If your idea of Chinese food is based on the corner takeout, prepare your taste buds for a shock when you travel to China. The food is fresh, flavorful, and usually made with great pride. It is often spicier than in the US, too, so beware of those treacherous little red peppers!
Tip #1. Remember that in China dining is about more than food. The Chinese love to eat, but it’s about more than that: for centuries sharing a meal has been an important way to establish “guanxi” (gwan-shee), or good relationships.
Tip #2. Sample all the dishes set before you. You’ll be seen as rude and offensive if you don’t try the dishes prepared for you, no matter how exotic or strange they may seem. If you have severe allergies, be sure to let your host know ahead of time.
Tip #3. Let your host order for you. Most American Chinese food has been adapted to the Western palette and renamed, so you probably won’t find your favorites on the menu. Be open to the dishes your host thinks you will like.
Tip #4. Eat as much as you like. In restaurants and homes, several dishes are brought to the table for all to share. The host will order for you, and there will be enough food to satisfy everyone around the table. Which leads us to the next tip …
Tip #5. Don’t balk at sharing from a common dish. This is something Westerners find a little hard to swallow (no pun intended). Using chopsticks, each person selects from the food that is placed on a large revolving tray in the middle of the table and brings it back to his or her plate. Join in.
Tip #6. Don’t clean your plate. Cleaning your plate is not seen as a compliment to the hostess in China. A clean plate indicates that the host has not provided enough food and that the guest is still hungry. A bit of uneaten food on your plate says, “I’m so full I can’t possibly eat another bite.”
Tip #7. Praise the food. But don’t say it if you don’t mean it! Your hosts will be watching you carefully to see what you eat and how much you eat. If they perceive that you like a certain dish, they will insist you eat more of it, order more of the same, or order it the next time you go out. Chinese have great memories for such things.
Tip #8. Be discreet if you don’t like the food. Try to find something you like and eat it slowly and consistently. Make sure there’s always something on your plate. Rice is usually safe, and with the variety of dishes ordered, you can usually find at least one or two other things that you’ll like.
Tip #9. Thank your hosts. Telling your hosts what you liked about the meal will mean a lot to them. Say, “Xie Xie! Hao chi!” If they try to put more food on your plate, cover it with your hands and decline, “Bu, bu, bu! Xie xie! Who chi bao le!” (No, no, no! Thank you. I’m full!)
Tip #10. Allow your host to pay. At the end of the meal, guests will sometimes make a gesture of reaching for the bill but, though appreciated, everyone knows that the host will insist on paying: it is a matter of honor, as paying the bill is seen as a symbol of generosity and hospitality.