Everyday Eating Customs in China

Here in the West, because of the popularity of Chinese restaurants, we have some idea (to a greater or lesser degree authentic) of the sorts of food to be found in China, and many people have mastered (to a greater or lesser degree) the use of chopsticks. But the experience of eating at even the least Americanized Chinese restaurant scarcely resembles the experience of sharing an everyday family meal. Eating at a restaurant, both in the States and in China, has more in common with attending a banquet, which involves deliberate reversals and amplifications of everyday Chinese customs and habits.

Family Meals
Though customs and the kinds of food eaten vary according to region, it is most common for Chinese families to gather for three meals a day. In some areas and at some times of the year, laborers may have only two full meals a day, but when possible, they supplement these with up to three smaller ones, often taken at tea houses. There is not, in general, the strong association we have in the West between the type of food and the time of day it should be served (say, eggs for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pot roast for dinner). The sorts of dishes served at the two or three main meals are pretty much the same. The goal in planning, however, is to provide a number of dishes at each meal, so that, rather than experiencing difference by comparison between one meal and the next, each meal includes, in itself, a satisfying array of elements.

The Stuff of the Meal
The center of the Chinese meal is fan, or grain. So much so, that the meal itself is called hsia fan, "a period of grain." In the South and among urban families in other areas, the fan may be rice or rice products, but rice is expensive, as is the wheat eaten in the North in the form of cooked whole grains, noodles, or bread. Depending on the region, then, less prosperous families might make their meals of millet, sorghum, or corn. The meats and vegetables we think of as the focus of the meal are known as ts'ai, which means something like "side dishes" -- one could almost go so far as to call them condiments for the fan.

Place Settings and Serving Etiquette
An individual place setting for an everyday meal includes a bowl of fan, a pair of chopsticks, a flat-bottomed soupspoon, and a saucer. Instead of a napkin, a hot towel is often provided at the end of the meal for the diner to wipe his hands and mouth. The meat and vegetable dishes are laid out all at once in the center of the table, and the diners eat directly from the communal plates using their chopsticks. Soup is also eaten from the common bowl. Rather than for serving oneself a separate portion, the saucer is used for bones and shells or as a place to rest a bite taken from a communal plate when it is too large to eat all at once. It is perfectly acceptable to reach across the table to take a morsel from a far-away dish. To facilitate access to all the dishes, Chinese dining tables are more likely to be square or round, rather than elongated like their western counterparts.

Who Eats When and How
Eating begins in order of seniority, with each diner taking the cue to start from his or her immediate superior. Children are taught to eat equally from each ts'ai dish in turn, never betraying a preference for a particular item by eating more of it, never seeming to pause to choose a specific bite from the plate. In order to cool the soup a bit and to better diffuse the flavor in the mouth, soup is eaten by sipping from the spoon while breathing in. This method, of course, produces the slurping noise that is taboo in the West. To eat fan, a diner raises the bowl to her lips and pushes the grains into her mouth with chopsticks. This is the easiest way to eat it and shows proper enjoyment -- eating fan from a bowl left sitting on the table suggests dissatisfaction with the food. The diner must finish all the fan. To leave even a grain is considered bad manners, a lack of respect for the labor required to produce it.

Neither beverages nor dessert are commonly served with a meal. People drink tea nearly all day, but at meals soup is usually the only liquid provided. At special events there may be wine or liquor, but the water that westerners drink with their meals is never present. Sweet foods are usually reserved for special events, where they are served between courses, or for small meals at tea houses.

Reading List:
Everything You Want to Know about Chinese Cooking by Pearl Kong Chen, Tien Chi Chen, and Rose Tseng. Woodbury, New York: Barron's, 1983.
How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao. New York: The John Day Company, 1945.
Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives edited by Kwang-chih Chang. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.


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