Chinese cuisine is among the best cuisines in the world and for a reason, its rich food culture.
Understand that Chinese food history is traced back to the beginning of Chinese history. This tradition has then been inherited across generations.
For a country that believes that food is a necessity to man, it was inevitable that we would conquer the world with our food.
We have respect for food and whoever we are eating it with. Therefore, since we are born into the food culture, it’s actually our lifestyle.
Most of our meals if not all have a history behind their formation.
Additionally, behind the general Chinese food culture umbrella are the regional food cultures.
For this reason, it might have been hard in the past to promote the cuisine using one single meal when there are thousands.
The History and Chinese Food
Cooking was only recognized as an art during the Chou dynasty. Before that, the people learnt to hunt and fish then grow crops. Slowly, China evolved its cooking method making some gracious meals.
If you know China you will understand that the country is characterized by rapid population growth of the people in the city and in the rural areas.
For a long time, the food was not enough to feed the whole population and therefore the food kept evolving thus catering for a larger population. Back in history there was a time when meat was scarce and to feed a whole family, we learnt to mix it with rice and noodles.
In doing this, the food became plentiful and thus feeding a lot more people. Slowly the culture introduced the use of veggies in the meal.
Stir-frying is the Chinese signature cooking method and it rose to fame because one would save fuel with this method yet cook faster.
The Chinese culture follows two philosophies that had a great influence on the culture and ultimately the food development. They are the Taoism and Confucianism.
- Under Confucianism
People were more concerned about the art of cooking while enjoying life.
In fact, that’s why you will notice that in the major cities or even at home, where there’s a gathering, plenty of food must be presented. Under this philosophy, food and friends are inseparable.
During this time, for the respect of food, the philosopher established a culinary standard as well as the table etiquette.
Most of these philosophies are used to date. For the preparation of food, it was essential to make bite-size pieces of food.
You needed to understand the matchmaking of different ingredients for a rich blend of flavors and tastes. At his time, cooking became art and not really a chore. Generally, he was concerned about the texture, taste and appearance of the food.
- Under Taoism
Next came the Tao philosophy which was more focused on the hygiene aspect of food since much had already been done. In fact, the philosopher was more concerned about the life-giving feature of the food.
For this reason, our people began searching for roots, seeds and herbs that would then nurture human life. Medicinal herbs were discovered at this time and the nutritional aspect of veggies discovered.
Importance of Food in Chinese Culture
This dates to Confucianism philosophy. We believed that we had to eat food with friends and family.
When it’s time to eat, it’s also time to socialize. You will often find the people gathered at a restaurant or at home for a meal.
The saying that friends and food go together is so true in this country. For this reason, we remain closely knit to our family members and friends. I mean we have every reason to get together at least once a day but mostly for a meal.
- It’s an industry on itself
The country is divided into various regions all of whom have their own way of cooking with the available resources.
In recent years, the cuisine has established itself in the global scene which means that all their restaurant in major cities around the world has a booming business.
Most people want to be associated with the best and since the cuisine is listed on the best cuisines in the world, people want to try. It’s mostly out of curiosity by the non-Chinese and the feeling of being back home by the Chinese living in those cities.
Back home the industry employs a vast majority and even improves on their livelihoods. What’s more, you don’t have to go to the big restaurants for your favorite meals, you can find them in the street stalls.
For a long time, food was scarce in the country because there were so many people with very minimal resources. Over time the people began to try eating almost everything so that they free from hunger.
This saw the need to reduce food waste. Because of this, we eat just everything that has four legs except for furniture of course. So, don’t be surprised when you see us eating the duck and chicken feet.
- The food culture is big
As big as the country and its population so is its food industry. I think it would be true to say that almost everything in China revolves around food. If you have visited any city here you should know that.
Just look around you and notice how much food is surrounding you. There are thousands of food stalls on the city streets and thousands of food blogs on social media tackling the same topic-Chinese food.
The importance of every region’s meal is linked to its culture and meaning in the grand tapestry of the country cuisine.
- The food culture has a direct link to politics
In the ancient days, China was affected by hunger but not today. With the help of the government, the country has seen to it that each region is able to feed its people. This includes the driest parts of the country.
To combat hunger, the government has placed different measures in place like having grain stocks and encouraging agriculture in the different parts of the country.
- The food culture and the great Taoism philosophy
With the Taoism philosophy, he believed that everything in the universe has the yin and yang features. The yin represents the cooling effect while yang represents the warming effect.
