Where to Eat
Can any other nation rival China’s obsession with food? Instead of “How are you?” Chinese people greet each other with “ Ni chi fan le ma?” – “Have you eaten yet?” Once your travels begin, you may ask yourself a similar question – have you really eaten Chinese food before? For the Middle Kingdom serves up cuisine of such variety and delight that mealtimes there will soon dissolve the taste memories of the pale imitations of Chinese food from back home. As you travel around the country you will enjoy a veritable culinary gazeteer. From the wheat noodles, lamb kabobs, and Peking duck of the north, venture east to taste the braised crabs and abalone of Shanghai, west to try the fiery feasts of Sichuan, and south to “dot the heart” with a thousand different Cantonese dim sum.
any meal or snack
A Divine Pleasure
Food is a divine pleasure runs a traditional saying. China’s fascination with food stems from the ancient worship of gods and spirits, when emperors were carried to temples or sacred peaks to guarantee good harvests with sacrifices of meat and rice wine. Today, any event can prompt a feast where families can bond, relationships grow, disputes be resolved, and business deals reached. For Chinese people everywhere, food is not just a social lubricant, but the cornerstone of their culture.
A Famine Cuisine
One of China’s perennial problems has been how can such a large population feed itself (currently a fifth of the world’s people) when less than 10% of its land is arable? The answer lies in centuries of innovation and efficiency in the fields and in the kitchen. The Chinese have developed a “famine cuisine,” cherishing wild plants like bamboo shoots, lotus roots, seaweed, fungi, or moss, and utilizing every part of domesticated or wild animals. Bustling markets and even some mealtimes are not for the squeamish, but the daring will learn how fish heads, pig’s trotters, chicken intestine, duck webs, sea slugs, and bull testicles can be prepared as delicacies. Imagine how many lives scorpions, deep-fried and full of protein, could save in a famine?
The First Fast Food
Although boiling and steaming dominate Chinese cooking, it is best known for the stir-fry. Restaurants tend to follow the less economical traditions of the elite, not the simplicity of everyday fare, but the stir-fry still reflects the efficiency of Chinese food. Meat and vegetables are cut into small pieces and fried briefly in hot oil, thus saving on fuel and equipment without sacrificing taste. There was little saving in work time, but labor is one resource of which China has plenty.
The Culinary Arts
According to records China’s earliest master of gastronomy, Yi Yin, cooked for the first Shang emperor way back in the 16th century BC. One cookbook from the sixth century AD still sets standards for today’s chefs, like a mouthwatering recipe for roasting suckling pig that should “melt in the mouth like ice.” Over the centuries, countless men of letters sang the glories of food. Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo penned a famous ode to pork and today Dongpo Pork remains Hangzhou’s most celebrated dish. On your travels you can learn the stories behind many other famous dishes. The ancient philosophy of yin and yang – the blending of contrasts and duality of nature – applies to culinary matters in China as much as to spiritual ones. Achieving the right harmony of yin (soft, cold, dark, and feminine) and yang (strong, hot, bright, and masculine) will ensure good health not just a good meal. Cooling yin foods – for example most vegetables, crab, beancurd – must complement warming yang – meat, chilies. Hence in menu planning, there should be meat dishes as well as vegetable, hot and cold, sweet and sour, plain and spicy. Even meat dishes rarely contain meat alone, while the basic ingredients of stir-frying – scallions and ginger – are yin and yang too. Additionally a balanced diet should include appropriate proportions of both fan (grains) and cai (vegetables) and not too much meat. Many aspects of the culinary arts are thus governed by concepts and philosophies that seem to permeate all of Chinese life.
fast, and efficient
You are what you eat
Nutritionists were attached to the Zhou court back in the seventh century BC, for the Chinese have long recognized the medicinal value of food. In the Chinese chef’s repertoire there is a dish or an ingredient for every poorly organ or ailment. Some foods that are meant to boost your qi, such as ginseng and bird’s nest soup, require a small leap of faith as to their efficacy; others such as iron-rich duck blood are more obvious. In some cases, as in other societies, animal parts are believed to strengthen the human equivalent – try duck brain for more intelligence, ox tongue for eloquence, and bull’s testicles for greater sexual potency.
