Eat and run

Chinese food culture

There is a current series on Amsterdam on Slate where Seth Stevenson suggests that the Dutch are almost never seen walking and eating. Americans, of course do it all the time, and of course we also drive and eat. This got me to thinking about Chinese food culture and wondering if I had been behaving badly. In China and especially in Taiwan there is of course a lot of street food, and I of course have eaten a lot of it. One of the things I don’t remember seeing very often is someone eating and walking. People buying 生煎包子 and taking them home in plastic bags I remember. I can recall at least a few people getting 包子 for breakfast and parking themselves on the street right near the place and eating, but that was rare. (I did it all the time, so I am pretty sure on this one.) Lots of places seemed to have little tables for quick eating, whereas for Americans they might not be needed. Eating breakfast at your desk at work seemed more common, or at least more obvious.

None of this is all that surprising, of course. Watson’s Golden Arches East had some stuff on how the all-powerful arches had failed to change the cultures of eating food in East Asia. I am not surprised to see that American food culture is not universal. What I would like to know is.

1. Is my impression that Chinese don’t eat on the move correct? I was not really paying attention. I’m not really talking about things like lunchboxes, but the American style of eating a hotdog while walking down the street. (Is ice cream an exception? I eat a lot of ice cream while walking, but don’t remember others doing it.)
2. If it is less common, where does it happen? Is this culture changing, and if so how?


  1. One of my joys in life has been the time I have spent in Chinese nightmarkets eating lots of good stuff. Unfortunately, during my stay at Sichuan University in 2002, I noticed quite a bit of antagonism towards venders, coming from university administrators and local officials. I remember searching around for delicious Sichuanese shaokao (barbecue), and discovering that the university had chased those masters of barbecue away. Don’t worry; they always returned.

    As for eating on the go, my first landlord in Taipei once told me that “Chinese” people don’t eat while they are walking.

    I am curious about the Dutch custom, because I spent about 8 months at Leiden University, and it seems to me that I saw people eating on the street, especially on market days. The most common sight was people lowering whole, raw herring (haring) into their mouths.

  2. Yes, I remember mattjies, which I think is the word for the raw herring, in Holland as well. Yum. But those you ate right by the stand, there was no real way to eat them while walking. What I was thinking of was the culture of eating and walking, like with a hotdog or a hot pretzel. It seems to be a very different attitude towards the right way to eat food. I can think of a few times when Americans (meaning me)would regard eating at walking as all but a requirement, like a pretzel when doing the New York tourist thing, an apple while walking in the woods, or ice cream whenever you can get it.

    It’s probably not a surprise to say that Chinese take food more seriously than Americans, but this extends to how and where you eat as well. More clearly defined eating times and places (less raiding the fridge?) would seem to be part of it. Part of the difference is that the whole walking thing does not fit well with the American car culture. Taiwan, at least, seems to be getting the car but keeping the walking culture.

  3. True about herring, though I think I’ve seen people walking and eating fritjes (fries), but I agree with your general points about eating and walking. I guess in Holland, biking is the main form of transportation, which is not really suitable for eating on the run.

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