12. Christopher Webb
As an American living in Germany, I sometimes make quick meals that my German acquaintances find pretty strange or revolting. For example, there’s chipped beef on toast (or “sh-t on a shingle,” as they say in the military, where it is standard fare), which is toasted white sandwich bread smothered in white gravy mixed with strips of packaged and processed thinly sliced beef or sandwich meat product. The gravy is as simple as it gets: white flour, butter, pepper, and milk.
13. Andrea Herrero
I watched a documentary where a chef (Ken Hom) described how his Cantonese mom was disturbed by beef steak when they first came to the US, something like How could anyone eat a slab of cow like that? I can think of American foods more exotic, but that’s the most poignant idea of strange food I know of – steak is as basic and, considering the rudimentary preparation and the ubiquity of cows, as close to “universal” as one might imagine.
Think about the foods Cantonese people regularly encounter, such as sea cucumber, jellyfish, swallow’s nest, poultry feet and guts – defining “strange” foods for a Western mind. (Not to mention other less- but not uncommon oddities more frequently featured on Travel TV than on the average family table.) Cantonese cuisine’s diversity eclipses that of American (or any given Western cuisine) at least five times over. This is barely arguable. Consider how Guangdong’s economic and geographic situations grant access to an unparalleled variety of raw food product. Every available, edible sea creature, fungus, whole animal, animal product, body part, all parts of a plant, fresh, dehydrated, cured, smoked, or pickled, has its market. Now multiply that by the number of people who know how to cook them (professionals, amateurs, many men, and every housewife).
The immediacy of these million food options to a Cantonese person would make you think there were little left in the world to faze her. What was it about the steak? After a moment’s thought you can probably see its obvious peculiarities, but here’s the thing for me, and with this statement I hope to offer a new reading of the full set of answers here: strangeness aptly describes how something familiar is used differently, rather than the unique properties of the thing in itself. For example, an Italian man does not feel he’s eaten a meal unless there was bread to accompany it. Anything without is either “a snack” or “wrong”, and this isn’t a decision he makes but the perceived soul-sourness of a habit being provoked. The same feeling is present, however minor, in an American watching someone eat their fries with mayonnaise, and so on. The picture here is of people who must contend with a change in concept for which they’ve already determined what is correct, rather than with an object they’ve never seen before at all. Novelties like spray cheese, though surreal and perhaps more shocking, are ultimately less offensive. (Depending on the person’s original culture. A European for whom cheese is a real, living, cherished food is probably well offended by the canned stuff.)
Beef and most other meat in Cantonese cuisine is generally prepared by slicing or mincing to accompany a larger proportion of other ingredients, and many times only enough meat is added to lend flavor. Other times it is braised, again with other critical ingredients. One expects to see meat peeking out between colorful vegetables, or shaped into tender meatballs, or tucked into wrappers, or at least divided into bite sizes. Beef in the Chinese imagination is small, spare, and orderly. Food in the Chinese imagination is colorful, articulate, abundant, and shared. Compare with the image of a steak: on a platter, an intact visceral mass of still-recognizable, slightly bloody cow. For one person. Cow, not beef. It’s not food yet.
China’s long, unbroken history of civilization and bias against uncivilized culture may be relevant here. Civic amenities like butcher service, choice of ingredients, competition, means and minds for experimentation, the cultivation of other arts, etc., encouraged a more involved food preparation for centuries, rendering steak completely crude in their wake. Meticulous as the raising, butchering, aging, and cooking of a steak can be, it will nonetheless be a symbol of barbarism to a people with such a history – a people whose influence and traditions have prevailed, as civic culture does, as far as its rural diaspora, perhaps along with a distant collective memory of the ultimate barbarians’ bitter occupation.
This is all just conjecture. The lady didn’t like steak. Boom.