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Chinese Eating Custom

The main difference between Chinese and Western eating habits is that unlike the West, where everyone has their own plate of food, in China the dishes are placed on the table and everybody shares. If you are being treated by a Chinese host, be prepared for a ton of food. Chinese are very proud of their culture of food and will do their best to give you a taste of many different types of cuisine. Among friends, they will just order enough for the people there. If they are taking somebody out for dinner and the relationship is polite to semi-polite, then they will usually order one more dish than the number of guests (e.g. four people, five dishes). If it is a business dinner or a very formal occasion, there is likely to be a huge amount of food that will be impossible to finish.

A typical meal starts with some cold dishes, like boiled peanuts and smashed cucumber with garlic. These are followed by the main courses, hot meat and vegetable dishes. Finally soup is brought out, which is followed by the starchy "staple" food, which is usually rice or noodles or sometimes dumplings. Many Chinese eat rice (or noodles or whatever) last, but if you like to have your rice together with other dishes, you should say so early on.

One thing to be aware of is that when eating with a Chinese host, you may find that the person is using their chopsticks to put food in your bowl or plate. This is a sign of politeness. The appropriate thing to do would be to eat the whatever-it-is and say how yummy it is. If you feel uncomfortable with this, you can just say a polite thank you and leave the food there, and maybe cover it up with a little rice when they are not looking. There is a certain amount of leniency involved when dealing with Westerners, so you won't be chastised.

Eating No-no's

Traditionally speaking, there are many taboos at Chinese tables, but these days not many people pay attention to them. However, there are a few things to keep in mind, especially if you are a guest at a private home.

1. Don't stick your chopsticks upright in the rice bowl. Instead, lay them on your dish. The reason for this is that when somebody dies, the shrine to them contains a bowl of sand or rice with two sticks of incense stuck upright in it. So if you stick your chopsticks in the rice bowl, it looks like this shrine and is equivalent to wishing death upon person at the table!

2. Make sure the spout of the teapot is not facing anyone. It is impolite to set the teapot down where the spout is facing towards somebody. The spout should always be directed to where nobody is sitting, usually just outward from the table.

3. Don't tap on your bowl with your chopsticks. Beggars tap on their bowls, so this is not polite. Also, in a restaurant, if the food is coming too slow people will tap their bowls. If you are in someone's home, it is like insulting the cook.

Eat Local You can get expensive, delicious meals in any of the large hotels, but if you are looking for atmosphere, you have to go to a local joint. Not only is it cheaper, but you can get a good look at the locals and what normal people are like. And what the food lacks in presentation is made up for in the taste. Some restaurants have English menus, but don't count on it. A good way to choose dishes is to look at what others are eating and point at it for the waitress. The other option is to play "Mystery Dinner", where players randomly point at items in the menu and wait for the surprise dishes to come. Whoever orders the braised dog heart with scallions in shark vomit sauce wins!

Drinking Gan Bei! (Cheers!)

Alcohol is a big part of eating in Beijing. Especially when dining with Chinese hosts, you can expect the beer to flow freely and many beis to be gan-ed (Gan Bei literally means "dry [the] glass"). Besides beer, the official Chinese alcoholic beverage is bai jiu, high-proof Chinese liquor made from assorted grains. There are varying degrees of bai jiu, and some are quite good. The Beijing favorite is called Er Guo Tou, which is a whopping 56% alcohol. More expensive and less formidable are Maotai and Wuliangye, which go far about 300-400 Yuan per bottle. In comparison, Er Guo Tou costs a modest 4 or 5 Yuan per ping (each bottle). If you are not a drinker, or don't feel up to the challenge, just say "wo bu hui he jiu" (I don't drink). It is generally acceptable to use Coke or tea as an alcohol substitute.


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