Chinese cuisine is one of the most diverse in the world. The different regions that make up China bring different local ingredients, culinary techniques and flavors. Many foreigners expect, upon their arrival in China, an unlimited supply of spring rolls, chicken and fortune cookies, but the reality is that all types of cuisines are served in major cities, making available to visitors and residents foods from almost every corner of the planet.
However when experiencing local restaurants and cuisines for the first time, one come across several differences that could be considered part of a greater culture shock, if it wasn’t because of how easy one grows into them, as the Chinese are passionate foodies and have got eating down to an art form.
- Communal style of dinning as a rule. And this is truly a very efficient way to get familiar with the cuisine. When dinning out in China,you will experience five, six, seven different dishes commonly shared amongst guests, having a clear idea of what the type of cuisine is all about by the end of the meal. If you’re not so keen into sharing, wait until you’re facing the Lazy Susan filled with tempting choices, and you will.
- Manners are something else: While basic etiquette rules such as waiting for others to begin eating before you do, remain present. Some others might throw you off. For example making noise while eating your noodles is considered a sign of enjoyment, and thus not viewed as something rude. While you might want to accept anything others want you to try, you don’t have to leave your dish clean. In fact, up to recently, an unfinished plate was seen as a sign of wealth and power.
- Chinese food is spicy. Isn’t it? Well the truth is it’s really up to the cuisine you try. While on a general basis there is a certain propensity to spiciness than in our western cuisine, it really depends. One night you could be having an extremely spicy hot-pot Sichuan style, the next you could have Guangdong cuisine which tends to be rather sweet! So if your worry was spending your first week of China in the bathroom, calm down, you can avoid it. Occasional indisposition is almost bound to happen at one point of another tho, if you’re the adventurous kind
- Drinking: Tea is the most common drink to accompany a meal, followed by beer. Toasts are often done several times during a meal, and it would be considered rule to refuse them. Don’t be shocked if when asking to get a glass of water, it comes hot. In Chinese culture cold drinks are believed to be bad for digestion of hot foods, so they are used to drinking hot water, and will assume this is what you want unless told otherwise.
- Meals do not typically end with a sweet dessert. Dessert as we know it is not a common practice. Yet sweet dishes are often introduced in the middle of the meal, making no distinction at all.
The point is, the culture shock we talk about will most likely be an enjoyable one. Chinese restaurants offer meals for as little as ten to twenty RMB, or less than two to four euros. This makes eating out so convenient you’ll spend several nights a week eating with friends, dates or co-workers. Every time the food will be different and surprising, so don’t hesitate to come to China to enjoy one of the most enriching experiences of your life (and not just for your palate!).