The Five Flavors
The Chinese are not really recipe-bound. Amid the drama of the flaming stir-fry, they seem to take a more flexible approach, finely judging the right quantity of each ingredient. But nevertheless, Chinese chefs are very particular about flavor, aroma, color and texture. Each of these properties has been elevated to an art form with special vocabulary and sets of rules. If xian captures the soul of a food (an elusive, sweet but natural freshness), cui is the goal of most Chinese cooking (a crisp crunchiness like the skin of perfect Peking duck). Trained Chinese palates distinguish five different flavors – sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, salty – and only the right combinations work. Foods rich in flavor combine well with texture foods of little taste, such as sea cucumbers and shark’s fin, which absorb and heighten the foods cooked with them.
tastes, and textures
Symbolism in Food
In a culture obsessed with symbolism, and eating, there are many foods that have earned special meaning and must be consumed on certain occasions. Round mooncakes, dotted with moon-like duck egg yolks, are a must for the family reunion at Mid-Autumn Festival. At the important Spring Festival dinner, the whole family cooks tangyuan, round sweet dumplings made of glutinous rice flour, because yuan can also mean “reunion.” Fish is particularly auspicious, because the character for fish (yu) sounds like the one for “abundance” and offers the hope of good fortune in the year ahead. Meat dumplings (jiaozi) are another New Year favorite, especially in the north, as their shape is said to resemble a golden symbol of prosperity. Birthdays are often celebrated with noodles, a symbol of longevity, while red beans are a metaphor of longing and love. And to celebrate new arrivals, parents hand out bundles of eggs painted red for luck – an even number to celebrate a boy, an odd number for a girl.
a utilitarian decor
Types of Restaurants
Whether you are looking to eat in the splendor of an imperial pavilion in Beijing, a chic Shanghai café, or a busy Sichuan teahouse, you will find a restaurant boom taking place in China. Freed from state control, entrepreneurs are thinking up tempting new ways to indulge in the country’s favorite pastime. You never have to walk far to find restaurants in China and when you do, do not let first appearances put you off – in contrast to the delicacy of the food, many gourmet restaurants boast simple decor and harsh lighting. Look instead for happy crowds of diners and a different concept of “atmosphere.” In Chinese eyes, the more lively and noisy (renao) a restaurant is, the better.
Open all hours
Early to bed, early to rise was the pattern of Chinese lives until the 1990s, leaving some foreign visitors caught out when planning mealtimes. While Chinese stomachs still demand food earlier than their Western counterparts, social and professional hours are diversifying. You can breakfast on the street by 6am, but all hotels should serve breakfast until 10am or later. Lunch is typically from 11:30am until 2:30pm, after which some restaurants shut until the evening shift starts around 5:00 pm. In the evening closing times can be very late, while some places never shut. Booking is rare except for the most popular and high-end establishments. Usually you can simply turn up; if the restaurant is full, you may have to wait until a table comes free or have a drink at the bar. Sometimes the owner will come to your rescue by setting up a makeshift table in the corner, or even out in the backyard.
If you are tired and hungry, and staying at one of China’s more expensive hotels, then room service can provide comfort with imitations of Western food. But try to make it downstairs, as most hotels offer a range of cuisines within the premises.
In the main cities, some of the best restaurants are located in hotels, and you can sample some excellent upscale Chinese cuisine. Contrary to opinion, hotel restaurants do not always serve overpriced, deliberately bland Chinese food to appease foreign palates. However, home to one of the world’s top cuisines, China has a lot to offer. The more intrepid diner who makes a few forays outside the comfort of four-star hotel restaurants will be sure to reap handsome dividends.
shoppers buying spices, silks, and carpets
As China smartened up for the Olympics and the World Expo, street vendors must sometimes play hide-and-seek with the authorities. Yet their portable stalls form a vital part of the everyday life of China, selling cheap and popular foods such as breakfasts of dough sticks (youtiao) and beancurd (doujiang), or snacks like scallion pancakes (jianbing), sweet potatoes (shanyu) roasted in old oil drums, deep-fried beancurd cubes (zhadoufu), and local fruits.
A reliable way to locate delicious street food is to stroll through a night market (yeshi), a culinary and visual feast where clouds of steam escape from bamboo steamers and the sky glows red from the flames of oil drum stoves. The sizzle of cooking and clamor of vendors shouting for business should stir your appetite and if deep-fried scorpions or cicadas on skewers prove too exotic, be assured that plenty of other foods will take your fancy. If the food is hot and freshly cooked for you, hygiene problems are rare. The market off Wanfujing Dajie, in Beijing, is the most famous, but track down night markets wherever you go, to enjoy the local delicacies and specialties.
