Food & Drinks
Eight distinct Han schools of Chinese cuisine
There is no single thing more important in China than food. The glue of all Chinese society, food is involved in every conceivable social medium somewhere along the line. From friends to lovers, business deals, celebrations, holidays or practically any mode of enjoyment — if people are involved, you can bet that food will be too. Cooking is utterly central to family life, endlessly empowering and facilitating familial relationships, and it has evolved so closely with holidays that each festival has a very specific dish that must be eaten on that day if bad portents are to be avoided. Food has been so unabashedly important through Chinese history that a common greeting (something similar to “What’s up?”) between acquaintances is “Nǐ chī fàn le ma (你吃饭了吗)?” literally, “Have you eaten?”
Western Chinese Food
The Chinese take their food seriously, which is why the cuisine has such an impressive reputation all around the world. But if you think you’re going to come here, plop down and order your regular favorites of General’s Tso’s Chicken, think again. The Chinese food you are used to back home is Westernized Chinese food, that means it’s been tweaked, sweetened-up, flipped, flopped, and in many ways toned down (less on the vinegar and more on the sugar) in order to accommodate the general Western palate. For this reason – and the fact that most Chinese food in the West is either from the Guangdong (Canton) or Sichuan family of dishes – you are in for a tour-de-flavor like you’ve never had before. Many flavors and dishes will be familiar and immediately mouth watering, but exotic combinations and cooking methods are common enough that opening up your heart and your taste buds to bold new adventures is the best way to ensure that you leave China with a satisfied taste in your mouth. Let’s dive in!
The Real Deal: Regional Cuisine
History has done quite a number on Chinese food. Throughout thousands of years, dishes rose and fell with emperors (who always made their favorites clear) and were stirred in different directions with the flow of trade, population migrations, or foreign invasions. The Silk Road introduced a great palate of flavors from the West, particularly Muslim influenced dishes from the Middle East, to China – much as it conversely established noodles as a popular dish in Europe (that’s right, pasta came from China). Chili peppers popped in to the Middle Kingdom from the Americas in the 18th century, firing up a long tradition of fiercely spicy dishes in the western regions of the country. Poultry gobbled its way to China during that time as well, creating a legion of dishes defined by their inclusion of chicken or eggs.
All of this trade, war and migration produced eight distinct Han schools of Chinese cuisine (Zhōnghuá Bādà Càixì; 中华八大菜系), which can be generally bagged into northern, southern, eastern and western groups. These schools are also particularly dependent on climate, distribution of plant and animal types, proximity to the ocean, and other geographic factors. Smaller locales have more specific culinary methods that may cross breed aspects from different schools, and ethnic minorities also contribute their own specific cooking mores.
What China now serves up in the 21st century is in no small way a product of its remarkable history. Your trip through China will bring at least one of the so-called Eight Regional Cuisines of China (and their subsets) to your table, so control your rumbling stomach and your drooling as we present to you the mouth-watering regional cooking styles of the Middle Kingdom. Applause, please.
Northern China is superbly rich in dynastic history, resulting in imperial dishes pervading and typifying much of northern cooking. Beijing cooking is considered northern style, and its signature dish – Peking duck – was once the exclusively scrumptious pleasure of emperors. Shandong cuisine is the north’s official gastronomical school, but sub-branches also include Beijing, Dongbei (northeast or Manchurian), Mongolian and Shanxi fare.
Shandong cuisine is the oldest of the eight schools, thus giving northern cooking arguably the most time-honored status of the regional styles. It is marked by heartiness and richness – a natural reaction to the cold winters, and owing to the region’s characteristic dryness and abundance of wheat. Shandong offers much in the way of noodles, carb-loaded breads like mantou (馒头) or the flat bing (饼), and plenty of soups and jiaozi (饺子; dumplings). Expect plenty of salt in the flavors here, particularly in the form of soy sauce braised dishes, which fills the blood with a warm hearty vigor when the mercury drops.
China’s east is appropriately fixated upon seafood, particularly fish, not only because of the great coastline that frames its far edge, but also because it’s splashed with powerful lakes and dissected by rivers and canals. Throw in a moist subtropical climate and some of the most fertile land in the country, and you have a recipe for some of China’s most delectable culinary inventions.
Three of China’s eight cooking schools have grown from the fruitful east: Anhui, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. All of them have in common some seafood plates – some more than others – and stir-frying, steaming and pan-frying are staple cooking methods, meant to augment the natural flavors of fresh ingredients without an overabundance of seasoning. Fish is usually found steamed, stir-fried, pan-fried or grilled. The saltiness of the north begins to give way here to more sweet sauces and lighter tastes, though brazing is still common since the east is famed for producing the countries best soy sauces.
Anhui cuisine lacks in the seafood department, but creatively makes up for it elsewhere. A mountainous inland region, Anhui’s school is marked by the use of its local veggies (such as bamboo and mountain mushrooms) and wild animals in time-crafted braised dishes and stews.
