Chinese Food – An Eye-Opening Experience!
Most people love Chinese food and it’s not hard to see why. Wherever there’s a Chinese community in a city, there will also be several Chinese restaurants. While the popularity of wantons and egg fried rice is undeniable, there’s also a new wave of restaurants in foreign countries creating fusion food, carefully blending Chinese flavours with a country’s traditional cuisine.
You might think that eating in a Chinese restaurant makes you an expert in Chinese cuisine, but if you take a trip to China, you’ll quickly discover the differences in tastes and dishes, even if you’re ordering the same thing. A country’s cuisine tells us a lot about its culture and there’s arguably none richer or more diverse than that of the Chinese.
Every country has its own set of unwritten rules when it comes to dining. China, being one of the oldest countries in the world, is a traditionalist. Despite the modernity and westernization that you can see in its sprawling metropole, elders and young ones still follow their traditions.
1. Seating Protocol
If you’re a guest at a Chinese table, be sure to pay particular attention to your appearance. Bringing good wine or small gift will demonstrate how deep your relationship is with your host. It’s also necessary to be punctual. You can either introduce yourself or allow the host to introduce you, however, do wait to be seated.
In China, the host, the special guest, or the most senior (in age and position) should be seated first. If they’re not yet seated, you have to remain standing. It’s the same when eating. You must wait until the seniors start eating before you do the same, even if your nose is twitching and your stomach grumbling from the delicious aromas of the good food on the table. Sometimes, you’ll hear the most senior say “let’s eat” before you can begin.
2. Rice Bowl
The bowl of rice should be held by the left hand, the thumb resting near the mouth of the bowl and the other fingers supporting the side and bottom of the bowl, and not your palm. It’s impolite to bend over your bowl. Moreover, bending while eating will compress your stomach and restrict your digestion.
The chopsticks are held in the right hand (unless you’re left-handed). In a shared meal, rice is served individually in small bowls, while the vegetable and meat dishes are placed on serving bowls or plates in the middle of the table.
You might have seen several movies showing local restaurant scenes where diners talk loudly and slurp their food as quickly as possible. On the contrary, dining with Chinese people requires exhibition of proper table manners.
Take food from the serving plates in front of you rather than from the middle of the table, or from plates that are far from you. You should also never use your chopsticks to dig through the food. Usually serving plates are placed on a lazy Susan, so you just have to wait your turn. Always be considerate of others when dining in China.
When removing inedible parts from ingredients, or bones from your mouth, use your chopsticks or your fingers and put them on a side plate. Use napkin or tissue to wipe or remove food from your mouth instead of your tongue.
An elder or the host may add rice to your bowl or place food on your plate. This means that they consider you a friend you so you should give thanks.
4. Appreciation for Tea
A serving of tea is part of Chinese dining. Tea is normally served as soon as you are seated, with a server pouring the tea for you. Afterwards the teapot is left with you and you can serve yourself.
Show your appreciation for the server who’s pouring you tea by tapping your index and middle fingers two or three times on the table.
It’s also an indication that enough tea has been poured in your cup.
Chopsticks should be put on their holders when not in use. They are not to be waved around in the air, played with, or used to stab food. It’s also very bad manners to stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. Instead, allow them to rest over the bowl.
Use a serving spoon or serving chopsticks to transfer food from the serving plate onto your own plate. If you’re not adept at using chopsticks, it is better to request a spoon and fork rather than risk dropping food onto the table.
A table knife is not used in Chinese restaurants as it’s considered a violent thing. This is one of the reasons why Chinese dishes are very tender and ingredients are cut into small, bite-size pieces.
6. Chinese Food
Now we’ve come to the fun part – having a taste of authentic Chinese dishes. China’s regions have different cooking styles, ingredients and specializations, which in itself is a pleasurable (and very filling) adventure. Chinese dishes are already well seasoned, so no pepper or saltshakers are on the table. However, it is usual to find chilli paste, vinegar and soy sauce.
Here are some things to remember. All vegetables are cooked. Vegetables are never just boiled in water in China. Bones in meat and fish are not removed. Some of the ingredients used in Chinese cuisine are rarely seen in cuisines from the West, such as lotus pods, tree fungi, yams and winter melons. Chinese cooks often use dried or fresh spices, such as chilies, garlic, pepper, mint, spring onion and ginger.
Chinese food can be categorized based on the region where the cuisine originates. The foods in Eastern China are predominantly light and sweet. Those from Central China have plenty of seasoning. They’re also quite spicy.
In the region of Western China where most are Chinese Muslims, you’ll find halal food, with lamb as the main ingredient. In Northern China, the cuisine uses less vegetables and the cooking method is simple, although the food tends to be salty.
Chinese Food by Region
Northern China includes Inner Mongolia, Xi’an and Beijing. Cuisine here is a bit salty and doesn’t have too many vegetables, with simpler cooking preparation. Beijing, being the capital, inherited the tradition of royal cuisine from the imperial kitchens. Most famous of course is the Peking Roast Duck. Shandong on the other hand is known for its seafood dishes. Chefs in Shandong are very particular when preparing creamy soups and clear broths.
This region is popular for its fish and seafood with light and sweet flavors. This is the region where Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong belong. Most of you will be familiar with Cantonese cuisine, which has mild flavours, very fresh and natural ingredients and less spices. Sweet sauces are part of Eastern Chinese cuisine. Cantonese cuisine is the most widely served type of Chinese cuisine worldwide. The most popular is dim sum (steamed or fried dumplings). Fujian cuisine meanwhile is known for its sweet and sour taste. Less salt is used on ingredients coming from the mountains and the sea. The area is famous for its beautiful culinary art, broths and soups, and the fine slicing techniques used for food presentation. The cuisine in Taiwan is very much like Fujian cuisine. Anhui cuisine employs native style of cooking, using wild ingredients harvested from the mountains. Chefs here are experts at controlling cooking time and moderating heat when cooking. Jiangsu cuisine includes ingredients coming from its freshwater and saltwater sources. Their various cooking methods and delicate and precise carving techniques add more than just fresh and natural flavours to their dishes.
Western Chinese regions such as Gansu, Tibet and Xinjiang are known for their ethnic and halal food. Tibetan cuisine is a mix of flavours and cooking styles borrowed for Sichuan, Indian and Nepalese cuisines.
This is the hottest and spiciest dishes in China are those served in Central China, particularly in Sichuan and the regions of Hunan and Chongqing. Sichuan cuisine is known for its liberal use of chilli peppers, garlic and the unique spiciness of the local peppercorns. The degree of numbing spiciness increases if you’re in Hunan, which is also known for its sour food, as pickles very popular here.
There are so many facets of China that are worth exploring, but one of the best ways to learn about its rich culture and language is through its food. The West may only know about dim sum, chow mien, egg fried rice and Peking duck, but visit the country and you’ll discover an entirely different world, where almost everything is about food.
Bernadine is a senior writer for Day Translations, Inc. She brings with her a wealth of experience earned from her extensive travels abroad. Writing is her passion and she started seriously pursuing her passion further after taking early retirement from her post in an international development organization.
She’s creative, imaginative, a dog-lover, a super-mom and always willing to lend an ear or a shoulder to a friend.
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