As a foreigner it can be difficult to get a handle on the nuances and intricacies of Chinese culture, but if you’re looking to improve your knowledge and fit in with the locals you’ve come to the right place! Each month I’ll be giving you the low-down on a different aspect of Chinese culture to help expats like myself integrate more with the people of Wuhan, experience all that life in China has to offer, and most importantly avoid causing offence accidentally. Since food and dining is a huge part of the Chinese way of life we’ll begin with table manners and eating etiquette in China….
When dining out in western countries it is considered the norm to order your own meal and stick to your plate, but in China, it’s all about sharing. When out with a group of friends it’s common to order a selection of five or six dishes so that everyone can try a bit of everything. You’ll usually get your own small bowl of rice, and then you can pick and choose what you like from the other meals around the table. This is made more convenient to many restaurants by round tables with a raised platform in the centre that spins the dishes round, so you don’t have to reach over anyone to pick out meat or vegetables with your chopsticks.
2Out of Order
Another thing that may shock foreigners dining out in China is that the courses do not arrive in a set order. If you try to order a small meal as an appetiser and then the main course you may receive the main course first, or both together, as Chinese food culture does not use the western idea of three courses. It is also common to be served things most foreigners would consider dessert, such as fruit, at the same time as the rest of the meal. Though this appears strange at first, I must say I’ve gotten used to being able to cleanse my palette with watermelon or orange between trying different savoury dishes – it’s also especially nice to cool your mouth after a bite of something spicy! The Chinese also consider the meat, vegetables and seafood as the best part of the meal, so in some cases, you will only be given rice at the end of the meal to fill you up if you aren’t yet full from the other dishes.
3Paying and Ordering
Often in western restaurants, you can have a frustrating time trying to catch the eye of a waitress or waiter to make your order or pay your bill. This is not necessary in China as it is socially acceptable to call the waitress over to your table. When I first came to China I was scared to do this, as in England it would be considered very rude, but after seeing that my Chinese friends did this with no problems I realised it’s fine to do it here.
Though I still cringe sometimes when I hear someone shout “fuwuyuan!” I can’t deny that it’s efficient. Paying for your meal is also a little different in China – in western countries it is usual to split the bill with friends and have everyone pay an equal share. However, in China, the host or organiser of the meal will usually pay, and if you are the guest of some friends or colleagues they will insist on footing the bill, however, hard you try to pay! This is a way of showing that they are a good host to their friends or that they are treating you as part of the family.
4Crunch Those Bones!
In China, it is more common to serve meat and fish on the bone than with the bones removed. This is because cooking the meat in this way retains more flavour and nutrients from the bones, just like when you use bones in boiling vegetable broth to add a meaty flavour. At first, this was difficult for me to get used to, especially with the small bones in fish which I find unpleasant. I was also unsure what to do with the bone once I’d eaten the meat from it. However, I came to realise that it is fine to simply put the bones to the side of your plate or bowl, and you will not be seen as creating a mess. The same goes for large pieces of chilli, which you will often see people pick out with chopsticks and put to one side.
I have also met many people who have given up on trying to remove all the small bones from their meal, and simply crunch through them! Though this method obviously doesn’t appeal to all, eating the marrow inside bones actually provides some good health benefits.
5Soup and Slurping
Another nice touch to dining in China is that you are often served a bowl of soup with your meal. This is because the Chinese like to drink hot water and hot soups to keep healthy. It’s also nice to add some of the soup to plain rice to give it a little sauce and flavour. In western culture, it’s considered impolite to make slurping noise as you eat soup, but in China it is the opposite – slurping noises show that you have enjoyed the food and are seen as a compliment, so don’t worry that your appreciative noises will offend anyone! It’s also ok to lift your bowl and drink the last of the soup at the bottom.
When using chopsticks never use one at a time to spear pieces of food, and when you aren’t using your chopsticks lay them flat side by side on your plate or bowl. Though it may seem logical to stick your chopsticks standing straight down in your rice, this is considered a little offensive and unlucky. This is because this specific placement of the chopsticks is reminiscent of the incense sticks the Chinese traditionally burn in veneration of deceased loved ones. Also, try to avoid picking up and dropping many pieces of food before taking it, eye up one easy-shaped piece to grab and go for it!
7Face your Fears
As foreigners, many of the foods, and especially delicacies, in China appear strange or even a little disgusting. But if you want to avoid offending your host it’s best to give it a try and dig in – you may even find that you like something you would never have considered eating before.
During one of my first meals in China, one of my colleagues fished out the chicken foot from a soup and offered it to me, as the foot is seen as a delicacy and so is offered to the guest. I have also been given things like spicy frog’s legs, hairy crabs, stinky tofu, and duck neck pieces, which are all considered delicious by Wuhan locals. Though the frog was way too spicy for me I am now a big fan of tofu and duck neck, and I am still hoping to try the classic bird’s nest soup someday!
8Grab a Doggy-bag
If you go out for a meal with a group of friends in China they’ll often order so many dishes that even all of you together can’t finish them. This means a lot of good food left over. Since in England you cannot really ask to take food home from a restaurant without embarrassment, I spent my first few months in China letting all those good leftovers go to waste. But after spending time dining out with friends it became clear that it’s not awkward to ask to take food home from a restaurant here. Simply as for the food “dabao” (packed) and you’ll be able to enjoy the leftovers for your meals the next day. Like in America, the portion sizes in China are quite large so there’s usually plenty to take home, which is perhaps why both countries’ people see it as perfectly fine to ask for a “doggy-bag.”.
9Don’t Finish Everything
A finished plate in the west signifies that you’ve enjoyed your meal, and as children, we are always told “clean your plate”, but this mentality can lead to problems in China. If you go to someone’s house for dinner and clear your plate, this shows that you are not yet full or completely satisfied. This will lead the host to bring you more dishes or offer you rice or fruits whilst you try to explain that you really are very full. To avoid this, always try to leave a little rice or something in the bottom of your bowl to demonstrate that you can’t eat another bite, and make sure to tell your host how much you liked the food and thank them for their hospitality.
You will also become familiar with the word “ganbei” (similar to “cheers” or “to make a toast”). Chinese friends will fill your glass and say ganbei, which means cheers and that you should down your drink. Don’t be surprised if your glass if refilled instantly, and be prepared to do many rounds to bond with your hosts. This is often done with baijiu, a kind of Chinese liquor which is very strong. So try to keep up for as long as you can, but be careful as most baijiu brands are at least 40% vol, and can go disastrously for foreigners drinking it for the first time! You may also be offered cigarettes, and if you like to smoke it’s ok to smoke at the table in most restaurants in China (although make sure to check if the non-smokers in your group mind before lighting up).