Sweets and Sweet

When we have met Chinese folks who have been to the United States, discussion invariably hits upon the topic of the food. A typical assessment of American food is that things are too sweet. In many ways, this is true. For example, chocolate is generally less sweet here than in the U.S. In fact, M&M/Mars, Dove, and Hershey all changed their recipes for chocolate made in and/or for the Chinese market – to make it less sweet and, thus, more agreeable to the Chinese palate. Desserts here in general are definitely less sweet than in the United States.

But, really, it is more complicated than that. Remember linguistic relativity theory? I think that folks in the U.S. draw a boundary between sweet and savory that does not translate here in China.* Here, there is no fast distinction between sweets and things that are not sweets. Thus, while sweets are sweeter in the U.S., lots more things in China are a little bit sweet.

Just as in China tissues, napkins, paper towels and toilet paper are all called tissue, here cookies and crackers are all called biscuits. In the grocery store the oreos and ritz crackers share the same aisle, and it seems that people make no functional distinction between them. For example, when we were in Beijing for the Fulbright training, I attended many of children’s events. Snack was commonly offered to the children. One morning I watched, amazed, as the Chinese coordinator of the children’s program pulled out several bags of Pepperidge farm cookies and one bag of goldfish for the children’s snacks. Naturally, the children wanted to eat several cookies, and when I steered them in the direction of the goldfish after just one cookie each, the coordinator asked, “Don’t you eat these biscuits in the United States?” I replied, “Well, actually these are what we call cookies, or sweets, and we don’t eat them very often, and when we do eat them, we try not to eat too much.”

The crackers/cookies thing is just the tip of the iceberg. Really, there is no such thing as dessert here – at least the way dessert is typically handled in the U.S. The last thing to arrive at the table is usually a plate of fruit. Any “sweet” dishes, such as my favorite egg tarts, are ordered when everything else is, and arrive along with the other dishes.

Beyond the differences in how ostensibly sweet things are handled (as more integrated with non-sweet things), there is the issue of sweets themselves. I would suggest that more of the food in China is sweetened. For example, the other day Jie-jie announced that she did not want to eat eggs at home because the eggs at school were better. “They are a little bit sweet,” she said, “sugar eggs.” We have not found any breads that are not sweet, even a crusty loaf of artisan bread with sesame seeds on the outside is likely to have a few raisins in it (which is a bit of a let down when you are planning to make garlic bread) and have a slightly sweet flavor. I know that my Chinese language abilities are limited. However, my food vocabulary list includes words for sweet, salty, sour, oily, bland, strong, and spicy. Savory is not on the list.

So, there you have it. American food is sweeter, except when it’s savory.

*I really don’t know how jello fits into this. When I was growing up, we ate it as a dessert (and only on very rare and unfortunate occasions). I know there are many people in the United States who consider jello to be a salad and, if that floats your boat, more power to you although I would suggest you make sure you are getting some vegetables in your diet, too! All the same, the whole notion of the jello, cool whip, strawberry salad messes with the system I am setting up here, so I will bracket the topic.

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One Response to Sweets and Sweet

  1. Leila says:

    You might enjoy an episode of the tv show How I met your mother where one of the main characters goes to her boyfriend’s house for holidays and is asked to help make their traditional family salad. Turns out the salad contains about 16 cups of mayonnaise, jelly beans and other non-salady items.

    Made my stomach churn but also made me laugh. Hope you are all well. Been thinking of you.

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