This artlcle focuses on the general aspects of eating in China. Read a detailed article on important table etiquette here.
Background on Dining
Meals are almost always communal. Chinese people see it as an opportunity to get together, socialize, trade stories, and “slowly eat”. Having a good time is always the goal – I don’t think I have ever been at a dinner table where there were bad vibes. Meals are also a popular way to network. I imagine a lot of business deals and contracts have been settled at the dinner table. Overall, it is a personal, lively, and loud experience.
In Mainland China, dishes of food and soups are ordered, placed around the table, and everyone eats from every dish. Sometimes there are serving spoons, but most of the time there will not be. This means that everyone will take food from Dish A, place it in their bowl, eat it, then repeat. If this disgusts you, re-think your trip. All I can say is, “when in Rome…”
Meals are scheduled on a more consistent basis in China. There are three meals a day, 8-9am, 12pm and 6pm (and sometimes the late-night BBQ run). Farmers eat twice a day, 10am and 4pm, so they can tend to the fields and animals. I rarely see Chinese people eat between meals (read, snacking) unless it means eating a pear, apple, etc. Learn to appreciate these meal times. You will undoubtedly feel like you’re eating too much food at first, but you’ll probably lose weight by the end of your trip.
A restaurant’s level of cleanliness varies in China. Obviously, some are clean, some are not. If you visit a normal restaurant, often times you will see paper wrappings, food, cigarette butts, and other garbage on the ground. But if you only eat at the 5-star places, you’ll miss out on a lot of good food. It is a toss up, and you should do whatever makes you feel comfortable.
I find that the little dives, with the little stools and dirty floors have some of the best food. If you have a guide, always ask for the local specialties and be sure to eat at the best local restaurant at least once, regardless of the appearance. In Yunnan, for example, the rice noodles (“mi xian” or me-shyen) is a great tasting popular dish that is served right on the street.
Eating from Street Vendors
Sometimes it is dirty, sometimes it is clean, and regardless, it usually tastes good. Use good judgement. If you are visiting for a short amount of time (two weeks or less) I would probably pass on eating from street vendors, mainly because your system will not be able fight off the bacteria that have been growing in that meat all day long. If you are in China for a year, I would say go for it. Also, these places usually have the hardcore selection that you won’t see at tourist places — pig brain, intestine, etc.
MSG, or “wei jing” is used as an ingredient in cooking over China. Say what you will about it, just know that you are going to be eating it. (I have to admit, food does taste better with it.) Good luck trying to ask the cooks not to use it. You could try “Bu yao fan wei jing”, or “Don’t cook with MSG.”
Though there are many vegetarian dishes to choose from, it is always going to be an uphill battle to not eat meat. And if you are vegan, I can say with confidence you are going to have a hard time eating in China. Don’t expect the grill that they used for your broccoli to be a vegetable-only grill, for example. Also, lard is a main ingredient in most of the vegetable soups.
Invited to Eat at Someone’s House
If you have the honor of being a guest in someone’s home, bring a gift with you (fruit, flowers, wine). After you arrive, you may be offered things like fruit, candy, or cigarettes before you eat. Tell the host thank you, and that you don’t want any (“Wo bu yao le, xie xie!”). Sometimes your host will start peeling a pear or apple and just hand it to you. If this happens, take it and eat it.
Things are chopped up in China so that you can handle food items with your chopsticks. That means that there will be bone fragments in that chopped up piece of chicken leg that just appeared in your bowl. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but just place the whole thing in your mouth (if it isn’t too big) and work away at it until you get most of the meat off. In most cities, it is accecptable to place the bones on the small plate in front of you. Depending on how nice the restaurant is, you can either put it nicely in the bowl in front of you, or you can spit it out on the floor. When in doubt, watch what others do with their bones and follow suit.
Spicy food is not prevalent in the Hong Kong (or Guangdong) region, in Beijing, or Shanghai. Henan, Sichuan, and Yunnan are known to use a lot of hot peppers in their cuisine. If you plan on eating spicy food (especially if you eat hot pot, which is oily and has an extra spicy dipping sauce) you should know that you probably will have to use the restroom shortly thereafter. This is not a sign of food poisoning — it is a sign of your body trying to process all those oils and firey hot peppers.
Also, make sure you ask for Coke, Sprite, or some juice as your insurance policy drink. If you’re not a seasoned veteran, that hot cup of tea on the table will only make matters worse after you accidentally chew into a hot pepper.
Never leave your chopsticks in the bowl (like you would do with a spoon in cereal). If you are not eating, they should be placed on top of the bowl. There used to be some serious etiquette about which way the chopsticks needed to point, but that is pretty dated. Just as long as they are evenly placed together and on top of your bowl, you are all set.
You may drop your chopsticks by accident. Regardless of how long it touched the table (or worse, floor), don’t even pick it up. As one of your servers to bring you a new pair.
If your chopstick skills are a little shakey, Chinese people won’t judge you on it. That means if you drop something as you are bring it back to your bowl, just say “whoops!” and leave it there.
It is okay to rub the chopsticks together to rid them of the fraying wood pieces. Do this only with the cheap ones. At a nice restaurant you don’t need to do this.