“little eats” in Dalian
Cheap and nourishing snacks such as those found at night markets are known collectively as xiaochi, or “little eats.” Restaurants that specialize in them are called xiaochidian; they sell different types of noodles or dumplings, stuffed buns or pancakes. Open early for breakfast, they may serve simple stir-fried dishes too, and shut only when the last guest leaves. The setting is usually basic, but the food is hearty, tasty, and very reasonably priced. Every city has its own local varieties, but the ultimate “little eats” are the dim sum of Cantonese cooking (see Regional Food: The South).
The popularity of fast food giants McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, now found in all cities, has spurred Chinese firms to compete. Yonghe King is an impressive Taiwanese chain serving up all-day breakfasts of soya bean milk, congee (a savory rice porridge), and spring onion pancakes, while 85°C is a rapidly-expanding coffee, cake, and bread chain. If the street stalls are a little too basic, food courts in department stores or malls are worth exploring and are clean and usually air-conditioned.
As urban tastes grow ever more sophisticated, restaurateurs race to catch up, opening restaurants with a special theme, cuisine, or setting, like a train carriage or mock prison. The character of these places is often nostalgic, such as the old Beijing style (Lao Beijing), where each guest is loudly greeted, and staff in pre-Revolution uniforms clatter the teacups in welcome on your table. The walls of Cultural Revolution restaurants are covered with bitter-sweet memorabilia of that era, while many Sichuan eateries have concentrated on rustic decor to increase the appeal.
The other China
There is not only a wide spread of regional cuisines across Han China, but also a whole range of ethnic specialties offered by the many minority nationalities from the Korean border to the Tibetan plateau. The minorities’ restaurants are an “exotic” attraction for Chinese as well as foreign tourists.
In Dai restaurants, offering the Thai-like cuisine of southern Yunnan, guests are greeted with scented water, given a lucky charm, and later invited to join in the singing and dancing. In Uighur restaurants, serving food from the Muslim northwest, belly dancing is sometimes on show.
The Chinese understanding of a good life is inextricably associated with meat. They find it hard to understand why someone who could afford to eat meat would choose not to. Nevertheless, you will find a few vegetarian restaurants in big cities, often attached to Buddhist temples, serving excellent vegetarian dishes to worshipers and non-worshipers alike. Many of these have meaty names, and are made in exact imitation of their meat-filled namesakes. Ordinary restaurants can lay on good vegetarian meals too, as long as you can repeat: “Wo chi su”, (“I eat vegetables”) a few times and don’t mind the odd bit of meat or chicken stock turning up in your bowl every now and then.
Western restaurants, now found in all major cities, typically offer Italian, French, or a fusion of international food. Some have justifiably earned wide acclaim, such as Maison Boulud in Beijing, and M on the Bund in Shanghai.
In smaller cities, western restaurants are harder to find, although Italian cuisine is the most common – ravioli and spaghetti are easy concepts for the dumpling- and noodle-loving Chinese to appreciate. Other Asian cuisines, namely Korean, Japanese, and Thai, are also well represented, and more readily accepted by the chopstick-wielding Chinese.
Food Customs and Etiquette
Confucius was renowned for his silence at meals. The good news, however, is that 2,500 years later, the Chinese are actually quite informal at meal times. In fact, a busy Chinese restaurant can be a deafening place as waiters crash plates about and diners shout orders at the waiters. It may seem daunting but just join in and expect praise for your chopstick skills – even if you struggle, your willingness to try will be appreciated.
Earning some face
The Chinese do not expect visitors to be fully versed in proper banquet etiquette, but awareness of a few essentials can earn “face” both for yourself and your host, whatever the occasion. The other guests will appreciate that you have some respect for Chinese culture and traditions.
When attending, or hosting, a formal meal, note that the guest of honor is usually placed on the seat in the middle, facing the door. The host, traditionally positioned opposite the guest, now more often sits to his or her left.
If you come as a guest, be punctual and do not sit down until you are given your seat – seating arrangements can be very formal and based on rank.
Once seated, do not start on the food or drink before your host gives the signal. Some of the delicacies on offer may test your courage; be gracious and try everything, it is an insult if the food is untouched; but leave some food on the plates. Empty bowls imply that the host is too poor or mean to lay on a good spread.
