I once read somewhere that China’s biggest religion is food, and having lived here a year and a half I can safely say that is true. Food is a big part of life here. “吃饭了吗?”/”Have you eaten yet?” is actually a form of greeting in China. To outsiders it may sound weird it’s actually just a way of showing concern for the wellbeing of a person (because food is bae), although I’m always hoping that if I answer “no” he/she will offer to treat me to a meal.
Every traditional Chinese holiday has some type of food at it’s center; Spring festival has dumplings, Autumn festival has mooncake, Dragon boat festival has glutinous rice, and so on. For someone who loves eating, it is a great way to celebrate holidays. And given how diverse their cuisine is, eating out is like playing russian roulette, you never know what you’re gonna get and whether it’ll be agreeable with your taste buds or just end in a traumatic session with the toilet seat.
I am fascinated by Chinese food culture, some of my favorite outings with Chinese friends (if not all) involve food. When I make a new chinese friend, it doesn’t take long for them to suggest we stuff our faces together. And the best part? When you offer to contribute to the bill, a sort of polite tug of war ensues and of course the host must and will win. Watching Chinese people do this amongst themselves is almost comical because they look genuinely emotional and serious about the whole affair.
Most restaurants here and meals are set up for group eating, people can and do eat alone when necessary but it’s just cheaper, more convenient and more fun to eat in groups. Eating in groups also means you can order more than one type of dish which is awesome for people like me who can never decide on one dish and will inevitably end up picking from my friends plates.
When you are their guest they will endlessly encourage you to eat more…and more…and a little more, until you are close to passing out from a food coma. And when you do claim to be full, they usually respond with a “慢慢吃”/”Eat slower”. It’s wonderful. They often pair their peer pressuring statements with the guilt inducing “不要浪费!”/”Must not waste!” which is also a great food philosophy to live by. That philosophy is also clearly demonstrated in their choices of what animal parts or plant life makes it to the dining table. They eat everything and anything in China which brings me to another saying “Chinese people will eat everything that swims except the submarine, everything that flies except the airplane, and everything with four legs except the table.”
That is not to say all Chinese people eat dog, donkey meat, sheep testicles, cockroaches, snakes or scorpions, but you won’t be struggle to find some who do. Although my stomach is at times slightly disturbed at some of the organisms that make it to people’s stomachs here, as a child I ate fried grasshoppers and small flying ants, have had caterpillars (Mopane worms) in Botswana and have seen cooked mice being sold in Malawi so I really can’t judge the Chinese for their stranger delicacies.
Chinese meals begin with the meat and vegetable dishes and end with the main dishes and soup which is the total opposite of the western style of eating. By the time my hosts are asking me what main I would like (noodles or rice), I have already gorged myself on the plethora of dishes that I was peer pressured into eating so I never get far with the mains. For whatever reason potatoes are considered a vegetable so potato dishes are served at the beginning too. Chinese desserts, which aren’t very exciting for my sweet tooth, are usually just a selection of fruit (tomatoes are often included in that food group too) though there are some regular dessert dishes too.
Drinking with Chinese people is quite a task for those who cannot stomach the pungent and strong baijiu/白酒 (‘white alcohol’ though it’s actually a clear liquid). It is affectionately called the devil’s juice by my friends and I. They do not dilute the baijiu with mixers or add ice either, the normal way of drinking it is straight at room temperature.
Drinking is not a slow and leisurely activity here, in fact they drink as though there’s a time limit to the drinking period. Every 5 minutes you will hear someone say 干杯/gan bei which literally means “empty your glass” and the whole table must locate their drinks, toast one another or tap the glass on the table once and gulp the vicious stuff down immediately. Every 5 minutes, I am not exaggerating. Afterward gulping the poison down, some proudly show the other guests at the table their empty glasses to prove they did in fact gan bei. At that rate within an hour no one is sober. If at a really big dinner party or if some other friends happen to be at the same restaurant, it is customary for the people at one table to go to the other table and toast with them too. The peer pressure is strong in these parts.
In my experience with Chinese friends, they take same approach when drinking tea, it’s a race of sorts. One can swap the baijiu for beer or Chinese made red wine or opt out of alcohol completely but the Chinese tend to be more impressed with foreigners who can knock back baijiu like the world is ending, you will often hear them saying to each other “他/她很能喝!”/”He/she can really drink!”. I personally can’t stomach baijiu and avoid it with the fervor of a monk avoiding meat.
The Chinese people that my friends and I have broken bread with have been incredibly friendly and extremely generous. They have us living the banquet life every time we eat with them. It doesn’t matter if you eat at their homes or in restaurants they always go all out. I haven’t been to every corner of the earth but I doubt there are people more welcoming to foreigners than the Chinese in my city have been to me and other foreigners here. There are frankly not enough adjectives to describe their kindness. Save for the occasional undesired intimate session with the toilet, I will leave with nothing but fond memories of eating in China and eating with Chinese people.
*See more weird insects and animals that pass as food in China on 西门在中国，a blog written by Simon Lesser.