Eating and food are at the very center of the Chinese cultural experience. In fact, until recently, the phrase “have you eaten yet?” was a fairly standard greeting among friends. Contrary to what your last experience at Panda Express would lead you to believe, Chinese food is delicious and exquisitely prepared. It is also incredibly diverse. In some ways the term “Chinese food” is somewhat misleading, since each Chinese province has a distinct culinary tradition. Sichuan food and Beijing food are about as different from each other as Italian food is from Mexican food and differences in regional cuisines spark fierce debates among Chinese people over who’s got the most delicious noodles, seafood, hotpot, dumplings etc.
For the lucky traveler, this means you will never run out of new and interesting dishes to try, but before you go stuffing your face with all the gongbaojiding you can lay your chopsticks on, there are few useful things to know for your first Chinese dining experience.
Unlike in the West where each person orders their own dish, most Chinese meals are served “family-style” meaning that diners order several dishes to share with the whole table. The main advantage with family-style meals is that everybody gets to try a little of everything. Some restaurants may provide larger “serving chopsticks” which you can use to move food on to your plate before eating with your personal chopsticks while other restaurants allow you to simply grab food directly. If you’re not sure about the serving etiquette, just watch what the other people at your table do and follow their lead. When serving yourself food, be sure to take a small portion of each dish at first to allow others a chance to try it. After everyone has gotten a taste of everything, it’s alright to focus in on the dishes you really like so long as nobody else is also gunning for them.
Many Chinese people have a cultural preference for drinking hot water which is believed to be “healthier” than drinking cold water. This can be surprising for Westerners who enjoy frosty beverages with glacier-sized chunks of ice. Other drinks such as Coke and Sprite may also be served in lukewarm cans. If you want a cold beverage you may need to specify this to your server beforehand.
Probably the most obvious difference between Chinese and Western dining habits is the choice of utensil. Chopsticks can be challenging for those who have limited experience with them and even seasoned pros may find certain foods like chicken drumsticks and soft tofu challenging to eat with chopsticks. While some restaurants can probably provide you with a fork and knife upon request, many will not have Western utensils available. If you’re a chopstick noobie, it might be worth practicing a bit before you depart for China. If not…well it’s not a bad way to lose weight! Remember not to leave your chopsticks sticking vertically out of a bowl of food since this is usually seen as an offering to the dead.
Chinese food, particularly dishes from Sichuan and Hunan, can be mind-blowingly spicy. This might sound like a dream come true to some, but for the uninitiated it can be a lot to handle. The good news is that as a foreigner, Chinese people will usually assume that you have an extremely low spice tolerance and will recommend milder dishes or at least warn you before you cram a load of peppers into your mouth. If you’re confident that you can handle it, you can let your hosts know that you don’t mind eating spicy foods and ask them to crank up the heat. If you’re not sure about the relative spiciness of the dish, just ask or try a small bite to test it.
Generosity, especially when it comes to food, is a major part of Chinese hospitality. Invariably, your host will order more food than the table could possibly eat and urge you to eat as much as you can. Your host will also likely encourage you to keep eating even after you are full. This sort of pressure might seem uncomfortable to Westerners especially if your host keeps insisting that you continue to eat. If you encounter this situation, keep in mind that this is a common part of the Chinese dinner ritual. Traditional courtesy dictates that a host offers food to his/her guest several times and that the guest refuse several times before everyone leaves the table. When dining in China, eat your fill, but do not feel pressured to eat more than is comfortable. You will not hurt your host’s feelings if you don’t finish every last morsel of food.
Most visitors to China are bowled over by the incredible variety of food they encounter. Hopefully your culinary odyssey will lead you to discover new flavors and favorite dishes during your time in the Middle Kingdom. However, it’s inevitable that you won’t love absolutely everything you try. If there is something that you don’t eat at home (e.g. you’re a vegetarian or have certain food allergies) be sure to let your host know in advance. If your host orders something that seems unfamiliar or just plain weird (think chicken feet, stinky tofu, organ stew etc.), we recommend that you take a bite, make an honest assessment about how it tastes and proceed accordingly. If you like it, great! You’ve learned something about yourself. If you don’t, well, at least you gave it a try. Your host will probably have a general idea of what Westerners like and dislike and is unlikely to intentionally try to gross you out, but it doesn’t hurt to be adventurous with your food while in China. Your host will certainly appreciate you making an honest effort to try unfamiliar foods.
Generally speaking, Chinese table etiquette isn’t especially strict or exacting and as a foreigner, nobody is going to yell at you for making a minor faux pas over dinner. Having said that, there are a few polite gestures you can practice to impress your hosts. The first one to remember is that the most senior person sits facing the door, so if you want to be extra courteous, you won’t take that seat for yourself or at least politely resist attempts to seat you there. Secondly, although most dishes arrive relatively quickly, it is polite to wait until the host invites you to begin eating before you dig in. Next, when clinking glasses during a toast, the person of lower status will make sure the rim of their glass stays lower than that of the senior person. Finally, do not use your chopsticks to dig around in a dish to find something in specific as this is considered impolite. Again, nobody is going to think you’re an uncultured barbarian if you make a mistake at the dinner table, but a basic understanding of Chinese table manners is helpful nonetheless.
Food is easily one of the highlights of any trip to China, so enjoy! The sheer variety of delicious delicacies on offer is enough to make you want to tear up your return ticket and start a new life across the street from your favorite baozi place. As with every new cultural experience, approach dining in China with an open mind and an adventurous spirit and you’re sure to find something you like.