The art of ordering
If you are someone’s guest, you may be asked to order something, or state some sort of preference – if you do not do so, a ten-course banquet could soon appear. Feel free to name your favorite dish, or point at the object of your desire, often swimming in a fish tank at the entrance to the restaurant. Freshness is all important in Chinese cuisine.
a market, Dali
English language menus are becoming more common, and an increasing number of restaurants actively encourage visitors to get out of their chairs and choose ingredients from tanks, cages, and supermarket-type shelves. Your Chinese friends (and waiters and onlookers) will likely be delighted by any interest you show in the whole experience. In the end, when language or phrase book fail, point at whatever appeals on other tables, or even head into the kitchen to find what you need.
A meal might begin with cold starters such as pickled vegetables, ten-thousand-year old eggs, seasoned jellyfish, or cold roasted meats.
When selecting main courses, remember to aim for harmony and balance – an equilibrium of yin and yang. For example, with sweet and sour pork, you might order a spicy chicken dish. Different cooking methods are also important: a steamed fish or roast pork add variety to a series of stir-fried foods. You shouldn’t need to ask for a side order of vegetables as they are usually part of the dishes – unless you want something specific.
The last dish, or cai, is usually soup. Then comes fan, a grain staple such as rice, noodles, or bread (mantou), without which a Chinese diner may feel they have not eaten. At informal meals you can have rice at the start of the meal, but not at a banquet, or your host will assume his dishes are inadequate.
Desserts are not a Chinese tradition, but fresh fruit is almost always served in Chinese restaurants, especially at banquets, and succulent fruit is available nationwide.
an enjoyable event
Invited to dinner
A formal meal often takes place in a private room and usually begins with a toast. The host serves his guest with the choicest morsels, and then everyone is permitted to help themselves. Serving chopsticks or spoons are sometimes provided; otherwise you can simply use your own pair.
Confucius said that it was uncivilized to have knives on the table, but if you are really struggling most restaurants will readily provide you with knives and forks.
The host almost always orders more dishes than necessary. While it is polite to try everything, don’t feel it is necessary to finish it all.
It is courteous to keep your neighbors’ tea cups filled. To thank an attentive neighbor, tap your first and index finger together on the table. This tradition dates back to the Qing Qianlong emperor, who liked to tour the country in disguise. Once, at a teahouse, he took his turn to pour the tea. His companions, who should have been pressing their foreheads to the floor, maintained his disguise by tapping their fingers in a mini-kowtow. If you don’t want your cup refilled then don’t empty it.
Dos and don’ts
The Chinese are fairly relaxed about table manners. Slurping shows appreciation, enables better appreciation of flavor, and sucks in air to prevent burning the mouth. Holding your bowl up to your mouth, to shovel rice in, is another practical solution. You may happily reach across your neighbors, but do not spear food with your chopsticks, and do not stand them upright in a bowl of rice either, as it looks like an offering to the dead. If you have finished with the chopsticks lay them flat on the table or on a rest. You shouldn’t suck greasy fingers, or use them to pick bones out of your mouth – spit bones or shell onto the table, into the saucer that was under your bowl, or into a napkin. Toothpicks are ubiquitous, but do cover the action with your free hand. And don’t be shy about shouting for attention. Eating alone is very strange to the Chinese way of thinking. Eating in a group – sharing the dishes and the experience – greatly increases the enjoyment.
The end of the meal
A platter of fresh fruit and steaming hot towels signal the end of the meal is coming. Just as you should await the start of a meal, do not stand up before your host, who will rise and indicate that the dinner has ended and ask if you’ve had enough. The answer is “yes.”
The person who invited you usually shoulders the full weight of the bill, so accept graciously. Offering to pay is fine, even polite; insisting too hard suggests that you doubt the host’s ability to pay.
The capitalist habit of tipping was wiped out after Mao’s Communist Party took over. Politically acceptable today, it is still rare, as is “going Dutch.”
Prices are fixed and written down in most restaurants, and on bills, although there is the occasional story of restaurants overcharging foreigners.
There is no service charge except in the more upmarket and expensive restaurants, which are also the only places likely to accept international credit cards.
The business of banquets
The business banquet is the apex of the Chinese dining experience, and almost all significant deals are clinched at the banquet table. In addition to the above, further rules apply: arrive 15 minutes early; if you are applauded as you come into the room, applaud back; reply to the welcome toast with your own short speech and toast; avoid sensitive subjects; show respect to your elders and superiors by ensuring that the rim of your glass is lower than theirs when clinking glasses and drain your drink in one swift movement.
