A while ago I was asked this question by Sinosplice reader Efraim Klamph:
I am teaching English in a somewhat rural location in Hunan. Sometimes students ask me, “What do Americans have as their main food?” I assume by “main food” they mean 主食, which Wenlin translates as “staple/principal food”. The concept of 主食 seems very clear in Chinese cuisine; particularly at the cafeteria where I eat, you get your veggies and meat all on top of a large serving of white rice. When I think of American or Western cuisine in general, I have a hard time thinking of what could serve as the 主食. Many of the students who ask me seem to be inclined that Westerners eat bread as their 主食. But think about the meals you eat when you’re back home; at least for me, it’s not always a bunch of vegetables and tofu served on a block of rice. So I say to the students that Westerners don’t really have a 主食, we sometimes eat bread, noodles and rice, but the concept of 主食 is rather different in Western cuisine. I mean, where’s the 主食 in the classic salad, hamburger and fries? Any thoughts on this?
I think when the Chinese think “主食,” they normally think “one kind of food,” whereas westerners often think of this as “a class of foods,” AKA what society in the States currently refers to as “carbs.” So our 主食 can be pasta, or bread, or mashed potatoes, or rice, or any of a number of things. Maybe even the hamburger bun and the fries. It depends on the meal.
It sounds a little ethnocentric to say that Western food has a rich smorgasbord of “主食” (carbs), whereas China has only rice. In reality, China does have quite a bit more variety than just rice.
Typical Chinese Carbs (主食):
- rice: 米饭
- wheat noodles: 面条
- mantou (steamed buns): 馒头
- glass noodles: 米线
- various “cakes”: 饼
- various dumplings: 饺子
Typical Western Carbs (主食):
- bread: 面包
- pasta: 意大利面
- rice: 米饭
- corn: 玉米
- potatoes: 土豆
Neither of these lists are exhaustive, but clearly there’s variation in the carbs consumed in both regions. The difference lies in the fact that certain regions of China stick much more closely to one type (e.g. rice every day in the south, noodles every day in the north), whereas more of a variety is typical in “the west.” More than once, I’ve had Chinese friends from the south tell me that they “just don’t feel right” if they don’t have at least some rice every day. It’s a seriously ingrained (ha!) eating habit.
Obviously, it feels kind of ridiculous to try to sum up the eating habits of “the west” so simply, even though your Chinese friends may very well expect you to do just that. So you may have to explain that in Mexico more corn tortilla and rice is eaten as the 主食, in Poland it’s more potatoes, in Turkey it’s various types of bread, etc.
But if you’re in China for very long studying Chinese and communicating with locals, sooner or later you’re going to have the 主食 discussion. Most Chinese have heard their whole lives that western food is very uniform and boring compared to the rich culinary tapestry that is Chinese food, so you can have a little go at shattering 主食 preconceptions with this one. (Good luck!)