Eating is a favorite pastime for the Chinese. When traveling in China, you won’t have to go far to find food especially in big cities. Restaurants and food vendors are plentiful. The options are also endless: from the simplest dish - congee (rice porridge) to the exotic - bull testicle soup. In general, if it moves, the Chinese can serve it on a plate. Therefore, if you visit China, make sure to bring an ample appetite, a strong stomach, and an open mind.
A standard Chinese meal will include rice. To underscore the importance of rice, “to eat or have a meal”, in Chinese, literally means to eat rice 吃飯. In addition to rice, a Chinese meal will usually include two or more dishes -- a vegetable dish and a meat dish (sometimes mixed with vegetables). Variety is important to stimulate the appetite. Dishes are served “family style” meaning large dishes in the center for everyone to share emphasizing the bond of a family. The Chinese also usually include a bowl of soup with a meal.
Soups are home-style recipes usually passed down through generations and hard to replicate. Soups usually include a variety of ingredients that the Chinese consider “healthy” such as meat, animal organs, herbs, vegetables, fruits and medicinal roots (ginseng). Soups are an important addition to a Chinese meal because of their nutritional value. Because the Chinese work long hours, soups are made to cater towards replenishing nutrients for the body. Since soups require many hours to stew, they are usually made on the weekends or when the occasion requires it, such as sickness. If someone makes a home-style soup for you, it is often a sign of affection.
Eating is also an important part of social engagement for business relationships and personal entertainment. Banquet-style meals, offering multiple courses, are usually served in restaurants to entertain business associates or for major life events, such as weddings, holidays, birthdays or funerals. Even on sad occasions such as after a funeral, the Chinese will not neglect eating; the Chinese feel that food not only replenishes the stomach but also the heart. Eating together is an important process of sharing joy and grief. During major holidays such as Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival, it is very important to come home for a “reunion” dinner. Since most Chinese people are migrant workers who work very far from their hometown, they especially look forward to having dinner at home during the Chinese New Year as it is comforting to be around family again.
The various provinces in China have their distinctive taste preferences. In the midwest, Sichuan cuisine is generally spicy -- as you may have noticed on Chinese menus, the Sichuan dish Kung Pao Chicken often has red chili peppers next to them! In the north, Shanxi cuisine is generally sour. In the south, Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine is known for its variety such as Dim Sum, 點心 . Dim Sum offers a variety of light snacks and appetizers that come in small portions; it is not meant as a complete meal. Dim Sum starts in the early morning and usually ends by mid-afternoon. Times vary depending on each city. In Hong Kong, Dim Sum is served as early as 5 AM to 3 PM. Dim Sum provides a happy dinning experience and encompasses the Chinese ideal of eating. Dishes served during Dim Sum hours are generally not served during regular hours. Some famous dishes include the Phoenix Claw (chicken feet) and the White Leaves of the Cow (beef tripe). Don’t be fooled by grandiose names of Chinese dishes as they are intentionally meant to pique one’s curiosity and stimulate the appetite. A popular and often expensive delicacy is Bird’s Nest Soup which is basically soup made from the saliva of a bird.
Conversely, Xiao Ye 宵夜, or midnight snacks, are a variety of food served in the evening through early morning (9 PM – 3AM), depending on the city. Xiao Ye exists all over China. Rows of food stalls in marketplaces and restaurants “reawaken” to satisfy the cravings of hungry people. Each city offers its own specialties. In Beijing, you have fried scorpions on a stick; in Guangzhou, grilled stuffed oysters; in Hong Kong, stinky tofu and fried curry fish balls are only a few examples. For people with a sweet tooth, a variety of desserts are also available: red bean soup, mango or tofu pudding, sesame paste, bubble tea. Friends and family take this opportunity to hang out and eat (sometimes even in their pajamas).
The Chinese prioritize eating especially eating with company. Wherever or whenever you are in China, food is readily available. In addition, food is relatively cheap and unique; therefore, it is tempting to want to try everything. The true danger is eating too much. Like junk food in America, light snacks offered in Dim Sum and Xiao Ye are high in saturated fat and sodium. Therefore, when in China, remember to eat in moderation.