Dining in a foreign country can be one of the more interesting, and sometimes challenging, experiences while abroad. This can be particularly true in China, where the primary form of social engagement is not grabbing a drink, but rather having a lengthy meal together at a large, round table. When visiting China, there are a few things that will help you to not only survive but also enjoy your dining experiences in the Middle Kingdom.
Step 1: Get the Waiter’s Attention
In China, restaurants can often be quite bustling and busy, and the guests can sometimes be a little pushy and demanding. As such, waitstaff can be a little more rushed than western servers, opting to take care of the louder, pushier customers before the more patient, quiet ones.
In such situations, playing it as you do back home with a subtle look or wave may get either overlooked or ignored. So, when in Rome, you will need to be a bit more obvious. The general approach is to firmly and loudly yell the word for waiter, 服务员 (fú wù yuán), though the way most people say it is quick enough that it simply sounds like a two-syllable 服员 (foo-you-ann).
If you’re not comfortable shouting this loudly, you can hold up your hand or wait for any passing waiter, waving them down with a quick “ni hao”. This should work in 95% of cases.
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Step 2: Ordering
In the West, we’re accustomed to each patron receiving a menu and the waiter giving you a few moments to make up your mind before taking a drink and appetizer order, then giving even more time for a decision on the main meal. This isn’t usually the case in Chinese restaurants where they opt for giving one large, impressive-looking menu that can be closer to a large book with full-page images of the dishes.
While the menu can be a bit unwieldy, the pictures make it far easier to know what to expect when ordering since the translations may often be entirely unhelpful (and sometimes downright amusing).
The reason they give only one menu is usually that the person who invited the guests will be a good host, choosing the things that they think would best suit everyone at the table and providing insight into the host’s tastes and etiquette. The host may also ask what everyone feels like eating, and they will say what they want. This is far easier for locals, so it’s alright to pass around the menu and take turns having a look. If you want to buy more time, you can try saying “wǒ yào kàn kàn” (woah yow kahn kahn), as waiters tend to hover and expect a decision immediately.
In general, many a foreigner survives in China for years on end by merely pointing to pictures and saying “这个” (jiggah), which may be heavily accented but easily understood by the waitstaff.
A spread of delicious Yunnan Food | Photo by Elizabeth Phung from the Book ‘Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham’ by WildChina Founder Mei Zhang
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Step 3: Refreshments
When it comes to drinks, be aware that there are some significant differences. If you order water, the default will be boiling hot, even in the summer. That, or tea. The Chinese have a lot of beliefs based around hot and cold that stem back to Daoist beliefs in balance, so they believe hot water is healthier and that cold water can damage the body. As well, it also has historical roots in water safety, though it’s unclear which reason came first.
Alcohol is often drunk with dinner, usually light beers if it’s a more casual setting with friends. Beer often comes in a 750ml-1L bottle, alongside a small glass. While no one will say anything, it’s expected for you to consume the bottle one small glass at a time. Baijiu (bye-geo) is strong Chinese rice alcohol, sometimes hitting the 65% mark. Since it’s so strong, they’ll often give tiny shot glasses. It’s widely drunk by the men, whereas women tend to abstain from such strong liquors. It’s used in more formal or celebratory occasions and has a wide range in flavor that is directly related to quality. The price of one bottle can be as little as ¥5 providing a taste akin to rubbing alcohol, or over ¥2000 per bottle which will have a somewhat sweet, floral flavor. Most foreigners don’t bother with the expensive stuff, so they erroneously believe it’s all bad.
China’s most famous drink: Baijiu | Photo by Marko Kudjerski
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When being hosted by a local, you will be expected to drink whenever they cheers you. While in the west, we tend to give a toast once per meal per person (at most), Chinese people tend to toast continually throughout the meal. Every time you clink glasses, you will be expected to drink some, if not all, of your drink. Ganbei (gon-bay) means “dry cup”, meaning they want you to finish your entire beverage; banbei (bahn-bay) means “half cup” so you can hold back somewhat. Typically, you only have to finish your beverage if the toaster finishes theirs, so if you watch them and they stop short, feel free to do likewise.
Step 4: Enjoy
Food generally arrives in the following order:
-Stir-fried hot dishes
-More complex hot dishes (steamed, roasted)
-Rice comes last (carbs to fill you up at the end)
The order may vary depending on where you are visiting, such as the south offering soup first, but this will generally be the order. The Chinese philosophy is one of balance, so they often will aim to have a balance of hot and cold options, meat and vegetable, and even balancing the meal by having a variety of textures, some of which may be less palatable to western tastes (namely the gelatinous). In general, don’t feel pressured to eat anything you don’t particularly like, though don’t make your distaste evident.
A spread of spicy Sichuan food | Picture by WildChina Expert Fuchsia Dunlop
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Unlike in the west, you will have a buffet-style approach to food, meaning everyone will take from every dish and serve themselves on a tiny plate. Again, aiming for balance in what is consumed by each person in the meal.
Some foreigners mistakenly believe that the host has ordered too much food in an attempt to be showy. While that’s sometimes the case, the more common example is over-ordering to ensure that your guests all eat their fill and aren’t left wanting. Many hosts will automatically go out of their way to order something for you if they even have the inkling that you might want it, so be careful what you ask about or eye up on the menu if you genuinely don’t want any more.
Dining in China is a fun learning curve that can take a few meals to grow accustomed to, but after a little while, it’s no problem. The main issue for most is learning how to become adept enough with chopsticks!