The lives of the Chens are decidedly food oriented. Food plays a central role in the social interactions of the characters in Sour Sweet, often acting as a conduit for expressing friendship and goodwill. For example, Lo was introduced to Mrs Law over a meal: "Everyone was happy. And the meal itself turned out to be a culinary as well as social success. Even if it had been rotten, it would hardly have mattered" (51). Similarly, in her letter to Lily, Mui expresses her gratitude towards Mrs Law by first mentioning that "Mrs Law is very kind to me. I eat rice four times a day with dishes of meat, chicken, fish and egg at every meal. Not to mention tea and savoury and sweetmeat snacks at odd times of the day as well as late at night, and plenty of fruit. I owe this kindness to Mrs Law" (199-200).
Food also serves as the setting in which issues of cross-cultural friendship and both cultural differences and affinities are raised:
Grandpa wished to give a feast for his new friends, rather like the entertainments he had given in the village. The mind boggled...ŚWhere can we get a pig to barbeque for you? How can you teach the Westerner to play mah jeuk ?'...ŚNo need for all that,' the old man said cheerfully. ŚWho needs pig or mah jeuk ? Just little-little to eat and drink. I smoke cigarette, foreign devil friend smokes pipe. Everyone happy.' (248).
The potential for bridging the gap between cultures is presented, but this cross-cultural exchange comes to an abrupt end when Grandpa reveals his true motive: to match his friends up with one of his handmade coffins! Although the possibility of an understanding between the east and west is ultimately called into question here, it seems that there can be some kind of solidarity among the immigrants; once again, food serves as a useful metaphor: "The beans are easy to get here. They come from Japan.
-- From Japan! But they taste just like Chinese red-beans!
-- Of course, Husband. Beans are beans. What a loud belch, Husband! (112).
Elsewhere in Sour Sweet, we find Chen in a friendly conspiracy with a West Indian bus conductor, "an unspoken complicity between himself and others like him, not necessarily of his race," (1) and Man Kee's friends at school are Indians.