Chapter 83: Salad, But Not Safe

Salad with lettuce
When John, my Chinese boyfriend, refused to eat my salad, that moment was a window into one major difference between our culinary cultures.

One Saturday evening in Shanghai, I holed up in the kitchen with some long lost culinary acquaintances — angel hair pasta, ripe red tomatoes, and mesculin mix, with flavors that ranged from the bitter, toothy mizuna to the sweet baby lettuces. I wasn’t even close to being purebred Italian, yet for years, an Italian meal on the weekends was as important a ritual as evening mass at the Catholic church. It just wasn’t a week without our spaghetti and salad.

Well, in China, I had spent many a week without spaghetti or salad. And after discovering the foreign foods market just blocks away — the tawny olive oils, the deep balsamic vinegars, pasta, and even salad greens in a rainbow of colors and shapes — I schemed to dazzle my Chinese boyfriend with a taste of my childhood, and feed my thirst for something beyond the usual Chinese fare.

I cooked down the tomatoes with nuggets of garlic and a splash of olive oil, and then a little basil seasoning at the end. I boiled the angel hair pasta to al dente perfection. I washed the salad greens and tossed them together with tangy balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a little salt. And then I set the creaky wooden table, the tomato sauce crowning two steaming plates of angel hair, with two salads to start the meal.

I walked around the table, as if I was parading it before a crowd, proud of what I had done this afternoon. Oh, he’s going to just love this, I thought, the anticipation surging within after I called John up for dinner.

John pushed through the door, and surveyed the dinner spread on the table with his hands on his hips. Suddenly, the usual gentle, happy-go-lucky smile faded away to a slight grimace as he bent over to look closer at my afternoon’s work.

“Is that lettuce?” he wondered.

“Of course it’s lettuce! That’s what we eat for salads.”

He frowned. “Uncooked lettuce gives you diarrhea.” The dinner I’d spent hours on was now, according to John, a digestive liability.

If I’d spent more time at his home, I’d have known better. Years later, I would sit down at the round, plastic table in his parents’ dining room, and find, among the vegetables they prepared, a dish of lettuce stir-fried in rapeseed oil, soy sauce, salt and MSG. The lettuce of my childhood — crisp greens kissed with vinegar and olive oil, the wrinkled leaves giving the illusion that the salad was even greater than reality — drowned in sauces, and wilted miserably in the bowl. One Chinese New Year, I prepared salad and spaghetti for the whole family, and observed as John’s parents avoided the salad bowl.

It was their way in John’s home and culture. You must cook lettuce, like every other green, to avoid harmful bacteria. Eat it raw, and prepare to meet your toilet — many, many times.

The thing is, there’s some truth there. After all, people in my country, the US, have died from eating spinach and lettuce tainted with deadly microbes such as E. coli. Yet, here in the West, we worship our greens, despite the headline-making risks.

I never imagined risk until that night, seeing John’s response. But he took a risk too, and tried it.

“Mmm, that’s not bad,” he declared, munching on a few of the greens on our table. That was one small step for John, and the beginning of a new culinary love — his love of salad.

How did China change your perception of your favorite foods?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

12 Replies to “Chapter 83: Salad, But Not Safe”

  1. Wow, At least he ate the spaghetti …Gi Jye won’t even try it, and all of our kids love it, the only thing he will eat is salad and garlic bread. But that’s probably because when I met him, he had already been here a few years, so salad wasn’t too foreign to him. But spaghetti, no way, he won’t even try it!

  2. John’s reaction to raw lettuce strikes me as a little odd – and I mean no offence by that, I have simply never come across such an aversion. Is it a regional thing, perhaps? I mean, there is no shortage of salad-like 冷菜 on Chinese menus. And just on Monday, I cooked my wife steak and mashed potatoes, and wanted to make a salad to go with it all. Trouble is, I couldn’t find lettuce anywhere, so I had to settle for 圆白菜/western-style round cabbage. She noticed and commented, asking, “How come you used cabbage instead of lettuce?”

    And I guess in addition to regional differences, there’s also the personal differences, as Rhiannon’s comment suggests. I took my wife back to New Zealand for the first time last February, and culinarily-wise I was quite surprised by two things: First, my parents had found an Asian supermarket in Hamilton, the rather small city they currently live in, so we could stock up on a few things that would suit my wife’s tastes. But most importantly, she took to ordinary Kiwi food like a duck to water. She didn’t like everything, of course, but for the most part, she tucked in like she’d been born and raised right on the same island as me! Even when we took her to the fish ‘n’ chip shop (such shops are generally run by Greek or Chinese families, for whatever reason), she avoided all the Chinese takeaways and went for a burger and chips.

    So I’m glad that John got stuck into the salad in the end. For one thing, I never found it pleasant to have my better half reject what I cooked for her, and one of the major benefits of a cross-cultural relationship is the culinary variety.

  3. John’s reaction is not surprising. I think my parents also would think in the same way.
    But I guess that most young Chinese who at least once visited McDonalds have experience with raw lettuce…

  4. I am from china and was once married to a white women in US. The food was really a big problem. I could eat American food since I had lived in US for quite a few years, but she wont eat my stuff. She may try it once or twice and that’s pretty much it. As a typical middle western person, she loves fast food and only drinks soda, which she knows it is bad but still couldn’t stop. I cook and eat chinese-like food most of the time and I hate eating junk food everyday. You know the obesity rate is more than 30% in US, largely due to the fast food industry. So we ate pretty much separately. I guess that is one of the problems leading to divorce. It is so hard to convince a typical American to eat alternative food and quit drinking pop, since she has never been abroad. I hate to admit, that lots of American women, couldn’t torlent the smell of typical chinese food, and only likes something smell like Jack in the box. She hated that stir and fry smell so I almost quit typical chinese cooking. We know that cooking typical Chinese food in an American kitchen is a nightmare. Well, I have to admit, as a typical middle westerner who grew up in pure American culture, she had not much interest in anything that is Asian or foreign. That’s why we ended up in divorce. The food difference was the trigger.