Jiangsu cuisine lies at the core of eastern cooking, superbly enunciated by the Chinese description Land of Fish and Rice. The rich variety of fish and fresh produce from the historically export-based economy incorporates cooking from several locales, namely Yangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and some splash-over from Zhejiang. Famous dishes from the Jiangsu school include Nanjing’s Jinling salted dried duck (yánshuǐ yā; 盐水鸭), pork meatballs in crab shell powder (xièfěn shīzǐtóu; 蟹粉狮子头) and Yangzhou steamed jerky strips (zhǔ gànsī; 煮干丝), made from chicken, ham, pea leaves and dried tofu.
Zhejiang cuisine is known for being light, non-greasy and touched by mellow fragrances. Much of it originated from the ancient Song Dynasty capital of Hangzhou, back in a time when more than two thirds of the city’s businesses were tea houses or restaurants. In fact, the Song Dynasty is credited with cultivating the beginnings of China’s enormous restaurant industry.
The cuisine of Zhejiang includes sub-varieties of Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Ningbo and Shanghai. The light and aromatic dishes of Hangzhou make excellent use of bamboo, while Shanghai is famous for hairy crabs (dà zhá xiè;大闸蟹) between October and November, as well as the wildly popular xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包) breaded dumplings.
Hairy crabs are not as scary or gorilla-like as they sound; the soft meat is served with warm rice wine to balance the cold yin energy of the crabs with a warming yang energy from the wine. Xiaolongbao on the other hand can get scary when you see the lines outside the Shanghai eateries that serve them up. The scrumptious buns are filled with a pork or crab ball drowned in a savory broth. The broth is burning hot, so be careful not to scald the roof of your mouth or ruin your shirt when it comes jetting out upon your first bite. The best tactic is not to bite straight into the bun, which will pop like a water balloon, but instead nibble off a bit of the bun and slurp the broth out through the hole (some upscale restaurants may provide a straw for you to sip out the soup).
Nanjing’s Jinling salted dried duck
Pork meatballs in crab shell powder
Yangzhou steamed jerky strips
Shanghai hairy crabs
Typified in most global circles by the ever-pervasive cooking of Guangdong (Canton), the cuisine of southern China emphasizes the freshness (xiān; 鲜) of ingredients above all else, and seeks to enhance their natural flavor through seasonings without overburdening the dish. This philosophy was influential in eastern cooking, which owes its own insistence on freshness and lightness of taste to southern cooking.
While subtly coaxing flavors is the norm in southern cooking, the regional palate is also marked by noticeably sweeter dishes, leaving the saltiness and savory burn of northern dishes by the wayside. Rice is also swapped out for the north’s staples of noodles and bread, which is not a surprise considering the region’s 2,000-year history of glistening water drenched rice paddies.
In Western eyes, food does not get more quintessentially Chinese than Guangdong (aka Cantonese) cuisine. It was Guangdong natives who catapulted Chinese food onto the radar of the world, following their adventurous maritime trade tendencies of establishing a galaxy of Chinatowns in major cities around the globe. The vast majority of Chinese expats in places like New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, London or Paris are Cantonese, and it is because of this that their fantastic cooking has become globally synonymous with Chinese food.
In fact, Guangzhou (formerly called Canton, the capital of Guangdong) fare is impressively popular around China as well. An especially popular Chinese saying goes “Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou.” It’s said that Suzhouese are especially good looking, Hangzhou is one of the most livable cities in China, Guangzhou cooking is unmatched, and Liuzhou wood is the best to build a coffin from. Anyway, on with food.
Canton’s signature dish is dim sum – no doubt you’ve heard of it. Mandarin speakers call it dian xin (点心), literally meaning “to touch the heart,” and the Cantonese equally refer to dim sum time as yumcha (饮茶; drink tea). If you haven’t had dim sum before, you’re in for a treat. Carted around on cute little trolleys, the dishes – which include spring rolls (chūn juàn; 春卷), pork-filled buns (chā shāo bāo; 叉烧包), fried dumplings (guō tiē; 锅贴), and about a thousand others – are usually kept in steamers, and patrons are encouraged to pluck them fright off the cart whenever they see something delicious.
Besides dim sum, Cantonese draws greatly from its coastal waters, making good use of seafood and sea veggies (a superbly healthy choice). It’s also well known for having particularly sweet sauces and deep fried dishes. Finally, be ready for some very bizarre dishes to be found, such as those made from gizzards and certain insects. As Prince Philip not-so-eloquently put it in 1986, “If it has four legs and is not a chair, if it has two wings and flies but is not an airplane, and if it swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.” While his somewhat ignorant words seriously lacked in the cultural awareness and sensitivity departments, they do show how shocking some of the creations can be to outsiders.
Fujian cuisine may be the least famous of China’s southern schools, but if you’re in this area, don’t let it take a back seat to Cantonese food. While keeping with the regions general tenets of light flavorings that enhance the natural aroma, Fujian cooks are masters of seafood, and they love to throw in delicacies from the mountains that are particular to their region. While you’re enjoying a perfectly steamed fish or one of the school’s trademark soup or stew dishes, don’t forget to try some wild mountain mushrooms or bamboo shoots.
