“They’re going to love this!” ← Famous last words of a naïve cross-cultural chef, preparing food that’s totally unlike anything the guests have ever tasted.
Has anyone else been there? I sure have. Lots of times.
One time, I was so proud that we were having our son’s Chinese preschool teachers over for dinner. I was working my little tail off to prepare Mexican food, making tortillas from scratch and everything. We knew Mexican food was awesome, and wanted to share something really special with them. It might be different from the local food, but they’d love the chance to try something new, right?
Fast forward to the middle of the meal, when three very sweet young teachers were sitting around our table, trying to be polite about the food we had served. Despite their smiles and reassurances that they were enjoying dinner, it was pretty easy to see that they weren’t.
I could tell it was weird and awkward for them to be using their hands to pick up the food. The flavors were nothing like what they were used to, and it wasn’t a welcome change.
Biggest flop? The refried beans. Beans in China are often featured in sweet things, like shaved ice dessert, ice cream, or sweet breakfast buns. But I had made them salty, which is gross if you’re expecting sweet. Worse, it was just a bowl of mushy beans, not beans as an ingredient in something else. Honestly, I think they struggled to gag down even one bite of the beans that we thought were a delicious taste of home.
There were plenty of other culinary flops when I tried to introduce local friends to our “exotic” tastes, like apple cinnamon muffins or sweet potato casserole. Eventually, I learned which dishes were most likely to go over well, and which were most likely to leave my guests confused/gagging/hungry.
How have your attempts gone? What lessons have you learned along the way?
If you’ve ever hosted guests from another culture (or have wanted to), there’s a great podcast over at Taking Route on Extending Hospitality Cross-Culturally. It features an interview with the awesome lady behind The Serviette, who shares very practical tips for those of us who invite over people from other cultures. (Butter Chicken for a Crowd is one of her most popular posts. Yum.) I’m honored to have a little part to play at the very end of the podcast. Give it a listen here.
P.S. If you were hoping to get in on the Launch Team for my first book, there are still a few slots left! [Update: Launch Team Sign-Ups are now closed! Thank you for your interest. Sign up at my author website to be notified when HOME, JAMES is released!]
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January 16, 2018 at 11:54 am
I have an Amerucan friend who owned a youth hostel in China. He catered mostly to the expat crowd. He had a restaurant that cooked Mexican food just by looking at was left in the plate his chef could tell if the client was a westerner or a Chinese. If the food was mostly gone the diner was definitely a westerner. But if the food was barely touched the client is most definitely Chinese.
I have a bit of advice as well. Cook international dishes they can recognize. I’m from Hawaii so I’m used to teriyaki chicken and rice with a vegetable stir fry. I cooked that for my students as a Christmas dinner along with some bread rolls and rice and it was all gone! The only thing that didn’t go was the pudding. Luckily I made only a rice bowl size of that stuff. I encouraged them to at least try a spoon full which they did. But I kind of knew re pudding wasn’t going to be a hit which is why I made only a small amount.
January 16, 2018 at 2:18 pm
I love the story from your friend’s restaurant, Jada! Your advice is also really good. I also learned that it works well to have the majority of the food be familiar-ish, and then have maybe one or two new things for them to sample. But sometimes I get surprised. I made a pumpkin cheesecake once that was a huge hit! The Chinese friends said it was because it wasn’t sickly sweet like most American desserts. 😉
January 16, 2018 at 1:28 pm
My experience was much like yours. The biggest flop was when I got my big ole 7 grill BBQ. I managed to secure beef steaks (it took a while to get the concept of slicing the steaks against the grain rather than with the grain), they were nice and thick and my mouth was watering. With a bit of salt and pepper I seared them first then grilled them to perfection. The response was one of revulsion. Even though I grilled them to medium my guests wanted it cooked (all the way) but when I grilled them to well done they complained the ext riot was charred and that gives you cancer! Ultimately I had steak for a few days after, no complaint here! Same thing happened when Intried to grill pork steaks or even chicken breasts. The concept of a single person consuming so much meat at one sitting goes against the Chinese grain, it’s wasteful and excessive. Funny thing is when Inreturned to the states and went shopping with my friends, I found my self thinking the same way. It’s a healthy attitude to adopt, we can now stretch a single steak over multiple meals.
January 16, 2018 at 2:23 pm
That’s awesome, Dan. Love the story. Wish I had been there to help you finish that steak! Meat consumption per person is definitely a big difference between the West and China. One time when we were visiting the States, my kids looked at the chicken breast they were each served and then looked at me with near-panic in their eyes, like, “what are we supposed to do with all of this?” One chicken breast can be used to feed an entire family for dinner when it’s stir-fried with veggies! Thanks for your great comments.
January 17, 2018 at 10:08 am
While living in Beijing, wee invited a Chinese friend to our home on a weekly basis. He always brought someone without telling us a head of time. We would just roll with it. This particular time, I made gumbo and a salad with rings of purple onion in it. I was so excited about my presentation of my salad. This time our friend brought someone who was a vegetarian so the only thing she could eat was salad. During the meal, I looked down the table to check on her and she had eaten everything but her onion and I noticed she was having a hard time finishing. I told her that she did not have to eat the onion to which she replied in her home if you put it on your plate you had to eat it. I continued to watch the situation until I saw that she was about to throw up so I knelt down beside her and quietly told her that in our culture if I asked you to give me your plate then you had to give it to me. I asked for her plate and she thanked me profusely. The following week when our friend came over, she had sent a flower to me to as a thank you.
January 17, 2018 at 4:21 pm
Oh, the poor thing thinking she had to choke down the onions if she didn’t like them! It sounds like you found a gracious way to handle the situation, Soundra. And I’m sure you won a friend in the process. Thanks for sharing that story!
January 17, 2018 at 11:53 pm
I have about three easy token western dishes that I circle through, all are palatable enough for my local friends, or at least seem to go down with out setting off the gag reflex. I learned a long time ago to make some western food, but only one of these accepted small dish so everyone can taste a little. The rest of my meal is take-out local food (on brave days I try to cook it myself, but it never turns out as well as theirs). This way they have something they know and like to fill up on. Dinner parties are a lot less stress for me, and a lot more enjoyable for my neighbours.
January 18, 2018 at 1:35 pm
Karen, that sounds like an excellent strategy! Good idea. Thanks for sharing!
February 7, 2018 at 11:05 am
I’ve had decent luck with spaghetti. Noodles (as long as they aren’t covered with anything too weird like cheese) seem to be palatable. I made chili once (beans, ground pork, tomato base) for a friend. He ate THREE bowls of the stuff with gusto. I couldn’t believe it. It was a little sweet – maybe it was the combo of sweet, cumin, and chili powder? I don’t know. I haven’t tried repeating the experiment. My husband’s grandmother made deviled eggs for visiting Beijing guests and they loved them. She makes hers with vinegar and sugar. We’ve had some luck with pizza parties – the kind where people decorate their own pizza. That way they can choose how much cheese and what kind of toppings they like. Don’t even bother with cinnamon (especially in sweets), salads, or any raw veggies for that matter. And you’re right, beans are tricky. We did fajita style Mexican once that a student enjoyed – she skipped the beans and I don’t think we bothered to serve lettuce. It was kind of like cumin stir fry in a tortilla. I don’t know if cumin is popular all over China or if it’s more of a regional thing but it seemed to go over well where we lived.
February 9, 2018 at 9:10 am
These are all great ideas, Beth! The customizable pizza is brilliant. I also discovered that stir-fried fajitas were a good option. I wouldn’t have guessed the deviled eggs would be a hit, though!