How to hold chopsticks
- Place the first chopstick in the crook of your thumb and forefinger. Support it with the little and ring fingers, and keep it there with the knuckle of the thumb.
- Hold the second chopstick like a pencil, between middle and index fingers, anchored by the pad of your thumb.
- When picking up food, keep the lower stick stationary and the tips even. As the index finger moves up and down, only the upper stick should move, using the thumb as an axis.
What to Drink
Tea, of course is the most popular drink in China. There are countless arguments for drinking the infusion of the bush Camellia sinensis, and just as many legends about its origin (see The Story of Tea). While tea is the most popular drink, there is a wide range of others for the visitor. Beer is popular with meals but wine is also drunk in many upmarket restaurants. Chinese spirits can range from the extremely pleasant to the almost dangerous. Likewise approach the “health tonics” like snake wine with caution – as if the reptilian “sediment” in the bottle isn’t enough, they can be fiercely alcoholic.
Types of tea
Green is the most common tea, baked immediately after picking. Flower tea is a mixture of green tea with flower petals. Black tea colors during the fermentation process and the reddish brew that results explains its Chinese name – red tea. The most highly prized is oolong, a lightly fermented tea. Brick tea is black or green, pressed into blocks. Eight Treasure tea babaocha has many ingredients including dates, dried longan, and wolfberry, and Tibetans enjoy yak butter tea.
|Black: hongcha, actually called “red tea” in Chinese.||Green: lucha, uses leaves dried without fermentation.||Pu’er: from Yunnan, is compressed into “bricks.”||Flower: huacha a mix of petals – jasmine, rose, and chrysanthemum.||The famous “Hairy Peak” green tea|
Even as a cold drink tea is dominant. Iced tea is very popular, especially with the young. Besides the usual array of fruit juices, there is pomegranate juice in Xinjiang, hawthorn juice in Beijing, and lychee and sugar cane juice down south. As well as the global drink brands there are local challengers like Tianfu Cola, and the energy drink Jianlibao, made with honey. As China overcomes its dairy aversion, milk and yoghurt drinks multiply, as well as soyabean (doujiang) and Hainan’s famous coconut milk.
|Coffee: as café culture enters China, coffee drinking is fashionable among the middle classes. Starbucks may have an outlet inside the Forbidden City, but freshly-ground coffee is rare outside major hotels.||Tea and coffee drink: those who want a fashionable coffee drink, but cannot do without their daily shot of tea, can try this blend of tea and coffee.||Bamboo cane juice||Iced green tea||Coconut milk drink|
Europeans first introduced beer to China in the early 20th century; in the 21st, China has taken over as the world’s biggest brewer, so you are never far from a very acceptable light lager, and even a darker brew. Each city usually has its own local brewery.
|Tsingtao beer||Yanjing beer||Great Wall||Dragon Seal|
|Maotai||Erguotou||Shaoxing rice wine|
Although grape seeds traveled the Silk Roads, China has historically preferred grain alcohol. The quality is rapidly improving, and red wine is almost exclusively consumed – it is considered good for the heart, and a lucky color too.
For millennia the Chinese have been distilling grains into baijiu or “white spirits” ranging from strong to deadly. Classified into three types: the qingxiang, or light bouquet, group includes Fenjiu from Shanxi; Guizhou’s famous Maotai is a classic jiangxiang, soy bouquet, while nongxiang, strong bouquet, is championed by Sichuan giant Wuliangye.
Despite being called “wine,” some care is required as this can vary in strength from a mild 15–16 % alcohol, to the double- or triple-fermented wines at up to 38 % ABV. Good rice wine is best drunk warm and goes well with cold starters.
the thriving big city bar scene
Teahouses are enjoying a bit of a revival in China, as appreciation of tea culture recovers after years of proletarian austerity. While cha (tea) stimulates quiet contemplation, jiu (alcohol) lubricates noisy celebrations. Despite reveling in the drunkenness of their poets such as Li Bai, the Chinese have not been as badly affected by alcoholism as many other societies. Public drunkenness is frowned upon – except maybe in the ever more popular karaoke bars. Traditionally only soup was drunk with meals, but this is changing, especially when eating with foreigners. “ Gan bei!” or “dry the cup” is the clarion call to toasting bouts and drinking games. Beware the legendary capacity of the northeast Chinese, and don’t drink alone or on an empty stomach.
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