You’ve heard the one about not sticking your chopsticks straight up in rice, right? (It resembles funerary incense sticks).
Honestly? Don’t fret. Because let’s face it; you’ve got bigger problems than antiquated cultural faux-pas. Like how to actually order and eat a table-full of delicious Chinese food in a regular, everyday, non-touristy Chinese restaurant – in China. Here, Thomas O'Malley gives us a step-by-step guide.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Part of the reason one person assumes ordering responsibilities is because a successful Chinese meal is the art of balance and harmony on the table: hot and cold, colour, nutrition, complimentary tastes and textures. That’s the theory, anyway. Or just get a fist-full of grilled lamb skewers and ice-cold beer and to hell with it.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, yin and yang refers to how different foods generate hot or cold energy in the body. Cucumber is yin, or cold, for example, while chili peppers are yang, or hot. A good Chinese meal should be a balance of yin and yang foods.
Make sense? Well this won’t: lobster is yang and crab is yin. Let’s call the whole thing off.
Dishes are served in the middle of the table for diners to attack ‘family-style’; only rice is served individually. Just keep grazing away at those central dishes until you can graze no more.
At formal banquets you’ll have two sets of chopsticks – one to transfer food from the communal dishes to your bowl or plate, and one to eat with. But mostly you’ll just get one set. They are your friends. Treat them well. (And avoid those wasteful disposable ones.)
If a dish is too salty, eat a little of it over your plain rice to balance the seasoning. You’ll usually get dark vinegar and chilli oil on the table to add a sour or spicy note (often to noodle soups). Pro tip: the two link up to make a zingy dipping sauce for steamed or fried dumplings.
When you’re ready to settle up, don’t be shy; it’s a fairly common practice to raise your voice to get the server’s attention. “Fuwu yuan” (waiter/waitress - or ‘xiaojie’ in the south) is heard every few minutes in ordinary restaurants.
And last of all, you might be pleased to know that, outside of hotels, tipping isn’t part of the culture at all.
Explore more of China with the Rough Guide to China. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.