10 things you need to know about Chinese dining traditions

July 10, 2023
By Helena Beard

Here are 10 things about Chinese dining traditions that you need to know.

Chinese people like to sit at a round table to share food, and there are rules for the distribution of seating. Generally speaking, the host’s seat is opposite the door. If it is a large private room with multiple dining tables and there is no position directly opposite the door, then it is the main seat facing the TV. The most important guest sits to the right of the host, usually the oldest in the family or the highest status leader in the company. Splitting the bill is not common in China, it is usually the host or the organiser of the meal who pays the bill.

In China, many traditional holidays have their own dishes, such as turkey for Thanksgiving. However, the tastes of the North and South of China are so different that even if you eat the same food on the same holiday, there is a huge difference in taste. For example, when eating Zongzi on the Dragon Boat Festival, there is a battle between the salty and sweet tastes of southern and northern China.

Food is not only a treat for the mouth, but also a symbol of the status. In ancient China, the nobility made their status known by enjoying exotic delicacies. The Manchu–Han Imperial Feast, for example, consisted of at least 108 dishes (54 in the south and 54 in the north) with ingredients sourced from the mountains, the rivers and the sky.

You may have heard of Yin-yang in Chinese Kungfu, but do you know that it is also used in Chinese food? Chinese people eat refreshing Yin food in summer to fend off the intense heat and eat warm Yang food in winter to make up for the loss of heat energy. Balance is a key word in Chinese food. Yin foods are mainly green and usually grow in water. On the contrary, Yang foods are mainly red and taste sweet or spicy. That’s why the Chinese often say “Eat specific foods for specific seasons!

The Chinese are very good at using spices in their cooking. However,  Pepper, which is now widely used as a seasoning, was once used as a medicinal herb and a salary for officials because of its scarcity. Pepper was introduced to China along the Silk Road in the 2nd century BC and was not used in cooking until 618 AD.

Although almost all Chinese people enjoy milk tea, different regions have different ways of making it. There are actually three main types of Chinese milk tea, including bubble tea. The most popular one nowadays, bubble tea, comes from Taiwan. In mainland China, milk tea can refer to a unique drink made from Chinese Ethnic Minorities. This is made from tea, butter and salt. In Hongkong, it is made from tea with milk (often cow’s milk) or coffee which is similar to the British customs.

Don’t tell your Chinese friends that your favourite Chinese dish is General Tso’s Chicken because they probably don’t even know about it! Actually, it has nothing to do with general Tso, who was from Hunan. Hunan people are not even familiar with this dish. It is a dish invented by the Taiwanese and brought to the United States to spread. It is more popular in western countries than in China.

The Chinese love noodles! According to incomplete statistics, there are more than 1,200 types of noodles for daily consumption in China, and in Shanxi alone, there are hundreds of them.

Chinese people may be surprised when you give them a fortune cooking after a meal. The fortune cookie, often found in Western Chinese restaurants, is actually a popularised Japanese snack, not one of the many Chinese dining traditions

Chinese food lovers are happy to experiment with unusual ingredients! In China, roses are used not only for Valentine’s Day, but also in desserts. It is one of Yunnan’s special snacks. In Kunming city, where roses bloom every April, locals are already looking forward to the delicious pastries filled with the scent of flowers. Does this remind you of the scene in the movie Aquaman where the heroine eats a flower?

Whether you are hosting your Chinese friends or visiting China, remembering these Chinese dining traditions will make mealtimes more enjoyable for everybody.

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