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What and Where to Eat in China?
There is something about spices tasting different once they change their country of orgin but it's the same with people. I don’t recognise most of my friends since I changed my country and I can’t expect my Dim Sum to have the same taste here as in China.
If you are travelling to China on a group tour most meals are included. Seating is different from the usual Western style where 2 maybe 4 people share a table. In China meal times are a time to socialize, to talk, to have a meeting, to do business and as result 8 or 10 people, sometimes even more, share a round table and food. Chinese people don't just dine, they banquet, which in western countries is done only at weddings. The order of the dishes may come in different ways from how you are used to at home soup could be served last and the whole banquet could be served without rice. In some places serving rice is regarded as a lower class thing, the rich would eat meat and preferably fish.
Some of the dishes are very tricky to eat with chopsticks such as nicely roasted nuts in unspecified spices, but if you risk huge embarrassment when all the nuts spill over the table you can always pick up a few with your spoon and put them on your plate from where you can pick them up by hand. Don’t serve yourself from the main dishes on the table with your hands or your own chopsticks or cutlery, it’s not hygienic!
Apart from the different seating system and order of food the biggest problem is to recognise the dishes served you. The safest way is to grab your local guide and keep him close to you until all the dishes have been put on the table. This way you can find out which are spicy, vegetarian, cold or hot. On numerous occasions I simply guessed and presumed food was not particularly spicy only to find myself spitting it out under the table.
The tourism industry is still young in China and the government still decides which restaurants can cater for foreigners and of course which meals should be served. Hence after 14 days travelling on a group tour through China you will find Chinese food somewhat repetitive and often bland. The only solution is not to book an all-inclusive tour and give yourself a break by eating somewhere else - perhaps at the hotel you are staying at. This is of course only valid if the hotel if of a good standard as you may end up with an even worse choice than the restaurant chosen for your group tour. From my experience of travelling around China, I would suggest eating with your local guide: they are resourceful in finding cheap restaurants and home-made meals. I really enjoy dishes I haven’t seen or tasted before. In this type of restaurant of course all the menus are in Chinese and some of them don’t even have a menu: the restaurants are full of local people who decide what to eat on the spot by just shouting their order at the chef. These types of restaurants are basic: some chairs are broken, tables are not cleaned properly, service is non-existent but the food is excellent. If you are worried about ordering chicken feet check what other diners are eat and order by pointing at their plates. If you feel adventurous I would recommend eating with locals at their secret places.
If you are vegetarian these places could be your only solution to the greasy chips or courgette served in government-approved restaurants. China doesn’t cater for vegetarians. As I said at the beginning of this article: tourism is still young in China and they are improving and hopefully we, tourists, may soon be able to eat where we want and order what we want.
Etiquette during meals is closely observed especially if you are dining with a Chinese host who sets the seating plan by choosing the most important person to sit next to him at the top of the table (which is opposite the entrance). If he decides to give a speech you must reciprocate by giving a speech yourself too. Chinese people don’t drink alcohol and if they do it's usually just one glass of rice wine or a glass of beer. If you are lifting glasses to toast, hold the bottom of the glass with your left hand while touching other people's glasses. This way you show respect too your Chinese host.
If during the banquet the Chinese slurp their soup that means they are enjoying it very much and it’s a tradition to make a noise while eating. Just think of a Western person saying: “The soup is delicious.”
After chopsticks the second most important meal prop on the table is the tooth pick. The Chinese love them and use them all the time. On my recent trip to China I actually collected toothpicks and counted 24 different ones from just one province - they are all with carvings on the head rather than just the uniform ones in the West.
Recently some Chinese restaurants have started to put salt and pepper on the table but that is only for the tourists. Most Chinese wouldn’t dare ask for salt and pepper as that would be insulting to the chef.