Nancy and I have 25 days of chop stick eating experience in China. The only meal we ate that wasn’t Chinese was a lunch a couple days ago in Xi’an at a Japanese restaurant — oh yea, the Japanese also use chop sticks. During this time we have learned a few things about dining etiquette.
A typical meal for two will consist of three or four main dishes and a bowl of white rice for each. When eating with friends it is not unusual to have at least one additional dish per person at the table. And yes, there will be food left over. Eating everything on your plate is a social mistake — your host will believe they didn’t order enough food if your plate doesn’t have food left on it.
Chinese serve the food as it becomes ready. The time between the arrival of the first dish and the last dish can easily be five minutes. You begin eating when the first dish arrives, not when all the dishes have arrived.
Today for the first time we used a set of community chop sticks. Since Chinese dishes are served without serving utensils the people at the table may elect to either just dig in with their individual chop sticks or place one set of chop sticks into the served dished to be used by all to transfer food from the serving dish to your own plate or bowl of rice. It is not unusual to see a group of people at a table put their chop sticks into a bowl, pick up food, and put it directly into their mouths.
Anything you place in your mouth that you don’t want to eat, like a fish bone or shrimp tail, etc you take out of your mouth and place on the table. No bone plates are provided so where else are you going to put that bone or fish tail.
When Nancy and I order it is fairly straight forward, we decide on what we want to eat and order. However, when we eat with our guides each one has spent time with the waitress or waitresses and sometimes with the cook discussing the exact ingredients each dish contains. Ordering is a social event and is not to be hurried.
When we first began our Chinese eating odyssey there were portions of food we wanted to cut into smaller portions. So, we would take a chop stick in each hand and cut or tear the larger portion into smaller portions. Now, I and sometimes Nancy just go with restaurant flow and put the large portion into our mouths and bite off a portion or just stuff the whole portion into our mouths. Hey, it works.
I no long feel self conscious about picking up my bowl of rice and placing it an inch away from my mouth and shoveling in one or more bites. Everyone else around us is doing it so why be different. However, I must admit I can’t shovel the food as quickly as the Chinese.
Soup is easy to eat because it typically comes with a Chinese spoon. This spoon is shorter and the bowl of the spoon is deeper than our spoons. I haven’t decided if eating soup without a spoon, i.e. just tilting the bowl into the mouth is acceptable. I see Chinese doing it this way I just don’t know if it proper etiquette. I will have to check with our guide tomorrow.
Noodle dishes are another challenge, at least for me and my chop sticks. That is until I watch everyone around me. Noodles are easy to eat once you understand you do what ever it takes to get them into your mouth and then bite off what ever you don’t want and let this left over drop back into your bowl. To keep the food off my shirt and out of my lap I don’t hesitate to pick up the noodles with my chop sticks, lean over my plate, put the chop sticks with hanging noodles into my mouth, bite off what I can’t get into my mouth, and enjoy the taste of another Chinese noodle dish.
I do believe the most positive thing about eating with chop sticks is it slows down your eating. I am a fast eater and sometimes (maybe more times than I want to admit) I eat more than I need because I eat so fast my stomach doesn’t realize it is full and I keep on eating. With chop sticks you eat slower (or at least we do) and smaller bites. Therefore, when my stomach is full I stop eating — I don’t over eat because my stomach has a chance to let me know it is full before I over eat.
Side notes: Several of the buffet breakfast include English silverware alongside the buffet plates. Don’t know about Nancy but I use my chop sticks because when in China do as the Chinese. That rule has applied except at our current hotels which sets the morning tables with English silverware.
Because or at least I think because we are eating at local Chinese restaurants rather than the tourist hotel or high end restaurants I have observed another practice not common in the U.S. When severed a beer our drivers (who do not drink) will poor a small amount into one glass, swirl the beer around in the glass, pour the beer into the second glass, swirl the beer, and then go toss the beer — into the street or down the floor drain a table or two away from us. We always say thank you for this bit of cleanliness on the part of our drivers.