A Taste of China

Unique course lets students experience China's culture through its cuisine

In China, food has an inextricable relationship with culture. It plays an integral role in health, entertainment, business relationships, and way of life for the Chinese people. According to Dr. Zongqing Zhou, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism, the relationship between food and culture is "so interwoven that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference."

For about a decade, Zhou has shared this distinctive relationship with students in his Chinese Cuisine and Culture course. Initially offered on an occasional basis, the course's popularity and student demand has led to it being offered each spring as a cultural diversity course, available to all Niagara University students.

It's easy to see why the course is so popular. Classroom work is combined with field trips and lab work in the kitchen to create an environment that engages students and makes them "feel that taking this course is like visiting China," Zhou says. Zhou, a Chinese native who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, notes that both his prior experience as a Chinese restaurant manager and his ethnicity add authenticity to the course.

Because the course focuses on how culture influences the Chinese way of eating and vice versa, much of the work involves food; specifically, food and its relationship to subcultures, medicine and health, entertainment, philosophy, and social relationships. Students learn about the philosophical and medical concept of Yin and Yang and how foods are classified as one or the other; how food and medicine are linked; the role of meals in Chinese business deals; the importance of food during festivals; and the symbolism in food, both in name and in how and when it is served. They also learn how to use Chinese utensils like the wok and the cleave and the Chinese way of setting a table and serving food so that its flavor is preserved. Field trips to restaurants in Toronto's Chinatown provide unique opportunities for experiential learning and help to reinforce the classroom work. At the end of the semester, students demonstrate what they have learned by planning, cooking and serving a three-course Chinese meal that shows their knowledge of the relationship of the menu items to culture and regional subcultures, as well as their mastery of basic Chinese cooking techniques and the use of popular Chinese ingredients. The meal is served to the hospitality college's faculty and staff, under Zhou's guidance. It has become a highly anticipated event among the guests.

This knowledge has far-ranging applications, says Zhou. From business majors who aspire to careers with multinational corporations, to hospitality and tourism students who will be serving Chinese tourists at restaurants, hotels, and other attractions, the class participants can apply their understanding of culture and cuisine in a variety of ways.

"The attractiveness of this course comes not only from opening up students' eyes to a very unique and interesting culture," says Zhou, "but also in enabling students to start thinking about the relationships between food and culture in their own cultures and how they can use this knowledge in the pursuit of their careers."