To the philosopher, everything has a yin then a yang effect and for life to run smoothly, you should balance the two. Even your body should balance the yin and yang. This you will achieve when you eat correctly.
Yang food is spicy, sweet and pungent with a warm appearance while the yin food is salty and bitter with a high level of moisture. Their colors are cool like the green color. Even cooking gives you the two aspects. Frying and roasting are yang while boiling and steaming yin.
For you to experience a balance in your body, you’ll have the physical, emotional and spiritual aspect of you in balance. When there’s no balance of the yin and yang, you will most likely experience some body ailments.
Now you know that even the food is cooked to give a balance in everything from the flavors to the appearance and to the nutrients. This is because the food is very important for you to achieve human balance and therefore universal balance.
Chinese Cultural Eating Habits
Although there are 7 main regional cuisines in the country, we have a constant culture when it comes to eating habits as you will see below.
The Types of Courses
The meal here will consist of the staple food which is anything between noodles, rice and steamed buns. They will also consist of vegetables and meat dishes. Notice that here unlike the West, everyone is given their bowl of rice but the accompanying meal is eaten communally.
Additionally, the desserts aren’t part of your main meal rather you can eat them as snacks in between meals. Sometime, however, it may be served at the end of the meal as fresh fruit.
- Cold Dish
These ones are the starters used to evoke the individual’s appetite. It contains ingredients like soy sauce, chilli powder, salt, sugar and vinegar. It’s a representation of the main meal coming by virtue of the way it’s cooked and its shape.
- Hot dish
This makes the main dish and is cooked using the stir-frying method, deep frying method, quick frying among other methods.
- Soups and congees
Unlike in other regions where the soup would be used as a starter, here it follows the main meal. It contains veggies and meats. They may contain thickeners or not. As for congee, most people use it during breakfast and since it’s easy to digest the little ones can use it too.
- The staples
Depending on the part of China you are at, your staple is either rice or noodles. For south Chinese, rice is a staple while those from the north noodles and other wheat-based foods are a staple.
Features of Chinese Food
Notice that the food culture has formed since the ancient of days. Below are the features that describe the cuisine.
- Has varying flavors
Blessed with abundant resources in the vast regions of the country, the different regions have their own food. Example: rice is for the southerners what noodles are to the northerners. The flavors are a blend of sweet south, sour east, savory north, spicy west.
The country like most other parts of the world experience different seasons. The raw materials are different with the changing seasons. Even the method of cooking varies with the change in seasons.
You will find light and cool flavors during summer but braised and stewed foods are for the winter.
- The aesthetic value
It matters so much how the food looks to the Chinese. But doesn’t it to every other person? From the color to the texture and to the aroma all this influence people to eat or not according to the Chinese.
- Some foods are also Chinese medicine
The philosopher Tao valued the life-giving aspect of the food consumed. For this reason, the Chinese began looking for spices and foodstuffs that would also render the medicinal value to the food.
When one isn’t seriously ill, they use different food to heal the disease as opposed to toxic medicine.
Dining table Foodservice
So now that you know about the course, we will check the dining culture. Assuming you are invited to the banquet of eight people, you should expect anything from four courses of cold dishes and another four for the hot dishes.
Another set that shouldn’t miss is the soups and rice for each of you. Note that, you will know whether yours is a standard banquet meal or low one from the dinner service. For the standard one, you should have anything between four and eight cold dishes then eight hot dishes.
Other meals present may include a whole piece of suckling pig, chicken or fish. You will then have your bowls of rice or noodles together with soups and pastries. At home you may have a bowl or two of rice or noodles, some pieces of meat and veggies then finish off with soups.
You should toast to each other
Toasting is a must on the dining table. The Chinese will ‘Gan Bei’ when toasting with each other.
As the host, you raise the glass of wine or liquor and then drink all the content to the last drop. This shows the guests that you are sincere and joyful.
The hosts, however, will just sip their drinks during the toast. When toasting, the younger ones of the family/gathering lower their cups below the elderly. This goes true for even those in high stature and those with low levels.
These ones make the most important tableware to have. The chopsticks are made of bamboo, wood, gold, silver, ivory or bronze. However, the most common ones are bamboo and wood made.
- You shouldn’t insert the chopstick upright on the bowl of rice or any other food for that matter. This is an indication of funerals. During funerals, joss sticks are inserted on the bowl of rice and placed on the altar.
- Don’t beat your bowl with the chopsticks as this is a sign used by beggars in the past life.
- Be careful that you don’t make a glutinous impression. When picking food from the communal bowl, you shouldn’t crush into other people’s chopsticks.
