Why You Should Break Out of Your Culinary Comfort Zone

It’s easy to get stuck.

You know how the routine goes: tracing your own footsteps (literally and figuratively) and ending up with the same dishes over and over again. Sure, they’re delicious. But eventually you have to break out of our culinary comfort zone to experience and enjoy the incredible variation of Chinese cuisine available to you. Those of us who find ourselves in China are privileged to bear witness to one of the greatest culinary civilizations on earth. You owe it to yourself to pay tribute to that entitlement by sampling all that China has to offer. Because chicken feet, dog meat and pig brain hotpot are as necessary an experience as any other meal you’ll have in China.

The Routine

Kungpao Chicken

The popular favorite: Gongbao Jiding

As a rule, we tend to stick to what we like. Whether you’ve been in China for two years or ten, you’re likely to be ordering the same dishes on a regular basis. After all, it makes perfect sense: everyone loves the taste of Kungpao Chicken (宫暴鸡丁) and Fried Shredded Potato (干煸土豆丝)  because they’re familiar and mighty tasty. But by sticking to the minority of dishes that you’re familiar with there’s a good chance you’re passing up literally hundreds of unfamiliar dishes which could turn into your favorites.

The Aversion

Perhaps a food allergy, religious affiliation or ethical crusade (vegetarian or vegan) prevents you from going outside of your dietary routine. As legitimate as those reasons are for not ordering an unfamiliar dish in a new restaurant, they’re outnumbered 100 to 1 by laziness. Why take the chance on something new, especially when it falls outside the boundaries of the culinary practices of your own culture?

Turtle Soup

Turtle soup, along with chicken feet and dog, is absolutely worth trying. Nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I vividly remember an encounter I had with a Peruvian English teacher in Chengdu who had spent ten years in Sichuan Province. He couldn’t read Chinese and ordered the same handful of dishes year after year. Ordering outside of his comfort zone or broadening his dietary outlook didn’t even seem to cross his mind. When I inquired about how he’s managed to get by for so long on so little, he justified his position by saying that the dishes he does order taste fine to him. As he fumbled clumsily with his chopsticks the wait staff at the restaurant took note and sneered.

Don’t be that guy.

The Solution

StarfishApproach food with an experimental outlook. If you suspect that you might not like this or that particular dish, go ahead and try it anyway. At the very least it’ll be an experience that connects you more closely with the culinary history of Chinese people.

If you’re having trouble reading the menu at a Chinese restaurant, taking it home and learning all the characters on it is a great practice. You’ll improve your knowledge of local dishes and increase your vocabulary simultaneously. To get you started, check out this Chengdu Living post of A Chinese Menu Fully Translated.

Open Yourself Up to New Experiences

Picky eaters who respond to foreign food cultures with shock and revulsion are the product of narrow mindedness. When you leave your home country, you’re better off leaving behind your reservations about what the rest of the world is or isn’t and just participating. Open your mouth and open your mind.

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About Charlie

Having lived in Chengdu for seven years, Charlie has traveled to every corner of China and back again, calling the Yulin neighborhood of Chengdu his home. He's a part time DJ and full time iPhone game developer, too.

18 Responses to “Why You Should Break Out of Your Culinary Comfort Zone”

  1. Ironic, isn’t it?

  2. I believe 干煸土豆丝 is shredded potato. 干煸土豆片 would be sliced potato?

    The link “A Chinese Menu Fully Translated” is broken.

  3. Great post! I agree completely. I’m going to study the menu translation article more closely.

  4. I agree with the trying to broaden your culinary horizons. But some of the really funky stuff is too expensive to really bother trying. If someone offers me a bite of their starfish, Ill try it, but I cant finish a whole one by myself…

    • Cost can definitely be a prohibitive factor when it comes to trying new and exotic foods. Especially in China where often the scariest things to eat are also the most expensive, effectively making the challenge that much more difficult to swallow (zing!).

  5. i have been here for a while and I pretty much stick to a few dishes .. actually more than a few, but not out of fear but out of a slow process of finding out what i like.

    without question, try everything because you never know what you’ll like. I tried rabbits head and all that and aside from being visually stomach turning, i found rabbit’s head ot be devoid of meat. starfish and stuff like that … whatever man who is like, “hey I’m hungry. how bout soe starfish?”

    but go ahead and try all the dishes using the point and click, take home and study whatever technique. I find that i stick to about 10-12 dishes when in chengdu. in shanghai, the Chinese food sucks, so … right now I am checking out my options.

  6. How about showing a little tolerance and recognizing that not everyone is an exotic eater? It is in the nature of humans to eat the same foods again and again. If you want to criticize others for being non-adventurous, then accompany any Chinese tour of Europe. A meal of watered-down native food the first night, then it’s Chinese food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the rest of the holiday. I met a woman who was raving about the wonderful food she had while visiting Tuscany. Panzanella? Fagioli al fiasco? No, she thought the Chinese food was wonderful.

    • Hi Harland,

      I did recognize that not everyone is an exotic eater and I also mentioned that it’s in our nature to eat what we like, which is necessarily what we’re familiar with.

      What you choose to eat is ultimately your decision, whether it’s fried rice every day or barbequed starfish every meal.

      What ends up happening to a lot of us (myself included) is that we often get stuck in our ways and fail to seize the opportunity to embrace all the possibilities around us. That’s really what this post is about, not saying you should eat this or that.

      Your anecdote of Chinese tourists in Europe is a symptom of the exact issue which I’m addressing. I think we agree and are observing the same thing. Authentic Italian food is incredible and it’s a shame that many toursts are restricted by their own pre-conceived notion of what tastes good and what doesn’t. It’s all based on our cultural upbringing and has more to do with ourselves than the food in question.

  7. Note that there are risks involved: http://tinyurl.com/2btn3ke

    “The report found that the safest individuals were those who surrendered to the soul-crushing monotony of habit and then convinced themselves that they had things pretty good.”

  8. Gongbao Ji is becoming very old fashioned ! Try one of the new hypes like 窝窝头, (wowotou) filled with rabbit meat ! But I agree, dishes change every year I come back, I have the privilege to eat with local friends who order for me, otherwise I would have stuck to the traditional Gongbao Ji, Huiguorou, Qingjiao rousi and stuff !

  9. You’d think that the people who make it all the way around the globe would be those most interested in trying new things. Definitely not the case…

  10. But if you travel all across the globe, and you settle in a country like China, what do you eat all day ? Western food ? Because when you eat regular Chinese food like Gongbao Ji and stuff you already have tried new things ! What I assume Charlie is saying, is that you shouldn’t stick to several dishes you know. He is not encouraging you to eat stuff like Turtle Soup, or Seastars but other dishes consisting of Chicken,or regular meat. A dish as Huaji (花鸡.) for example is a new dish which is quite popular but it is still chicken, made in a different way. This is also a way to try new things instead of sticking to regular dishes. The chinese kitchen as so much to offer you !

  11. What a wonderful blog. Thanks for writing this, charlie.

  12. Now that’s some tough love. It’s the truth, though. Everyone has a different depth to which they can integrate into another culture.

  13. Loooveeee chinese food!

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