White people food is a piece of white bread with a sorry slice of ham and a sad tomato. It’s a hard-boiled egg and a side of undressed salad. It’s hummus and carrots. It’s a cheese sandwich. It’s a ‘lunch of suffering’.
And it’s a source of fascination and horror for Chinese youths, who claim to be astonished at the bland, spiceless al desko meals we Westerners routinely ingest.
The term originated on the social- media site Xiaohongshu, when a Chinese student uploaded a video of a woman on a Swiss train working her way through a head of lettuce and some ham. ‘I saw the pinnacle of white people cuisine today...’ the student told her followers.
This prompted a flurry of responses from other users, describing the joyless meals they’d seen on their travels, typically meagre vegetables and processed meats eaten cold out of lunchboxes.
A long-time resident of Germany reported that a colleague of theirs had the same lunch every single day: oatmeal mixed with low-fat yoghurt, plus half an apple and a carrot. ‘If such a meal is to extend life, what is the meaning of life?’
Many Chinese youths are now, ironically or otherwise, experimenting with ‘white people lunches’ of their own. Others theorise about what led the West to such pitiful meals. Perhaps we have relegated food to subsistence as opposed to pleasure? Perhaps it’s something to do with Christian guilt? Perhaps we don’t know any better? It’s a mystery.
Not since a Chinese businessman recoiled from the ‘putrefied discharge of a cow’s udder’ (ie blue cheese) served to him at a Michelin-starred restaurant have our culinary habits been served up to us with such a healthy dollop of defamiliarisation.
Now, I could discourse for a long time on the simple pleasures of a good ham sandwich; or a plate of crudités with mustardy vinaigrette; or a simple, perfect caprese salad. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that we British mocked the French for their fancy sauces as it was generally considered that our produce was so superior as not to require any embellishments.
These days, though, it’s more commonly British food that’s scorned for its blandness. So perhaps we should breathe a sigh of relief, for here we are, lumped in with the Italians, Australians and Swedes, as if we were all the same. Besides, how many of us would appreciate the finer differences between, say, Jiangsu and Szechuan cuisine? Not many, I fancy.
And here’s another little crunch of irony to savour. It’s common for us Westerners to characterise Chinese people as joyless workaholics. But in China, two-hour lunch breaks remain standard; workplaces are generally expected to have decent canteens serving hot food, which is eaten communally; and some even provide beds for post-prandial naps.
So, as Chinese youths ironically embrace our sad, lonely Tupperware lunches, perhaps we could turn, non- ironically, to Szechuan crab, dan dan mian, chicken rice, Peking duck and lashings of jiaozi – followed by a nice sleep. It seems like a good exchange. Richard Godwin