Eating and Drinking in China
Eating and drinking is something taken very seriously in China and, while you may feel you know what to expect, based on Chinese restaurants around the globe, think again. Most overseas Chinese restaurant dishes are only loosely based on Cantonese cooking, one of the four major styles, and specialization in each one of these runs deeper than you could imagine, with some chefs spending decades perfecting just one dish.
Thus part of exploring China should definitely involve exploring its cuisine; not only is it mouth-wateringly tasty, but it is such a fundamental part of life here that it gives real insight into the nature of the country. Food is such an important facet of the culture that a basic greeting like “ni chi baole ma?” which is used to mean “how are you?” translates as “have you eaten yet?” China’s new economy is based on business deals cut over extravagant banquets and all the major festivals have associated snacks or dishes.
What is also striking, especially in the south, is the incredible variety of food available and its freshness. In this region live animals such as bamboo rats, dogs and snakes can be seen caged outside restaurants, just waiting to be ordered! This can be most shocking to Western eyes.
Chinese restaurants are so ubiquitous that chopsticks are hardly a new thing in the West, but do you know how they came into being 3,000 years ago? Originally much larger versions were used to stir and remove food during cooking (and these can still be seen), but over time they were refined into the chopsticks we know today.
The Chinese name, kuaizi, translates as quick (or nimble) sticks and that’s exactly what they are, enabling the diner to eat comfortably using only one hand. It is normal to hold them with your right hand, which avoids clashing elbows at circular tables, and the best leverage is gained from holding them two-thirds of the way up. The bottom stick should remain immobile while the top one is held like a pen to manipulate the food.
Don’t worry too much about your ability (or lack thereof) with chopsticks as you’ll be forgiven your faux pas. But there are a couple of things you should avoid doing. Passing food with chopsticks or sticking them vertically into your bowl will cause offence as these actions are associated with funeral rites.
To indicate that you’ve finished eating, simply rest your chopsticks horizontally across the top of your bowl. Restaurants tend to offer plastic, metal or ceramic chopsticks, and most canteens will provide disposable wooden ones, which causes hundreds of trees to be cut down daily. The cheapest places might only have washed wooden versions, so if you plan on eating in a lot of these places (and want to help the environment) it’s worth carrying your own pair.
The four major styles
Chinese diets were historically defined by the kind of crops grown and animals that could be reared or hunted in a given area. Thus wheat-based noodles, bread and, to a lesser extent, potatoes are the staples in the north while the balmy south is a land of rice, which has been cultivated in China since 5000 BC! Outside influences also had their part to play as you will find when sampling Macanese and Portuguese delights in Macau.
Local cuisines further developed according to the quality and availability of particular ingredients. As you travel through the country you will be confronted by new local specialties at every turn, and if you take advantage of these it will add both flavor and understanding to the regional differences in your journey.
But in this modern day the various styles have managed to permeate most areas of the country and, while less popular and probably less tasty than the local delicacies, Cantonese dim sum can be chosen in Beijing or Mongolian hotpot ordered in Guangzhou. The four major regional styles are detailed below, though these can be subdivided countless more times.
Cantonese food is the epitome of the southern style and is the most globally renowned, though it’s still very different in Guangdongthan London or New York.
Sweet and sour dishes are a case in point, rarely offering any of their contrasting “sour” promise outside of China. Hong Kongand Guangzhouare at the heart of Cantonese cuisine, but the surrounding provinces, including Guangxi, are strongly influenced by the style.
Southerners are famous within China for eating “anything whose back faces the sun” and as such the southern style can offer some of the most unsettling dishes the country has to offer, including dog, cat and snake.
But these dishes won’t come unless you order them and Cantonese food is typified by super fresh ingredients, lots of seafood and light palatable sauces. Best of all, dim sum (dian xin in pinyin) includes an astounding variety of miniature buns, dumplings and spring rolls served from trolleys circulating the restaurant, typically at breakfast time.
The fact you can see the dishes before ordering makes dim sum an easy way for the non-Chinese speaker to choose! Other dishes to try include sandpots (sha bao), one-person pots of steamed rice, vegetables and meat.
Mandarin cuisine is the elite of the Northern style, derived from the food of emperors, and Beijing duck is its most celebrated offering. More generally though, Northern food is less glamorous, but no less tasty, with salty garlic, ginger and onion flavored dishes and staples of mantou (steamed buns), noodles (mian) and pancakes (bing), as well as numerous varieties of jiaozi (dumplings usually filled with pork and leek or cabbage), for which Xi’an is particularly famous.
Eastern cooking uses lots of bamboo, mushrooms, seafood and freshwater fish, although its often heavy use of oil can make it unpalatable to some. Shanghainese (shanghaicai) cuisine is at the refined end of the eastern scale and offers wide varieties of lightly cooked, miniscule treats akin to dim sum, most notably xiaolongbao (steamed pork dumplings).
Szechuanand Hunanare famed for their spicy dishes, which are arguably the hottest you’ll find anywhere in the world. In Szechuanese cooking the meat or tofu is merely a vehicle allowing the chililaden sauce to deliver its knockout punch. Flavors are carefully constructed to produce strange-sounding but delicious dishes such as fish-flavored pork (which contains no fish), but the real trick is being able to differentiate any of the manifold tastes after your mouth has been numbed by the fragrant, potent huajiao (flower pepper).
Culinary experiences not to miss in China
Where to eat in China & How to order food
Drinks in China
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Cities and regions of China homepage