Meal Time in China

One of the best things about visiting a new place is trying new foods. As I expected, Chinese food in rural China was significantly different than the Chinese food from the China Garden or the China Dragon. In fact, besides the rice, I don’t think I had anything that was even close to what we call Chinese food in America.

Lotus root is a common dish popular in the region
Lotus root is a common dish popular in the region

Sometimes in a new country, this not only means new foods but also a new way of eating. Besides the occasional Chinese or Thai dinner in the U.S., my experience eating with chopsticks was fairly limited. Ahead of my trip to China, I had about three weeks to practice my chopsticking skills in Southeast Asia but by eating in restaurants, most of the time I still had a fork and spoon as a backup should the dish prove too challenging for my amateur chopsticks. In Suoyuan, we were without a utensil safety net, dependant on chopsticks and spoons alone.

In addition to new eating utensils, the tables in China are very different. The usual table is round, with a revolving centerpiece similar to a lazy Susan. This piece is rotated by the diners as needed to reach the dish you want. In more formal settings, it is rotated clockwise, but since we’re pretty informal we moved it both ways. Most of the time, you eat by grabbing a bite of food with your chopsticks, eating it, and repeating. Everyone double dips until they are full. This might seem unhygienic, and maybe it is…but mostly you eat whatever your chopsticks touch, so it’s fine.

The lazy Susan serving style is also great because it allows you to take as much (or as little) of a dish as you want. If you love something, it’s not as noticeable to take many bites as it is to fill your dish with it. Also, it’s easy to avoid the chicken feet and duck heads by keeping the Lazy Susan spinning.

Tofu is served a variety of ways, including with century eggs (preserved eggs)
Tofu is served a variety of ways, including with century eggs (preserved eggs)

Before dinner, we usually have a small snack, most often watermelon, boiled peanuts, or cold green mung bean soup. The number of dishes at each meal depends on how many diners are present. On average for lunch and dinner, we have 5-10 dishes, with the majority being vegetable-based (but not vegetarian as they are often prepared with meat and/or animal fat). The most common meat is pork, but chicken is also very common. Beef, duck, and fish are less common. Rice is usually offered towards the end of the meal to make sure everyone leaves the table fully satiated. Soybeans, in both green and a variety of tofu forms are very popular and are an excellent protein source.

Chicken wings and legs are a recognizable dish
Chicken wings and legs are a recognizable dish

The food here is obviously very different. Some foods are familiar, including green beans, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, tofu, peaches, and watermelon. Some foods are similar or different parts than we eat in the U.S., including sweet potato leaves, day lily flowers, pumpkin leaves, and tofu skin. And some are foods that would be considered waste in the U.S., including pig’s feet, duck heads, and chicken feet and heads. Somethings are exotic, like lotus root, bayberry, silk gourd, and bamboo. Each day it was a surprise on what we would be having for lunch and dinner, although dishes were often repeated at both meals.

China also has different dining etiquette that takes some getting used to. Even by the end I wasn’t used to just spitting out bones and other detritus directly onto the table. While we were forgiven a lot since we were foreigners, here’s a quick cheat sheet to avoid some food faux pas in China.

Do:

  • Try as many dishes as you want
  • Slurp and make noises when eating or drinking (this shows enjoyment)
  • Place your chopsticks on top of your bowl when you are finished with your meal
  • Put waste (bones, shells, and other inedible parts) on the table

Don’t:

  • Feel pressured to eat anything you are uncomfortable with
  • Pick up dishes to pass to someone (spin the Lazy Susan instead to get what you want)
  • Stick chopsticks vertically into your food (this is too close to looking like funereal incense)
  • Use your chopsticks for anything besides eating
  • Finish a dish without asking, or finish all your were served (this shows that you are still hungry)

Our hosts and hostesses (especially the hostesses) made sure we were well-fed. In fact, I don’t think I was ever really hungry at any point during my time in the village. We were filled with good home-cooked meals for three weeks, and several people commented on how much weight they gained. Food is a huge part of Chinese culture and one of the most interesting experiences I had while there.

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