Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What are some of the most mind-blowing facts about China? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread. Thank you to the team at Quora for making this happen!
Here is one thing that is surprising to at least some Westerners: rice is NOT the staple food for many Chinese.
In the West, we tend to associate rice with Chinese food. Most restaurants in the U.S. offer a choice of white or fried rice with entrees. (And chips in Ireland–no in China you don’t get your food served over chips!) There are noodle dishes available, but we tend to think of rice as the staple food of China. But rice is really the staple of the south and the Yangtze River valley, while wheat is the staple of the north and the Yellow River Valley. (That civilization was actual built on millet cultivation, but that is another story–wheat comes from the Middle East.)
This is probably surprising to many foreigners who have never been to China (except Italians, who are used to Chinese food with noodles). But not only is rice not the staple food for many Chinese, though. In fact, millions of Chinese have never eaten rice in their entire lives. Maybe hundreds of millions.
What?! This foreign guy is crazy! Hear me out. Surely, even though many people in north China eat steamed buns (mantou), noodles, dumplings (jiaozi), flat breads (bing) and so on for meals, northerners still eat rice in restaurants and buy it to make at home sometimes.
Yes, yes. This is true–in the cities and towns. But go out into the northern countryside, (not the rice growing areas in Liaoning, but rural Shandong, Shanxi, etc.) People in those villages who grow mostly maize and wheat eat what they grow, or perhaps what their neighbors grow. They don’t grow rice, they don’t buy it, they don’t travel or eat out. (I met one old woman who had never in her 80+ years ever been outside of the village.) They have never eaten rice.
I lived in a village in Shandong, and a lot of the people had never eaten rice. I never once saw rice or was served rice in the village. I sometimes went to town and ordered rice as a special treat.
I asked people if they had ever eaten rice, and most of the regular farmers had not. Of course, those involved in government and business eat out and travel, and they all have had rice.
People often asked me what people eat in America. Once, a man thinking of the most exotic staple food he could imagine, asked, “What do you eat in your country? You eat rice, don’t you?” To him, Chinese eat wheat and other grains. Rice is something foreign.
There are thousands of villages like this one across northern China where rice is not grown, and probably never eaten. People in the West all think people in China eat rice every day, probably millions upon millions of Chinese have never actually eaten the stuff.
Bonus: In China, during formal meals, rice is not served with the food–it is served at the end of the meal.