The Chinese Eating Customs series will focus on eating habits, traditions, and important food facts in China.
In Part. 1, we talk about 5 customs that you may encounter at a meal in a Chinese restaurant or in a Chinese friend’s home, and how you can impress with your knowledge of Chinese food culture.
1. Food is served communally
In China, dishes are placed at the centre of the table and every guest will eat from this variety of plates. This is in strong contrast to Irish culture, where each person eats from their own plate which, at the beginning of the meal, is already covered with food. In a Chinese restaurant, the dishes will often be placed on a rotating platform which is known as a Lazy Susan. A place setting for an everyday meal includes a bowl of fan (rice), a pair of chopsticks, a flat-bottomed soupspoon, and a saucer. Instead of a napkin, a hot towel is often provided at the end of the meal for the diner to wipe his hands and mouth.
Meat and vegetable dishes are laid out all at once in the center of the table, and each diner eats directly from the communal plates using their chopsticks. The saucer is not used for serving yourself a personal portion of food, but rather for placing bones and shells or as a area to place some food if it is too large to eat all at once. It is expected, if their is no Lazy Susan, that each diner will reach across the table to take a morsel from the furthest dishes. To make it easier to eat from all dishes, Chinese dining tables are more likely to be square or round, rather than long such as in the West.
2. Different seated positions for different guests
If a Chinese dinner has been arranged in a restaurant, the host will usually sit facing the entrance to the room/restaurant. The most important guest will then be seated to the host’s left, especially if it is a foreign guest as this is something that would be expected in the West. From then on, the guests are seated according to seniority and status.
3. Making a Toast
Regardless of what your position at the table is, and especially if you are a guest of honour, you may be expected to make at least one toast during the meal. The person who makes the toast stands first, gives the toast, and then drinks to everybody’s health. You will often hear the words ‘Gan Bei’ (干杯!) before everybody drinks. This expression means ‘Cheers!’ or, more literally, ‘Bottoms Up!’.
4. Your Turn to Pour The Tea
It’s expected that you will take your turn to learn over and fill your fellow-diners’ tea cups. When tea is poured for you, it is considered polite to tap your fingers gently on the table as an expression of thanks. This custom survives to this day in China and Hong Kong as a silent token of thanks for the gesture.
5. Time to Leave
The end of the meal is often dictated by the guest of honour, and is signified by the guest rising up out of their seat. In past times, the host would often wait as long as it took for the guest to rise out of their seat, regardless of whether or not they understood this custom. Nowadays, however, the host will usually give an appropriate, discreet hint to the guest of honour that the meal has come to and end.
In a restaurant, the signs that a meal is ending are often more obvious. Fruit will be brought to the table and fresh towels will be provided for wiping mouths and hands.
Part. 2 of the Chinese Eating Customs series will focus on a number of eating faux-pas which you must avoid when dining with the Chinese.