbed down” or tailored to American tastes than the average Chinese restaurant in Europe is to European tastes now, or the average “jewish deli” in Buenos Aires is to the Argentinian palate. And those imported foods became popular among the wider population, from pizza to lo mein to matzo ball soup. I grew up in a place where it was normal to go out or order in for Cuban, Mexican, Hungarian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian ( <3 ), Indian, Persian and Lebanese (and real Lebanese, not what the British call "kebabs") — sometimes all in one month. French, Italian and Jewish being so passé they couldn't really be considered foreign. And y'know what, I think it's okay to be critical and judgmental of people who refuse to try new foods, or are scared of it. I think it's an indication of a small mind. I've met some Europeans recently who traveled to Egypt for six days in the sun. I asked how if they liked the kibi, tabouleh, couscous, etc. They said they'd eaten at the hotel buffet all six days and hadn't tried any Arabic food. Bleh!

    The thing about the Chinese as travelers has become kind of a joke for me, because on the way to Vegas a few , I stopped off in Barstow to pick up some fast food and there was a tour bus full of Chinese… with about a dozen fast-to-medium-food restaurants around them, they all flooded as fast as they could into the Panda Express. Now I might not know much about real Chinese food, but I do know that Panda Express is about as close to it as Taco Bell is to Mexican, which is to say, almost every Mexican I've ever met has a deep, proud, unwavering refusal to ever, *ever* eat at a Taco Bell. And yet PX was the only place these tourists wanted to eat.

    I've lived in ten countries over the last seven years, and I'll admit I get a weakness for a burger about once every couple months. Right now I'm in France, making carnitas out of a local ham (inspired by coming across some fresh cilantro). I won't say I'm ashamed of my burger-lust, but I ain't that proud of it, and I'd be a lesser person if I didn't become part of the culture around me and learn from it — especially the part about how they eat. There were plenty of travelers in the past who *did* sample the local cuisine, and even brought it home with them. That's how Italy got pasta and tomatoes; how Hungary became obsessed with, of all things, paprika. When you think that Hungarian goulash and paprikash didn't even exist before 300 years ago — nor fresh-baked bread in Tokyo before 50 years ago, where now it's one of the great centers of baking in the world — it's a little sad that the Chinese are too afraid to try something while they're far from home. Or even bring it home and integrate it into their amazing national cuisine. After all, sharing is where great food comes from.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for the long comment, Josh. I agree that Americans in past forty years have embraced eating foreign foods (though it was not always so). And I agree that contact between food cultures is a potent source of culinary change. But I do have some qualms as a historian with your analysis. I seriously doubt that American ethnic restaurants are more “authentic” than ethnic restaurants elsewhere in the world. All the ones I have eaten in (Austin where I now am prides itself on its Mexican restaurants, for example) are massively modified to American tastes. I have not found that Mexicans have an unwavering refusal to eat at American “Mexican” chains. Taco Bell did not fly in Mexico, it’s true, but Chiles is a huge success. Tex-Mex is by many Mexicans just regarded as American food. Nor am I sure how Italian travelers “got” pasta and tomatoes.

      So I would stick to my main point. There are many reasons why traditionally cultures did not embrace foreign food, at least unless it came from a culture they regarded as worth emulating. And those reasons still exist today.

  9. Nancy Pollock

    You raise an interesting comment on what Fischler referred to (1980) as the Omnivore’s Paradox. We are biologically designed to eat everything, yet we are highly selective cultural creatures when it comes to the food we eat. We constantly face the dilemma of eating the familiar while tasting the unfamiliar.
    In writing about the food culture of New Zealand – drawing on my earlier work on Diversifying food landscapes from Asia into the Pacific, I am constantly faced with addressing this Omnivore’s paradox, as peoples spread to new lands, where they could find no familiar foods, Maori could find no Polynesian foods, Scots could find no porridge oats in Dunedin, and the Irish had to reinvent Guinness here. Similarly tourists whether from Europe or Asia or elsewhere are constantly challenged by this omnivore’s paradox as have been new arrivals when settling the globe.
    So are tourists’ questions about ‘what to eat tonight’ part of what you refer to
    as a ‘recent sea change in attitudes to food’?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Nancy, So delighted to get your comment. Our interests overlap and I used your book, These Roots Remain, when I was in Hawaii to try to understand the background to the food there. A lovely piece of work.

      I’m not absolutely clear I understand your question. But let me say two things.

      1) Most people through most of history subscribed to some form of humoral theory that said that the food of the land you were born in was the most healthful for you. Hence traveling was very perilous and people normally took a culinary package with them

      2) I think partly because of the US (and later the Western world’s) need to deal with immigrants, together with scientific nutritional theory that was one size fits all, that belief vanished in favor of one that said all cuisines were equally delicious and the cosmopolitan person should try them all.

      I would love your comments.

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