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Changing the eating habits of the Chinese

It seemed I was witnessing an important social phenomenon that would have a huge impact on the eating habits of Chinese people in the decades to come. "Clean Your Plate!" screamed the message from the middle of a Ming-motif dinner plate in a half-page advertisement in a recent Friday edition of the China Daily. It was part of the "clean your plate movement", which in Chinese is called guangpan xingdong.

The ad is a clear indication that the Chinese government is pushing the envelope for its 1.3 billion people to "uphold the virtue and foster new practices", one of which is to eat all the food on your plate. This is an important step toward not wasting food.

What I see in China today is a far cry from my first visit to the country - to Wuhan in Hubei province, to be precise - in 1977 as a young student. Then, I needed to use liang-piao (food coupons) to get meals because food was rationed.

The memory of one lunch will remain with me forever, because I was lucky enough to have rice with vegetable soup, which comprised not only cabbage but also a few slices of pork rind. At that time, pork rind was treated as meat and added to vegetables or soup because meat was not widely available. So scarce was food that whenever a person left anything on his/her plate, someone from outside the dining area would rush in and clean up the leftovers or put it in a cotton bag - nothing went to waste.

A lot has changed in China since 1977. Along with China's economic development and modernisation have come some problems, of which wastage of food is one.

But in China this time, I have noticed a drastic change in people's eating habits, especially the young generation. There has been a proliferation of Chinese-style fast-food restaurants over the past couple of decades. The irony is that despite some of them being guilty of serving unhealthy and fattening food, fast-food outlets help prevent wastage. When a diner is alone - which a large percentage of fast-food customers are - he/she rarely orders excessive amounts of food. Perhaps money has something to do with it.

After watching young Chinese ordering food, I realised that wastage of food in Chinese fast-food restaurants is minimal because each portion is measured and one order is normally for one person. A lunch or dinner costs about 25 yuan (Bt125) and comprises one main dish - usually chicken, pork or beef - and two side dishes of perhaps mixed vegetables and soup, and the staple of rice. This way the Chinese fast-food restaurants unintentionally prevent food wastage.

The problem arises when Chinese people dine together. Notions of austerity are tossed out the window when, sitting at huge round tables, they begin ordering almost every dish on the menu without realising that they cannot finish even half of them. Some argue that a dining table that is not full is an insult to the guest. Besides, hosts don't want to risk losing face by not having more than enough dishes on the table.

But now that the new leadership has issued a call to stop wasting food, hopefully Chinese people will change their ways. After being elected the top leader of the Communist Party of China at the end of last year, Xi Jinping urged Chinese officials to follow eight rules to practice austerity and give up their wasteful habits. The rules include not wasting food and living moderately. In fact, the entire Chinese population should follow these rules. During lunches and dinners with friends, they are aware that they must not waste food or order too much. In China, eating as a group would normally entail four standard dishes and one soup. But they also realise that they can only eat a certain amount of food due to the large portions restaurants offer.

China's ability to feed its huge population is an extraordinary achievement. In the past, the rise and fall of Chinese rulers depended on whether their people had enough food to consume. After three decades of continuous economic growth, China has become richer and farmers have better lives than before. Now, as the world's second-largest economic power, China wants to go beyond that and give its people a more sustainable and greener way of life. For centuries, the Chinese people have been in the habit of saying, "Chi duo yi dian" (eat a bit more) to guests at the dinner table. But there may come a time when "Shao chi ye ke yi" (it is okay to eat less) would be the acceptable entreaty.

(A shorter version appeared in China Daily recently.)


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