    1. @Rhiannon, thanks for the comment! How funny that it was the opposite with your husband! I will add, though, that my husband is not a fan of spaghetti sauce, and probably never will be. 😉

      @Chris, thanks for sharing your experience. How interesting that your wife was used to cold lettuce from her upbringing — it could very well be a regional thing. That’s so great your wife dug right in to Kiwi food and loved it.

      I agree it’s tough when your partner isn’t interested in the foods you adore — it’s happened to me many, many times, and used to take it a bit too personal. I don’t so much anymore though. Maybe that’s because I’m a vegan, my husband isn’t, and we don’t always eat the same things in one meal (for example, for lunch I might make him an omelette, or serve him smoked salmon or pork ribs, while I eat a vegan wrap or something else). To be honest, having that “culinary space” to be ourselves definitely boosted our marriage. 😉

      @Crystal, thanks for the comment! It is definitely true — young people in China who like McDonald’s wouldn’t find raw lettuce so strange after all.

      @Michael, I appreciate your comment. That’s too bad your wife didn’t love Chinese food — it is terrible that too many Americans eat junk food and drink pop. But I can tell you that a lot of American women — myself included — adore eating authentic Chinese (and, for that matter, don’t care for pop for junk food either). Of course, I may not be your average American in China (I am a vegan, after all), but when I’m not there, I pine for my Chinese mother-in-law’s homestyle dishes (mmm, just writing about it makes me hungry!).

    1. @Robyn, thanks for the comment. It truly is something regional, and that’s why I never dared to write “Chinese don’t eat salads” because, as you have written on your blog, that’s just not always true.

      I’ve learned better than to ever make blanket statements about Chinese cuisine, especially after travel with my husband last summer. He could not stand the ultra-spicy Sichuan food and the silk-road-influenced Xi’an food — and yet he’s Chinese, and these are, technically, a form of “Chinese food.”

      @Matt, thanks for sharing. My husband’s parents do fertilize their fields with raw sewage, so maybe your explanation holds true for them.

  5. I just read a book about Chinese gardening and agriculture methods: “Farmers of Forty Centuries” and I have an idea about your BF’s aversion to raw vegetables.

    In that book, the author describes how Chinese farmers use raw sewage in their fields as a fertilizer. The farmers go into the towns in the morning and buy the contents of everyone’s chamber pots, and then take it out to the fields and dump it right on the crops. Apparently, this is a practice that goes back generations.

    It all works very well, but the one absolute requirement is that vegetables must be cooked.

    This may be the origin of the tea culture too — tea evolved as a way to make boiled water palatable.

  6. How can you spend hours cooking salad??
    I live in the uk and I’m not really a fan of salad so I get were his coming from.

  7. Hi again,

    I have a few intercultural culinary stories to share. So I’m chinese-canadian from vancouver.

    Firstly, growing up, whenever my family went to western restaurants, we never touched the salad. It wasn’t clean. We don’t know how the vegetables were handled. It’s raw and uncooked, so who knows what bacteria is festering in the folds and crevices of the leaves. Yes, uncooked foods (especially those from restaurants) cause diarrhea.

    My other story involves cooking for my ex-boyfriend who was “white/western.” I made this soup with pork bone, white radish, and dried mushroom, which I left to boil for hours. He didn’t like it; he said it was bland and tasted like fat. So he “improved” it by pouring milk in, creating a cream of pork bone soup, I suppose.

    Intercultural relationships are difficult. At the time, I took it very personally: you don’t like my soup, you don’t like me. As if my middle name were porkbonesoup. But now that we’re no longer together, I can laugh at the experience, though I still think it was quite disrespectful.

    Needless to say, there were also foods that he enjoyed, that he shared with me with great enthousiasm which I rejected. Of course, I believe I behaved respectfully. But of course he took it personally, as well, my rejection of his foods.

    Who knows what what. Certainly, not I.

  8. Yes, the lettuce thing rings a bell. Makes perfect sense when you know about the fertilizer.

    Anyway, today my neighbor ate her own homegrown lettuce raw after we tried to imitate Korean bbq at home. No fertilizer and no ‘农药‘ and she was pleasantly surprized by the taste.

    My boyfriend is from the Northeast and I’m from Holland but living in Southern China for a long time. I’m extremely into Chinese food, but honestly, prefer Sichuan or Fuijian, Shanghai or Cantonese to most of the North East. However I don’t dislike it and want to learn how to cook a few dishes. Meeting his parents in a few days for the first time (that’s how I found your site, googling ‘meeting Chinese parents for the first time…) and will ask the parents to teach me a few dishes.

    Dutch food honestly speaking is rather bland and can’t compare to Chinese food. We did go to a Belgian restaurant in Beijing and my boyfriend really loved it! His view on Western food changed. That said, most Western food isn’t really good here. Unless you really dish out a big wad of cash.

    For us food is something that brings us together! We’ve learned to appreciate some of each other’s dishes.

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