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Chinese food

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

For chinese people food is extremly important. When you meet someone, the first question you are asked is: "Chifan le ma? (Have you already eaten today?).

Chinese people eat almost everything. From plants they use root, seeds, leaves and stems. From animals they use meat, crawls and entrails. A colleague told me once that he eats everything that flys (except planes) and everything that has four legs (except tables).

chinese cuisines

Also it might be obvious, one should mention that chinese food served in western restaurants is very different from the real chinese food. Furthermore, if you think about the size of this country and the number of chinese people it is needles to say that there is not one kind of chinese food but several main schools. One might group them into four categories:

  • Beijing-Shandong (northern cuisine), hearty meals with onions and garlic, no rice but pasta
  • Sichuan-Hunan (western cuisine), hot and spicy, seasoned with chili powder
  • Huaiyang-Shanghai (eastern cuisine), nice looking, colorful, sweet, oily seafood
  • Cantonese (southern cuisine), less oily, various vegetables fried in a wok

Scince people from all over the country moved to Beijing, you will find restaurants serving food from all of these categories. While Beijing-Shandong cuisine is most famous for Peking Duck, Cantonese cuisine is most famous for 'fight between dragon and snake' (cat and snake meat).


the famous wangfujin snack street, where street food vendors sell all kinds of different treats

restaurants and street food vendors

me-and-my-colleauges-at-dinnerChinese people love to buy food at street food vendors. Especially in summer you can grab a snack there and buy some freshly sliced fruits as desert. However, on fridays and saturdays evening young people love to eat out in small restaurants. When you want to know, which restaurants and bars are famous, check out "the beijinger". Actually, if somebody tells you he is going to a party, he probably means he is going to meat some friends in a restaurant (or in a karaoke bar). Unlike westeners, for chinese customers everthing that counts is the quality of the food. So the restaurants for the ordinary chinese people are very humble and look like a cafeteria. Waiters do not speak english and there is not always an english menu available. However, people are very friendly and when other customers notice that you have problems ordering dinner, they will order something for you.

Table manners

When people eat in a restaurant or at home, they place the food for all of their guests in the middle of the table. From there you can grab anything you like and put it into your small bowl. The bowl is however so small that you have to pick almost every piece of food at the time, when you want to eat it. So basically you eat straight from the table. The advantage is that you will never take too much food and realize later that you cannot eat everything. Additionally your food is at the end of the meal still hot and has not become cold (as on the large and flat dishes used in western cultures.) The disadvantage is that after the meal the table can look very untidy.

eating with chopsticks

When you go to china you should be able to eat with chopsticks. If you cannot eat with them, you may want to ask for fork and knife (ni gei wo daocha ma?). Probably they will not have a fork, so you might get a spoon instead.

Sometimes eating with chopsticks can be quite frustrating and you might want to pick up something with your fingers. However, you should not abandon yourself on this impulse. Generally speaking you should avoid touching food with your hands at all costs. It is just not very polite to do so in public and many chinese people think that chopsticks can pretty much take the place of fingers (no matter what). So when eating fish in a restaurant they even use chopsticks to take fishbones out of there mouth.

Finally, when you are eating with chopsticks, but are not using them for the moment, you can lay them across your bowl or besides you. It does not really matter where (in most cases), but what you should never do is stick them into your bowl. This is seen as quite offensive and means that you wish ill to your host.

paying and tipping

From time to time you may observe guests fighting ferociously with each other and the waiter. However, there is no reason to be alarmed. This is part of chinese culture. Every guest wants (or wants to give the impression) that he is well off and that he can pay for the others. This sounds strange to w.e.i.r.d. people (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic), but on the other hand tipping for good service is as ridiculous (at least to most chinese people).

In general, tipping in a restaurant is not the norm and waiters will probably give the money back to you. If you really can not help it and do not want to leave without tipping the waiter, please ask if they are aloud to take money.
"wo ke yi gei ni xiao fei?"

I have seen a girl got sacked by the owner, since an american woman thrust a tip on her. If you are invited to a meal, do not tip the waiter. It would be most offensive to the host.

my favorite dish - hot pot

My favorite kind of chinese food is hot pot. In China hot pot is often eaten in winter. To cook hot pot you will need a large pot and something to heat the pot on the dinning table (mobile ovens, alcohol burner, gas burner, fondue set....) You put the pot onto the dinning table and when the guests arrive you start to boil water in the pot and add spices for a nice soup. Check out your local store, they usually sell two kinds of hot pot mixtures - one salty and the other one spicy. Then you have to prepare various dishes of thinly sliced fish and vegetables.
You can add:

  • vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, chinese cabbage, sweet potato, ginger, onions, garlic, beam sprouts, coriander...
  • rice noodles, dumplings...
  • tofu, salmon, calamari, shirmp ...

When the soup is hot you can add the dishes to the soup and because they are so thinly sliced they cook within minutes. After a few minutes you have to fish out everything you added and share it out. You can also dip into delicious sesame sauce, soy sauce, peanut sauce.... This might sound very complicated to you, but is is a really social kind of eating experience. As you wait for the food to cook you have enough time to chat with your guests and the meal goes on for hours. Here you find additional information about cooking hot pot.