Many Chinese still describe eating mixed chopped raw vegetables as ‘eating grass’
Although vegetables have always been a major ingredient of the Chinese diet, they have never liked eating them raw, unlike their neighbours in Korea or Japan. Chinese are traditionally suspicious towards any raw food, meat, fish, or vegetable, only fruits are eaten raw. Chinese starters do include raw or semi-raw vegetables, but with an emphasis on the latter and always well-seasoned, to mask the earthy taste of raw vegetables.
One of the eating habits Westerners brought to China when they started living there was eating mixed chopped raw vegetables as meals. Chinese observing this described those Westerners as ‘eating grass (chi cao)’. This expression is still very common. Whenever my wife and I spend some time in Beijing, we meet a befriended couple in an Italian chain restaurant in a shopping mall near their home, where we have some wine and order one dish after another, slowly, often extending our stay to several hours. We always start with a few plates of various salads, which our friend describes as ‘chatting over a glass of wine, while eating some grass’. This is not a derogatory term. We all enjoy the mixes of fresh vegetables with various toppings: tuna meat, chunks of fish, etc. It is filling while not fattening.
There, salads are still part of a larger meal that also includes other types of food. Actually, ordering a salad as a complete meal is something that has only recently entered the Chinese food scene. However, it is definitely gaining ground. There are already a number of dedicated salad bars active in China.
The leading chain is Wagas. According to the introduction of its website, A young Dane named John F. Christensen had once trouble finding a good sandwich in Shanghai. And so, he opened a café – Wagas. Founded in 1999, Wagas is a chain of café-like restaurants serving – sandwiches, pasta, salads, cake, fresh juice and coffee. I first experience with Wagas was when a Shanghai friend and I were invited by a local business man to discuss a proposal. Interestingly, my friend knew the place and hated it so much that she refused to order anything but a coffee. I ordered a salad consisting of various finely chopped vegetables mixed with other ingredients including quinoa. It was topped with a few slices of good quality beef, hence its name: beef salad. I enjoyed it, washing it down with a healthy smoothie.
The second chain is Element Fresh, a rather clumsy translation of the Chinese name Xinyuansu. Its ‘signature salads’ look quite similar to those of Wagas. The ingredients are chopped less finely and I seem to miss a few of the finer ingredients like quinoa. For the remainder Element Fresh is good copy of Wagas.
Max & Salad is not even a clumsy translation of the Chinese name: Dakaishajie, literally: ‘widely open the salad world’. This chain again offers less refined versions of what you can order at Wagas. I haven’t discovered an English version of their web site, so apparently, they are concentrating on domestic consumers.
Miyoushala, what literally means ‘rice has salad’, is a transliteration of Meal Salad. The salads offered a getting courses, as we are descending on the ranking. However, Meal Salad salads are served with one or two slices of bread. That does not only address the expectations of Western patrons, but also appeals to the Chinese stomach’s need for a bit of staple food.
So Sala sounds frivolous, but is a rendering of shousala, which means: ‘lean salad’. The name says it all. Moreover, this chain positions itself as organic. The salads are, however, again more coarsely chopped than the one that I savoured at Wagas. Also note the avocado. Avocados are getting quite popular in China as a healthy food ingredient.
Sexy Salad is a direct translation of haose shala (this actually means ‘lecherous salad’, so the English translation is rather euphoric). However, haose literally means ‘to love colours’, which here also refers to the various colours of the ingredients. The salads are more of the same, but this company is very much focused on online sales.
These are the salad bars that are operating and seemingly viable at the time of writing this post. A recent market survey has counted the number of outlets in a few important cities.
Beijing is the only northern city included in this study. Guangzhou and Shenzhen are both located in the Pearl River Delta. Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Wuxi represent the Yangtze Delft. Wuhan and Chengdu are provincial capitals in central and southwest China respectively. Please, consult my post on China’s Major Food Regionsfor those locations.
The concept of salad as a meal is there to stay in China, but the market is highly volatile and we can expect to see a number of chains to come and disappear again. Anyway, I will regularly refresh the information on this post.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.