Waste not, want not

Updated: 2013-05-21 07:08

By Lisa Carducci (China Daily)

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Waste not, want not

The best news I heard since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November is that the nation is being encouraged to avoid wasting food. Several articles have since been published, quoting astronomical figures that should make some people blush for shame. It is said that the amount of food wasted in China per year could feed up to 200 million people.

The Chinese are hospitable, this is well known. To show their respect to distinguished guests, they have developed the habit of ordering much more food than is needed. If, at the end of the dinner, all the food has been eaten, the host could face criticism for being mean, according to this mentality. The image of generosity is represented by a "fish" (yu), which is the homophone of another yu, meaning not only abundance but also surplus.

When invited to dine at restaurants by Chinese friends, I always try to stop them ordering too much. But they answer: "No matter, we can take the leftovers home."

Every foreigner who has been in China for a while knows the phrase "da bao" , which is addressed to waiters at the end of a dinner, meaning to wrap up the remaining food so that it can be taken at home. If they really do, then I feel at ease.

This is a wonderful habit and I was once told that China learned this from Germany, and later, from the United States. Still, I have not witnessed this much in Western countries, except when I was young in Canada and "doggy bags" were provided for leftovers for pet dogs at home.

Anyway, back to dining in China. Sometimes, after every guest has eaten to the full, the table still seems loaded with food and some of the expensive dishes that are served late remain untouched. I have noticed that the Chinese wait for their foreign guests to leave the dining room before asking to "da bao". So, I never skip a chance to strongly encourage them to follow this practice and avoid wasting.

When I was working with CCTV in the 1990s, there was a huge help-yourself buffet for employees offering an extremely rich variety of food. Only a few yuan were taken from our lunch card, and one could return to the buffet as many times as one wanted. But waste was forbidden, and those who did not finish their plate of food would be fined.

When I came to China in 1985 as a tourist, food sufficient for 10 people at a table was served, and nothing was left at the end. In 1989, I lived for three months at a university. Foreigners and locals used to eat their meals at the school's cafeteria. The price of each dish was quite low and each individual had a reasonable quantity of food. Quite often, though, students would leave the cafeteria without being completely full because they had not enough money for one more dish.

In the 1990s, students had little meat or fish in the daily meals, soup and vegetables, and the quality of the rice was poor. Little by little, they started to go to restaurants once in a while. Then it became quite common. I recall seeing students at an Origus buffet (set price, eat as much as you want), leaving an untouched plate of chicken wings on their table, among other leftovers.

In 2006, when "my Tibetan daughter" returned home to Yunnan for the first time in three years, I spent the Spring Festival with her family, and her mother commented that she was skinny. I discovered that in Lhasa four students take a bowl of rice each and share just one dish, which they take turns buying.

In Italy, bread is considered to be the symbol of food. So it is sacred and no one wastes it. Likewise, thrift used to be a traditional virtue of the Chinese people. There was a time when every grain of rice was seen to represent the labor of farmers in harsh conditions. Why shouldn't this moral quality return?

In the West, serious waste occurs at hotels when they offer buffets for tourists or for business meetings. In Cuba, last year, where the choice of food was very limited, I realized that when too much is offered, people waste it. In China, waste typically occurs when there is a banquet or celebration such as at weddings, New Year and so on.

Now that the authorities have launched a public campaign to reduce waste I hope that government officials and business people at all levels have "an excuse" to become less lavish and put an end to squandered food. In such a way, ordinary people may also take note and act accordingly.

Contact the writer at sundayed@chinadaily.com.

(China Daily 05/21/2013 page22)