Editor’s note: As your Chinese friends come back from their holiday at home, you might hear that a lot what they did there was eating all the delicious food with family and friends. You might wonder why or think “Okay, that’s interesting!” This article explores what is Chinese food and why it plays such a big role in the culture. This article is the first in a series on topics surrounding Chinese New Year in anticipation of the upcoming holiday.

You’ve probably heard a Chinese student say that an American Chinese restaurant, “is not real Chinese food.” Have you ever been gently stopped by your Chinese friend when you are ordering orange chicken? Which is harder:  Struggling to use chopsticks to pick up a peanut on your plate or not knowing which part of the pig you are eating? You can always talk about food with a Chinese student for hours, there is so much to say about Chinese food!

Orange Chicken, General Tso, I love “Chinese food”?

Believe it or not, most Chinese students have never heard about Orange Chicken. Early Chinese immigrants brought Chinese food to America.  However, local adaption was unavoidable. Some of the better-known dishes like Orange chicken might have been inspired by a certain traditional dish, but the excessive use of sugar and oil makes it very hard for Chinese students to recognize it as traditional Chinese food. When you invite a Chinese student to lunch, you probably don’t want to go to an all you can eat Chinese buffet, or any Chinese restaurant where there are mostly Americans eating there. This does not mean Chinese students have never had American Chinese food (sometimes they crave for some oily sweet food just like American students), but in most case, Chinese students will see a stark contrast between American Chinese food from “real Chinese food”.

Chinese food is complicated

So what is real Chinese food? It is impossible to describe Chinese cuisine in a couple of sentences due to the rich history and diverse regional culture. In every province or even every city, dishes and cooking methods could be very different. China is a massive land with many different climates, that lend to an assortment of ingredients and various flavor preference when it comes to food. For example, Sichuan region is quite humid throughout the year, so the Sichuan Cuisine is famous for using spicy and numbing flavors. Shanghai Cuisine is sweeter while Cantonese Cuisine is milder. There is a story of a British young lady who proclaimed she would use a year to travel around China and explore all the different Chinese foods. She started her journey in Chengdu. Three years have passed and she still hasn’t made her way out of Chengdu! Countless dishes, each representing the rich Chinese culture. Even for Chinese people, nobody can ever proclaim they have tried or even heard about every dish in China.

Sharing a meal is more than sharing food in China

In Chinese culture, sharing a meal together has much more meaning than just food. Chinese people always joke about there is no problem cannot be solved by sharing a meal. If there is, go share another meal. Eating together can definitely break the ice, whether you have a conflict with a coworker or are meeting new friends for the first time. Starting conversations over the dish you are sharing can never go wrong. One other reason people like to eat together is that the more people you have the more dishes you get to try because we share everything together. Perhaps this shows trust and intimacy. There are many more reasons why Chinese students like to eat together. Culturally, our life is about community; eating alone can be considered sad or even a little shameful, since it seems to imply that you do not have friends to eat with. If you notice any of your Chinese friends are eating alone, ask if you can join him or her. To that person it could mean a lot more than you think.  

 
Then where should I go and what should I order?

If you ask your Chinese friends where they like to eat in your area, they will tell you their go-to restaurants. Hot pot, Dim Sum are always popular among students, and both are great group event choices. However, Dim Sum is hard to find in many cities. People usually make hot pot at home because it tastes better and is cheaper. (And that is the Chinese way!) Hot pot can be very spicy sometimes, so let your friends know ahead of time if you cannot eat spicy food. Making food together can be a great way to spend time with your Chinese friends. Try making dumplings with a group of Chinese students.  In many parts of China, making and eating dumplings is a Chinese new year tradition. It is a group activity that many Chinese do with their families. During the new year celebration, students are away from family, so making dumplings together could bring comfort and joy to them and help them to build a home away from home. But, of course, it doesn’t have to be the new year to make dumplings!

Tips

  • The names of Chinese dishes often imply meaning instead of the ingredients. For example, there is a famous dishes called 蚂蚁上树 (ants on the tree), but it does not contain any ants or tree in the dish. The dish is made of ground pork and rice noodles. It gets its name because of the way it looks, not the ingredients. There are many examples like this, so don’t be scared, just ask your friend what it is made of.
  • In China, when you finish your plate, your host will give you more food right away. It is a hospitable culture to make sure your guests always have enough food, when there is a clean plate it means they are not full yet.
  • Gluten-free and GMO-free are not a thing in China
  • Rice is not a dish, it is more like a side dish to other main dishes.
  • More traditional Chinese restaurants serve their food family style. So you order everything for the table and share the bill together.
  • Don’t stab your chopsticks into your rice, it is impolite.
  • People sometimes “fight” for the bill, if your friend did not want you to pay and “fought”(insisted) for it more than three times, just simply buy them dinner next time.
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