- Don’t play with your chopsticks.
- Respect the food, don’t stab it with chopsticks.
- It’s bad manners to drop food while using the chopsticks. Therefore, insert the chopsticks into the food deeply to ensure the food is safe before carrying it to your mouth. Also, you may hold the bowl close to your mouth when eating.
- You might need to separate the food into tiny pieces with the sticks. Don’t worry in this practice will make you perfect.
If you aren’t so familiar to the chopsticks, ask the professional servers for a fork and spoon. But, note that, you won’t be given a knife because they are considered violent in China.
- The centerpiece services
As earlier stated, you will have your bowl of the staple food which is either rice or noodles and sometimes even steamed buns. Other cooked dishes are placed in the middle of the table for you to pick what you desire.
This is the sign of togetherness from the great philosophers. It also emphasizes the need to share. You will further notice that your table appears colorful from a variety of meals offered to you.
If you are in a health-conscious environment, you may use the spoon to scoop the food from the center plate.
- How we sit
Notice that the seat that faces the door is meant for the host. Next, your most important guest will sit on the hosts left and then the second most important one seats on the right. In fact, it’s best to sit on the left than it is to sit on the right.
On the sitting setting, when you arrive, you should introduce yourself or let the host introduce you to the group before you take your sit. Moreover, we only sit down after the guest of honor sits.
With everything, you follow his/her lead. You begin to eat after he/she begins eating. Also, let them toast first and then you can toast after.
- Respect is paramount
I have mentioned this in the previous points but let me stress it here. The culture of respect and the Chinese is inseparable. It happens even at the table. You should let the elderly eat first.
Even when you are visiting a place, you should know that you won’t just start eating before the host allows you to. Let him/her welcome you and say something or even tell you to eat.
Eating Table Manners
By all means, when eating hold the right table etiquette. Eat in a civilized manner and pay attention to the following details
- Allow the elders to eat first
Let the elders or hosts serve first. You don’t want to struggle with your elders in the common bowl. Just give them time to serve first.
- Picking your rice bowl should be done in the correct way
Place your thumb on the mouth of the bowl then the other fingers can support the bottom of the bowl. Make sure the palm of your hand is empty.
- Don’t eat the food that has dropped on the table because its all just disgusting.
- Our important days
We treasure important moments especially birthdates. On the day before your birthdate, you eat noodles as a sign of longevity. The cake is eaten on the birthdate.
When you reach the middle age, the family adds peaches to the noodles as a sign of longevity and immortality.
We like to serve dates, peanuts, longan and chestnut to show the couple that we are expecting to hear of a baby soon.
Celebrations like the dragon boat festive have us eating zongzi dumpling for the veneration of the patriotic queen.
The Chinese Symbol for Food
What Do Chinese Eat for Breakfast Lunch and Dinner?
Understand that all this depends on which part of China you are at. Different regions serve different meals. However, I know that breakfast will begin at around 6am-9am.
Common meals you expect
- Congee and crullers
This is an Asian style porridge that is commonly served in a bowl. You will find it on the street stalls or even at home. They come with different seasonings that will make you eat it many times a week.
- Steamed buns and dumplings
These ones are heavy but are served in the course of the whole day. We like it more in the morning. These buns are often stuffed or unstuffed. If you eat the stuffed ones you will have consumed a whole meal.
- How about noodles?
Noodles? Yes, noodles. Unlike the west where this serves as the main meal at lunch or dinner, noodles are taken even in the morning here.
Like other parts of the world, pancakes are available with the most common one being jianbing. This one is the egg-filled pancake that you will find being made across the streets.
Soy milk is quite common and you eat fried dough sticks with it.
We serve lunch from noon to 2 pm in China. At this time, you can eat all the different meals you like. You will generally have at least 3 veggies, some meat and the staple being noodles or rice. The characteristic here is that the meal is eaten fast because we want to go back to our duties.
We eat our dinner anytime between 6 pm and 8 pm. For us unlike most believe, this is our most important meal. In fact, this is also the time when we come together with the family after a long day.
Here we must have soups, meats and veggies then the noodles or rice. You may eat dinner with family and friends in the restaurants. You can have your snacks late in the night if you wish.
Generally, we have to say that Chinese food culture is something everyone wants to emulate because it’s rich.
Other dining etiquettes like being thankful for a service offered to you by another at the table cuts across the globe.
Nevertheless, enough said about the food culture. How about you visit this beautiful country and see for yourself what food means to the people. As the proverb goes ‘to the ruler, the people are heaven and to the people, food is heaven.