1. Start early
First things first, aim to eat earlier than you might be used to. Many Chinese diners sit down for dinner at around 6pm, and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to be winding down by 9pm. But if you do miss last orders, it’s not the end of the world – chances are there’s a 24-hour McDonald’s around the corner.
2. Embrace a new ordering system
Typically in China, one person – the host – orders (and pays) for everyone, which is why usually only one menu will be given out by the server. And you can almost guarantee the menu will be beefier than a telephone directory, because restaurants in China pride themselves on the ability to make dozens, if not hundreds of dishes.
Restaurant staff expect to dawdle while you flick through the menu, choosing dishes as you go (and taking suggestions from your fellow diners). Of course, it’s up to you how you split the bill, but giving just one person ordering duties is more efficient than everyone taking a turn, especially as you’ll be sharing the food.
Image via Pixabay/CC0
3. Know your place (in the menu)
In a typical jia chang cai (family-style) restaurant, menus start with the house specials (often the fancy banquet dishes like whole seafood, spicy hot pot or Peking duck depending on the region), followed by cold salad dishes, meaty mains, stir-fried vegetables, soups, and at the back, staples like noodles, rice, steamed bread, dumplings and desserts.
It all depends where in China you are eating, of course!
In Beijing and the north, expect hearty roast lamb and duck, starchy noodles and lots of garlic. Chillis and the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn rule in central Sichuan (try the hot pot), while southern Cantonese food like dim sum, seafood and roasted meats will already be somewhat familiar if you’ve dined in Chinese restaurants in the West. Not to mention the southeast Asian flavours of Yunnan, Guizhou rice noodles, Hunan dry-pot dishes…
Despite the mind-blowing diversity of regional cuisines across China, there are some common dishes that most restaurants will know how to cook. Try these tasty (and foreigner-friendly) standards: jidan chaofan (egg-fried rice), xihongshi chao jidan (stir-fried tomatoes and eggs), gongbao jiding (diced chicken with peanuts and dried chilis), and pai huanggua (a cold salad of cucumber and garlic).
Sichuan noodles via Pixabay/CC0
4. Learn how much to order
A good rule of thumb is to order one dish per number of diners, plus soup and rice. (This is why dining in big groups is more fun – you can munch more and the cost per person is lower.) The concept of starters, mains and desserts doesn’t apply, so order everything at once.
For a table of six, plump for a couple of cold salad dishes, three to five hot ‘mains’, a vegetable, soup, and rice or noodles.