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8 Things You Need To Know About Chinese Food & Drinking Culture

By OIB | 12/15/2014
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By Chef Meng

I remember one of my family’s American friend came to visit us in China. We went to a hot pot restaurant. When the food was ready, he was hesitant to start eating because he had no idea where and how to start. He said :” You guys go ahead first. I need to observe for a while.” If you ever get a chance to visit China or going to dinner with Chinese people, the following rules might be helpful to you:

  1. Let the elderly or the guests start first.
  2. It’s considered polite to ask the elderly people or the guests to start eating first. After they have one bite, you can start right afterwards. Respecting the elderly is important in Chinese education and parts of Chinese people’s lives, including at the dinner table.

  3. Besides drinking soup, use chopsticks for all dishes.
  4. This is a great challenge for a lot of foreigners. Some restaurants don’t provide foxes or knives, so you really don’t have any choice. I would suggest my foreign friends start practicing by picking up peanuts or M&Ms. Using chopsticks for noodles is a hard one. Rice, also. Luckily, you can enjoy your soup with a spoon.

  5. Where you sit matters.
  6. This causes lots of headache. It’s even confusing to me because different regions in China might have different rules. But most of the cases, a lot of restaurants have private rooms with round tables. The one who sits right facing the door of a private room is considered the host. The one who sits on his/her left is the main guest, and the ones sitting on the right are secondary guests. What I normally do is that I wait until everyone else decides on their own seatings. Therefore, I don’t have to ask where I should sit.

  7. All the food is shared; No need to order your own food.
  8. Normally, it’s the host who order the food for all. If you have any particular interests or requirements, you can privately discuss with the host. All the food will be presented on the center of the table for everyone to reach. Unlike eating in American restaurants, you won’t have your own dish served in front of you. You have to share with everyone else. Good news: most menus have pictures on them! Even though you don’t know any Chinese, you can still order.

  9. Tea is necessary. Cold water? Nope.
  10. Cold water is never served in Chinese restaurants in China unless you ask for it. Normally, tea is a must. It is usually served when all the guests come in before they order their food.

  11. Chinese alcohol = Baijiu. You are expected to get drunk at the dinner table.
  12. There’s mainly one type of alcohol in China called “Baijiu”, which can also be translated into “white wine.” Usually, it is a strong distilled spirit, about 40–60% alcohol by volume (ABV). Baijiu is transparent and made of rice.

    Chinese drinking culture is interesting. For businessmen, the best place to talk about business is not in a cafe and grabbing coffee together. Instead, the best way is to go to dinner together and drink strong alcohols. During dinner, people like to propose a toast to EVERYONE sitting at the table, one after another. I was once in a situation where I used up all my words and repeated myself a couple times for the toasts. The toasts is usually brief, and the common themes are health, wealth, smooth career, wishes come true, etc. I’m not a big fan.

    Also, people may pursued each other to take more shots. It’s sometimes considered that the more you drink, the more sincere you are, which is something I don’t believe. Usually what happens at the dinner table is that the males are in a competition mood of drinking wine, while the kids and the females are talking and eating all the food.

  13. There’s always one check. No separate ones.
  14. Yup. Just one check. There are no such things as separate checks. Don’t even bother to ask for it. And people may fight for paying the check. I normally don’t.

  15. No tips!
  16. You don’t have to pay any tips. No tips means no more math. Hallelujah!

This was originally posted at Chef Meng’s blog.