Eating in China is a fascinating adventure. The country is huge, and with a population of well over a billion people with varying tastes, its cuisine is just as big. From the fiery spices of the central plains to the fresh, savory vegetable dishes of the southern coast, there’s something in it for everyone. To fully immerse yourself in the culture, however, and show respect to Chinese locals, I highly recommend taking a bit of time to familiarize yourself with some of my Chinese dining advice.
“Authentic” Chinese eating goes beyond just learning to use chopsticks as some might assume. A dance of complex ancient traditions and superstitions, having bad table manners in China may not only reflect poorly on your family, but can also break business deals, ruin relationships, and convey outright disrespect to your host. While that thought is daunting in and of itself, awkward moments can be avoided by those willing to learn. I’ve picked up this knowledge from years of watching and asking my Chinese friends and coworkers in China, making loads of faux pas in between.
For example, my first formal dining experience with my school headmaster after moving to Lishui in Zhejiang Province in 2017 saw me situated at a table with a large Lazy Susan. I had the highest honor of sitting directly left of my headmaster. I tried my best to be polite and to offer and make toasts to my elders, being the youngest there. However, one moment in the meal took me completely by surprise.
Mid-way through dinner a plate was set out on the Lazy Susan and turned toward me. Everyone stopped eating to watch my reaction as confusedly I peered closer. Wings and legs took shape among the blob of black things mixed in with peanuts on a bed of crispy rice noodles. I gasped out loud as I realized it was bugs, and I was told amidst the laughter that cicadas are “a delicacy” i.e. special regional dish in Lishui. With everyone staring intently at me, I took one by one into my mouth and dutifully chewed and swallowed despite having a rough time with the texture. They weren’t terrible, but neither were they very enjoyable. Anyways, as the meal went on and I watched other people eat them, I realized to my consternation that everyone was spitting the cicada shells out onto the table! No one had told me not to swallow them!
The hard thing about making such errors is that many people won’t point them out to you at the time you commit them. Like with anything to do with direct confrontation, I’ve learned that Chinese tend to give you strange looks and silently judge you while, if you’re lucky, afterwards remarking on what you should have done at the time. In these situations, I feel it’s best just to relax and try to observe what others do so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
Needless to say, eating in China is a fascinating journey full of surprises! I hope my tips help you on your culinary journey whether it be eating at a local Chinese street food stall or in a more formal dining setting.
1. Table settings
Eating in China is almost always done family-style, meaning that everyone shares what is served rather than receiving your own plate of something. The only exceptions to this that I’ve seen are fast food joints, “western-style” restaurants, and small mom and pop hole in the wall noodle shops. In larger group settings, a Lazy Susan is employed to make it easier to pass dishes around. I must say, I honestly prefer family-style eating as I enjoy getting to try everything that’s on the table. Why limit a foodie if you don’t have to?
In terms of personal dishware and utensils, you’re normally given a cup for drinks, a small bowl for, chopsticks (with or without a chopstick rest), a soup spoon, a small saucer or plate, and maybe a tiny sauce dish for dipping things. Fancy restaurants will give you cloth napkins, while other restaurants will have the dishes and utensils shrink wrapped. A few restaurants may have an unopened box of tissue napkins that you’d have to pay for if you opened them, while in other less-fancy restaurants, you may be expected to BYON: bring your own napkins – I’ve learned to carry around extra tissues for this and for the restrooms.
Your bowl is meant for soup and/or eating out of whilst the saucer is your designated “trash plate.” Many foreigners, including myself, have made the mistake of piling food to eat onto this plate and learning later that, no, this is where your inedibles like crab shells and bones are supposed to go.
In informal settings, it’s normal to rinse your cups, dishes and utensils with hot water before use. I’ve heard that this practice is slightly mortifying to restaurant owners as it implies that they’re dishes aren’t clean, but that doesn’t seem to stop people I’ve eaten with from doing it. Also, I’m never sure what to do with the water used to rinse said dishes. I’ve seen people just pour the used water onto the floor, so that’s what I do until someone tells me otherwise, ha.
2. Seating arrangements
Where to sit at a table is based on an intricate hierarchy of seniority, status and social importance tracing its origins back to the layout of guests visiting the imperial court. The simplified gist is that the guest of honor usually sits away from the entrance or east to the left of the most important person followed by the second most important person, etc. The least important person sits with their back to the door.
A side note -It’s also a great idea to bring your host a gift! It’s not customary for gifts to be opened in front of the giver, so expect the host to put it to the side until you leave.
