Chinese Dining Customs

The best way to look like a local in China is to learn how to act like one at a restaurant. When you are seated, your table will be given just one menu normally for the entire group. If you are the host of a large group that covers more than one table, it is customary for whatever you order to be multiplied by the number of tables in your group, so that every table gets exactly the same dishes.

Many restaurants in China have aquariums and tubs filled with your potential dinner swimming about. If you order a meal with one of these delicacies, you may be required to either pick the one you want, or at the very least verify that the creature is still alive and healthy before it is cooked.

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A shared meal in China is always very literally shared. All food will be delivered to the table and everyone shares. Sometimes the host will serve some dishes to you to show the hospitality. Serving chopsticks or spoons are normally available, but knives and forks will be provided only in star-rated hotels. If you struggle with using chopsticks, it is perfectly acceptable to hold a bowl up close to your mouth as you eat from it. Similarly, soup can be drunk from the bowl.

Concerning drinks, many restaurants provide a complimentary pot of hot tea before the meal. Tea is considered an appetite stimulator, not refreshment, so expect the teapot to disappear sometimes when your food arrives. But your tea cup will always be there. If you need more tea, you can just ask the waiter or waitress. Glasses of water are not provided with meals, and ice is rare, although chilled soft drinks, beer and bottled water are always readily available. The beer is often cheapest unless it’s imported. And if you like cold drinks you will have to request it cold because many Chinese still prefer their drinks at room temperature. For example, if you just ask for water, you may get a cup of hot water. Requesting “ bing de bai kai shui” will get you a free glass of cold water.

You will be expected to pick one starch, or what the Chinese would refer to as a main food, which includes rice, dumplings, steamed buns, savory pancakes, or noodles. And the Chinese custom is to eat rice after you have finished all other dishes, just to fill up.

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Banquets are times to impress, and that means the most exotic foods. You may be treated to duck’s tongue, baby pigeon, fish-head soup, chicken feet, scorpions, squid, and a while lot more. Take only a very small amount of each dish because you may be surprised at how much food will be kept bringing. But you will know the meal is over when the complimentary fruit arrive.

In China, whoever does the inviting is the one who also does the ordering and the paying. Splitting the cost of a meal is not popular in china though many Chinese people are familiar with foreign ways and may be open to it. Instead, the accounts are balanced when your guests later invite you out for a meal. If it’s your birthday, you are expected to treat your friends to a meal rather than being treated.

At last, I would like to teach you two useful and powerful Chinese words. One is Gan Bei, which means bottoms up or toast that signifies everyone should drink down whatever alcohol is left in the glass. The other is Mai Dan. You will have to ask for the check (mai dan) when you are ready to leave.

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