A Myth Dispelled: On the Bread Eaters of Shanghai

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This past summer I spent three weeks in China with my NYU class Global Food & Cultures: Shanghai. I admit it was impossible for me to enter without my preconceived notions. However, this being my third immersive travel course of this type, I admit I also knew that I understood next to nothing about the realities of the culture(s) that I was about to observe (with each of my senses), and analyze for the weeks to follow.

As a child, my favorite movie was Disney’s Mulan, set in China. I watched that VHS so frequently that my eldest brother ended up hiding it to prevent any further infliction. I remember paying special attention to the featured dishes, like the rice porridge (what I now know to be congee) that Mushu prepares for Mulan before her first day in the army, the community pot of rice that Mulan spills which had been meant to feed the Chinese soldiers, and even the rice and meat that the soldiers fantasize about during their training. Though this cartoon was merely an introduction to Chinese culture, it was a catalyst for my interest. What stands out to me now is the significance of rice as a staple food in the Chinese diet. While this is largely the case throughout much of China, other regions and Chinese subcultural groups enjoy ingredients, flavors, and dishes that seem to stand out amidst the recipes of the rice-eaters.

While I had spent much of the first week enjoying many of the traditional Shanghainese and Chinese dishes—many of which I had been familiar with, and many of them containing or being served with rice—it wasn’t until we had been there around a week and a half that I experienced a subculture of the cuisine that completely transformed my notions about Chinese food and what it could be.

On that Friday afternoon in June, our class walked the Shanghai streets until we approached a Muslim food market. The Uyghur community, that for the most part immigrated from the northwest of China, gathered in front of me to break bread and share food on what seemed to be their holy day. The Huxi Mosque, Shanghai’s most notable place of worship for the Muslim community, is located just a block away. On this street our class experienced, well for me at least, a very new culinary perspective. Instead of the rice I had understood China to center its cuisine around, the Uyghur people featured various breads as a staple of their diet. I observed the flat sesame bread being kneaded, baked, and sold, all before my eyes.

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While the association of China as a rice-eating nation, it is only natural to assume a lack of diversity in culinary culture. But as I learned that day, it is rather an oversimplified assumption which is reductive of existent and vibrant cultural foodways within China.

The Uyghur community, a Turkic ethnic group inhabiting East and Central Asia, remains mostly as one of the largest ethnic minority groups in what is now China’s Xinjiang region. Along with populations like the Tibetans, Uyghurs have been culturally suppressed in the years following their domination by a repressive Chinese regime. Uyghurs in Xinjiang have even been banned from fasting during Ramadan in various forms and at different periods. The community in Shanghai, however, has a much smaller population than that of Xinjiang, and exact population reports are hard to pin down (estimates are often in the thousands).

As a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide, myself, I struggle to contain my frustration when it comes to the suppression of any community due to their cultural background. In the case of the Uyghur community, I admit I began this trip not knowing about their existence whatsoever. Even upon my initial introduction to the community at their street food market in Shanghai, my take away was about the tasty bread they had (which truly was incredible), and the familiar spices and aromatics that brought me back to my own home kitchen, dominated by Armenian tradition.

Upon my arrival back home and after further research of the Chinese Muslim community itself, I feel concern for their wellbeing in the current geo-socio-political climate they are in. My true and honest hope is that the Chinese administration is able to take a lesson from the Uyghur community, and together move forward to break bread with one another.

Connor White is a writer and cook currently pursuing an M.A. in Food Studies at New York University. A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America and a Jean Georges kitchen alumnus, Connor focuses his research on topics pertaining to gender and sexuality in the professional kitchen.