3. Ordering Food
Generally the host or someone under them orders the food. It’s also common for the guest of honor to choose some or all the dishes as a move of respect. During the dinner I mentioned attending at the beginning of this post, it was only slightly awkward when I was given the honor to go downstairs to choose which fish in the tank we were all to eat along with other live, “super fresh!” seafood.
As long as the guest of honor, elders and host have started eating, you’re good to dig in once food has arrived! The meal will probably commence with a toast. Furthermore, expect to be interrupted during the course of your meal for a few standing toasts! Try not to hog the more expensive dishes closer to yourself (meat, fish, etc), don’t dig through the dishes with your chopsticks, and avoid bumping or turning the Lazy Susan when someone else is serving themselves.
4. Make some noise!
Ah, loud eaters rejoice! Slurping signals to your host that your food tastes great! Eat too quietly and you risk insulting him or her. As for burps – they’re seen as a normal bodily function much like breathing- don’t expect any reactions or someone to say an “excuse me!” in China (the same goes for sneezing!).
Be forewarnd: this may seem little jarring at first, but in more rural places it’s widely accepted to spit out stuff or drop things from your mouth onto your plate (trash plate), table, or, ( this happened once at a country-side wedding I went to) the floor itself. Since eating with one’s hands (unless you have plastic disposable gloves on) is highly frowned upon, people just drop bones, shells, fruit pits, etc. from their mouths no big deal. I’m still not totally comfortable doing this myself, so I tend to dispose of things into napkins when I can’t bring myself to spit them out onto my plate.
Side note – I first found it HILARIOUS when I walked into a KFC in China and found people picking up their fried drumsticks with gloves on. These gloves are pretty ubiquitous and are available at restaurants when asked for. Not using gloves will earn you some heavy side-eye. This is especially true if you forgo them while eating crayfish. The Chinese in my side of the country adore eating mud-bugs, but heaven forbid gloves aren’t available!
5. Hot water
In the states, a glass of cold tap or filtered water with ice is a pretty standard go-to free restaurant drink. In China, the equivalent is hot water. While ice in your drinks are becoming more popular with the younger crowds, it’s not often that you can get room temperature water, let alone ice. Hot water is the standard go-to for everyone. Often, restaurants will offer tea, but generally all restaurants will have a machine or big carafe of hot water that customers can go and refill their cups with for free. One small restaurant across from my school keeps hot water for tables in big thermoses, one per table.
Also, expect people to constantly tell you to drink more hot water in China – it’s the cure-all end all go-to for nearly any health or other personal issues. “You should drink more hot water” is often the touted answer for such things as having a fever, stomach ache, stress, period cramps, etc.
Chopsticks are the quintessential utensil of choice. Many times though, if you look foreign (non-Asian) a server might ask if you want a fork or give you one without even asking, as my Caucasian husband has experienced to his annoyance. Food is usually served in bite-sized pieces to be easily picked up with chopsticks. If you aren’t given gloves, expect that others assume you’ll eat things like whole crab, shrimp, and fried chicken with just your chopsticks.
I’ve noticed chopsticks in China are rounder and longer than those in Japan where they tend to be shorter and more square-ended. Soup etiquette in China sees one putting chopsticks in your right had and a spoon in your left. Chinese like to twirl noodles into their soup spoon with a bit of broth per each mouthful. I’m not coordinated enough to master this multitasking skill. I usually go at soup the Japanese way by eating all the solid stuff while saving the broth for the end. I’ve yet to see someone here hold their rice bowls to their face like I do. Chinese people tend to just bend over their bowls and plates on the table as they eat.
FYI, it’s not polite to spear your food with chopsticks, but you can use them to tear your food into smaller pieces that are easier to be picked up. It’s also not good to stir food in serving dishes with your personal chopsticks. I’ve heard, too, that it’s rude to reach over and grab food from a side of a plate not facing you, but others have said they don’t really care if you do this. So, I guess it really depends on who you’re with and their habits.
NEVER stick your chopsticks straight up into your food. It looks too much like funerary incense sticks that are burned for the dead. Pointing and gesturing with chopsticks is likewise a no, no. On breaks between bites, chopsticks can be laid to rest angled away from others on the side of your plate or bowl. Resting them on your plate could signal to servers that you’re finished and risk having them try to take it away.
7. Serving and being served by others
Typically at family get-togethers, the youngest member is expected to dish out portions and refill their elders’ drinks. Often, from my experience, whether you’re a guest at a formal dinner or at someone’s home in China, your host is going to offer you food and, more often than not, serve it directly onto your plate (sometimes with their personal chopsticks). He or she will also make the effort to refill your plate and glass multiple times throughout the meal. I, in turn, try to serve things right back to my host and older colleagues around me to show my gratitude, which tends to be met with a happy smile and some sort of compliment about how I’m learning well. It’s also expected that you’ll give your host compliments throughout the meal.
