Chi le ma?

by Morgan O’Hara, General Manager

Beijing can come off as an imposing, impenetrable metropolis. There are days when the grit, the cold, the clatter, and the pollution get to you. For me, the city’s saving grace is the xiaoqu (小区). The xiaoqu is the apartment complex, of which there are thousands upon thousands, many with decrepit exteriors, but all fitted with gathering areas, central gardens, mom and pop shops, and squads of elderly locals practicing their synchronized exercise routines. The xiaoqu adds a very human element to China’s capital. Walking with my baby daughter in our xiaoqu is always a highlight of my day. I stroll her around, hold my wife’s hand, smile at neighbors and say hello. My greeting is always the same: chi le ma (吃了吗)? The translation is: “Have you eaten?” In reality, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have. The expression is a sign of affection and care, and always elicits a warm smile and response.

In a larger context, Chinese cuisine is such a meaningful window unto Chinese culture. I find the easiest way to make friends across provinces is to tell locals how delicious their region’s specialties are. There is no need to fib – they are always delicious. The compliments spark conversation. The conversation leads to stories, and perhaps drinks. Acquaintances and friendships are formed. In a land as vast and diverse as China, food truly brings people together.

In our courtyard, we love to see the glow of our guests’ smiles shine up our kitchen, and to see them walk out of our hutong doors on full stomachs, with the culinary and cultural knowledge to make delicious Chinese dishes and tell their story. If we have done our job, there is no need to say 吃了吗. It is an expression that is communicated in every step of our culinary experiences. But as a reminder, we have still plastered 吃了吗 on our courtyard staircase, on our business cards, and on our t-shirts. And though the beautiful stylized characters are courtesy of our designer, the message remains simple: one of affection and care.