Photograph by James L. Stanfield, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Dumplings like these and other starch-centric foods are a Chinese staple.

Photograph by James L. Stanfield, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Eating China: Where's the Meat?

From what I saw in my first few days in China, meals revolve around starch, not meat.

Here’s what I thought I knew about the Chinese diet when I landed in Shanghai in August: More meat. More dairy. I imagined 1.3 billion consumers marching steadily towards an American way of eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

So what did I have for my first breakfast on assignment? Rice porridge made of rice simmered in water until it falls apart.

We were served this dish in a rural village in western China, where everyone ate it plain. But we’ve since had it served with salty sour pickles, too.

Our hosts were particularly keen on making sure I also tried a bowl of wowo, pronounced woh-woh: Tiny shell pasta made of wheat flour with seasoned broth and egg.

I’ll confess that while it was filling, it wasn’t much more than that. There was hot pepper in oil I could add to give it kick, but this is extraordinarily plain food. Good, but not slap-the-table tasty.

That said, I’m into the Chinese method of egg cookery thrown into the wowo: Heat oil to near smoking in a wok, pour in beaten egg, and end up with fluffy egg bits turned rich by the oil:

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A bowl of wowo.

My researcher wasn’t too keen on either of these, so she popped into the shop next door, where they were selling freshly steamed baozi (stuffed wheat buns) 12 buns for nine yuan, or about $1.35 U.S. These are stuffed with a pinch of seasoned ground pork, served in the preferred method of take out—in a plastic bag.

None of this lines up with what I’d been reading about meat consumption in China. Or, to be more honest, what I’d assumed given my reading about meat consumption. (See What the World Eats).

Yes, consumption is rising, but that doesn’t mean that China is mimicking the American diet. Check out the dietary recommendation chart I saw on the side of the village hospital:

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An illustration of the Chinese Food Guide Pagoda, which is kind of like the old U.S. Food Pyramid, shows starches and grains as the base.

You may notice that the base of the pagoda is not meat. It’s starch.

Now, a few months ago, Chinese officials released new dietary recommendations suggesting lower meat consumption, which may cause the government to update this guide. But the illustration does seem to line up with Chinese food culture, where—according to my researcher—starch is referred to as a “main dish.” That’s not to say it’s the equivalent of a beef roast at the center of the table. It’s more that no meal is complete without it; if you do not eat starch, you didn’t really have a meal—you had a snack.

In the U.S., that’s part of how we think about meat and protein: If you didn’t have it with the meal, you’re not full.

But in China—at least, so far—so far I’m seeing that a main dish isn’t meat at all. It's baozi or min tou, stuffed or plain steamed wheat buns; noodles; or rice.

I suspect I’ll be wondering a lot about this. Is the great Chinese meat market only an urban phenomenon? How big is that meat market? And how does it compare to what Americans typically eat?

McMillan is traveling through China on assignment for National Geographic and is sending us her observations on food and culture along the way.