My husband finds this practice of serving others and having others serve you particularly disagreeable, he being the kind of person who likes to “eat what he wants when he wants to.” I find the practice rather endearing though, once you’re used to it, as if you’re mutually taking care of the people around you by providing scoops of nourishment.
Be aware that it’s generally considered rude to refuse food offered to you by someone else, unless you have an allergy. I think this is typical in most Asian cultures. It’s also considered rude not to try everything at least once. Though I must say that the one food I really don’t like in China is chicken feet. However, when chicken feet are placed onto my plate by others, I won’t refuse it out of courtesy. I may try to make a show of nibbling on it a bit before moving it to the trash plate.
Many formal dinners will have the addition of Baijiu – strong Chinese grain alcohol. Served in tiny cups, shots of this come with its own set of extensive drinking rituals, such as a standing two-handed toast to the honored guest and others in order of prominence. You host will likely push you to drink multiple cups until you’re “happy” – the “happier” you are, the more it means you are having a good time which reflects well on the host. For foreigners, sometimes hosts will also order wine or ask what you prefer to drink. It’s fine to say you don’t drink and would rather toast with soda or coconut milk.
This quote from travelchinaguide.com summarizes toasting etiquette pretty well:
“A toast to others is a characteristic Chinese dining. When all people are seated and all cups are filled, the host should toast others first, together with some simple prologue to let the dining start. During the dining after the senior’s toast, you can toast anyone from superior to inferior at their convenience. When someone toasts you, you should immediately stop eating and drinking to accept and toast in response. If you are far from someone you want to toast, then you can use your cup or glass to rap on the table to attract attention rather than raise your voice. However, it is impolite to urge others to drink.”
Another side note, when I lived up in Northern China in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, women there could drink men under the table and smoke with the best of them. It wasn’t a big deal for a foreign woman to drink with dudes at dinners and parties. In the Southern China, the women don’t drink very much if at all, and don’t smoke as it’s seen as being too masculine. Yet, if you are a foreign-looking women (Caucasian or non-Asian looking) it’s most likely assumed off the bat you like to drink alcohol unless stated that you don’t.
9. Don’t clear your plate!
Back to eating manners, always leave a bit of food in your bowl and drink in your cup if you’re full. I know most Westerners are raised with the notion that you have to finish all your food since it’s a waste while others are starving elsewhere. It’s true, though, that there is a ton of food waste in China. However, an empty bowl and drink cup will indicate that you’re still hungry or thirsty and your host hasn’t provided enough for you to be content. Foreigners tend to be surprised when, after finishing his or her plate, the host and other guests rush to fill the plate with more food and keep telling him or her to eat and drink more.
10. Don’t tip!
Unlike restaurants in the U.S., the exact amount you pay is what is shown on the bill. Tipping is not customary in China and can cause confusion or embarrassment if you try. In nicer restaurants, around 10% may already be added to the bill. Most restaurants take Alipay and Wechat Pay. I’d be hard pressed to fine one that only uses cash as a form of payment nowadays.
Bonus: The customary “Who Pays” end of meal argument
This part is always amusing. Assuming you’ve survived the meal to this point, happy and satiated with a bit of food left on your plate, the host stands up signaling it’s time to make our exit. Most of the men in the room automatically stand up and try to grab the server for the check. Loud arguing ensues over who will cover the bill.
It’s expected that the bill will be argued over at least two or three times by a guest for the opportunity to pay – even though it’s extremely rude not to allow your host to pay for the meal (doing so implies they can’t afford to pay it). This is just another game or dance in politeness.
Not arguing over the bill insinuates that your host owes you something, but you want the host to win as the one who does the inviting usually pays. Take note to do the arguing, let the host win, then thank your host many times after they take the bill.
Eating in China can be an eye-opening, exciting and highly interesting experience. I’ve just touched the surface of basic Chinese dining etiquette in this post. As with everything, it helps to come to new cultural experiences open and eager to learn. It also helps to expect loads of surprises and mishaps along the way! Remember, when in doubt, relax, ask, or observe and copy what others are doing around you!
2 Comments Add yours
Thank you for mentioning that Chinese people often eat while bending over their bowls and plates on the table. My friend said that she eats Chinese food quite infrequently. I’ll advise her to visit a restaurant with Chinese cuisine and use the bowls and plates there.