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Surviving in China- Food

October 5, 2008

For many foreigners visiting China for the first time, eating can be the most disturbing and disorientating of prospects. Aside from concerns (often unwarranted) about freshness and hygiene, or a pathological terror of using chopsticks, Chinese food can be pretty weird by our standards, and a far cry from the Kung Po chicken and sizzling beef with which we are bombarded at home. The mere names of dishes such as ‘Thousand Year Old Eggs’, ‘Husband and Wife Lung Slices’ or ‘Dog and Dofu Soup’ may well be enough to turn your stomach, but the good news is that Chinese cuisine is as varied as European, so you need not starve during your time in Asia.

As for table etiquette, this can be an immensely complicated matter, as one might expect in a country with such a long and rich cultural history. The good news is that as an outsider really can get away with just about anything; Chinese people will be very forgiving of your blundering foreignness, and so long as you try to copy what others around you do you are unlikely to cause great offence. The flip side of this is of course that you must forgive habits that to you may seem unusual or rude. Speaking with your mouth full, smoking at the table and even spitting out food are widely considered acceptable behaviour, all practices likely to horrify the western visitor.

The key point to remember is to keep an open mind and be prepared to try dishes that may seem completely alien. One facet of the famous Chinese hospitality is to treat guests to as lavish a reception as can be managed. To this end you may well find your host plying you with every strange creature that ever crept or flew upon the earth. Do not be down heartened! The best approach in such circumstances is to smile, laugh about the contrast with your typical meat-and-two-veg, and try to enjoy as much of the meal as possible. How better to win friends among your Chinese hosts?

  • Be aware of seating plans. At banquets and business dinners there will be a clear hierarchy of seats with the most important person, usually the host, facing the door. As a foreign guest you will probably be steered firmly to the place at which you belong, but you should certainly never barge in and seat yourself wherever you please.
  • Be wary of the heat! When you are asked if you can eat spicy food it is wise to tone down your response, regardless of your capacity for curry. Chinese chilli is qualitatively different to that found in Indian cuisine and can catch visitors by surprise.
  • If you really can’t stomach something that is offered you it is best to say “I am allergic” or “My doctor says I can’t” rather than that you don’t like it, as that way you may well just be forced to try it anyway. Always be consistent in your dislikes; saying you can’t touch seafood at one banquet and then wolfing it down the next day will make you seem dishonest.
  • Spit your food out on the table! This tip should not be taken too literally, but the table is the place where inedible remains like bones, fish skin and lumps of ginger ought to be deposited. The key point is that to be polite, food should always be removed from the mouth with your chopsticks, not your fingers.
  • Know when to waste. You should never finish off every last bit of food on the table; this embarrasses the host as he appears mean for not having ordered enough. Many westerners find it hard to come to terms with the sheer volume of food wasted at Chinese banquets. However, you should not leave any food in your individual bowl as this is seen as wasteful. In childhood Chinese girls are often warned that if they do not empty their rice bowls they will get an ugly husband!
  • If you are a vegetarian it is best to say you cannot eat meat for religious reasons. There is a long history of Buddhist vegetarianism in China, and this excuse is the most likely way to avoid any extra mince or lard. Chinese chefs often use a little bit of meat to add flavour to vegetable dishes and objecting to eating meat for humanitarian reasons is still not widely understood.
  • Try to use your chopsticks. When tackling particularly slippery or unwieldy foods, such as tofu or large bones, it is often acceptable to use your spoon or your hands, but at other times you will need to get the hang of your kuaizi. Individual pieces of food should be taken from the communal plates in the middle and put straight in the mouth or briefly into your individual bowl; food is not spooned into your bowl as in the West. Don’t worry too much about making a mess with your chopsticks – eating is not a tidy business in China and you will make friends everywhere simply for having a go.
  • One last thing- a chopstick is an eating implement. It is not, repeat NOT a drumstick, plaything, pointer, tool for emphasising a point or anything else. You use them to put food in your mouth. I have lost count of how many times I have seen westerners playing the drums with their chopsticks or pointing them at people. Not not do it, don’t even think about it and if you can’t resist, please imagine if you took a Chinese guest to Petrus and they drummed their knife and fork on the table constantly, how would you feel?
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