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall (Fó Tiào Qiáng; 佛跳墙), one of Fujian’s most famous dishes, is a delicacy soup with shark fin. It’s been around since its heyday during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), and the rich taste of the soup is brought about using a variety of high-quality ingredients and special (semi-secret) cooking techniques. Besides the fact that many people have a serious problem with the fishing of sharks for their fins, it becomes even more dubious when you realize that the name was crafted as an metaphor to encourage vegetarian Buddhists eat meat dish, hence its funny name of Buddha jumping over the wall to a carnivorous diet.
While in China’s south, don’t forget to keep an eye and an ear out for the unique cuisine of the Hakka people. While their cooking tends to be simple and makes use of whatever is available in the markets, they put great emphasis on the texture, holding fast that this is the way to perfectly bring out the flavors of the food. Cooking a piece of meat to its tastiest while keeping it from becoming hard or chewy is considered one of the highest skills of a cook. Preserved meats also take up a place in their palate and are often added to stews and other dishes.
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall
When red hot chili peppers (no, not the band) sailed across the ocean from Central America, western Chinese cooking became defined by one word: spicy! As if that was not enough, coriander, aniseed, peppercorns, ginger and a whole lot of garlic are tossed in as well, just to make sure you’re not getting any kind of wimpy spiciness.
Sichuan cuisine is the best known of the western schools. Besides the ingredients aforementioned, and a friendly helping of peanuts and sesame paste, Sichuan makes liberal use of its hallmark ingredient: the flower pepper (huā jiāo;花椒). Not quite a visit to the dentists, this unique medicinal pepper has a particular numbing effect on the mouth, and while it will scarcely reduce the sting of the mighty chili pepper, the two work in a distinctive combination to produce the nationally famous feeling of mala: numb and hot. You will be sucking air and guzzling drinks like there’s no tomorrow after a bite of mala – you’ve been warned.
Just about every nook and cranny of China has a Sichuan restaurant stuffed somewhere inside, but if you have the chance you should experience it on it’s home turf. Hot pot is the mother of all Sichuan food: a pot of boiling scarlet broth where you toss in veggies and meats ranging from leafy and familiar to something from Planet X and wolf them down with generous helpings of icy beer and almond milk. Chongqing hot pot is the master of all and should not be underestimated even by the most seasoned pepper fanatics. If you want to try the flavor with a bit of the heat taken down, go for yuanyang hot pot (yuānyāng huǒguō; 鸳鸯火锅), a seemingly Taoist inspired tank where the calming yin side is mellow and unspicy, while the yang side blisters with eye-watering reds.
Hunan cuisine seems to fall in a close second to Sichuan. It makes sense, too, since they throw the spice of the chili pepper straight in your face with their exclusion of the anesthetic effects of the flower pepper. Get ready for a straight up fierce pepper in Hunan cooking, as well as some fantastic flash and stir-fried creations and notable braising and smoking techniques.
Falling somewhere between western and northern regions, the cooking of Shaanxi Province blends the hearty savory and salty style of nearby Shandong with the ferocious mala flower and chili peppering of bordering Sichuan, and then throws in a good dose of Xinjiang and Gansu Muslim leanings from its strong Hui population. What results is a renowned set of salty, garlicky, peppery and vinegary noodle dishes and unique creations that set Shaanxi cuisine in its own subset that rivals the eight traditional schools. Xi’an’s flagship dish of lamb and bread stew (yángròu pàomó;羊肉泡馍) is unbeatable, while one noodle dish is so famously specific to the region it has its own locally created Han character and a pronunciation not found anywhere else in the Mandarin lexicon which is called biangbiang mian.
Yuanyang hot pot
Lamb and bread stew
Biang Biang Mian: Local Noodles and One of Mandarin’s Most Complicated Characters
It’s no secret to any traveler who’s entered Shaanxi that the locals take their food seriously. Noodles, in particular, are no joke, especially in the capital of Xi’an. They come in many shapes and sizes, from the acutely thin noodles of sàozi miàn (臊子面) to those so thick they could hold your pants up. If the evidence of Xi’an’s groundbreaking noodle culture is not plain enough to the Chinese nation already, the spirited and creative locals have thrown another fascination into the mix with the Chinese character that describes one of their most famous noodle dishes. The dish is known as biǎngbiǎng miàn (see the character pictured below for biang) and it’s quite the head spinner.
The full Chinese name of this special local noodle is as
Sometimes called yóupō miàn ( 油泼面) and known as one of the “Ten Strange Wonders of Shaanxi” (Shǎnxī Shí Dàguài; 陕西十大怪), the noodles are some of the province’s thickest and hardiest, but the character often dwarfs the noodles themselves in the wonder it incites. With 58 strokes, it is one of the few modern characters that cannot be written on computer programs, and it is not found in the renowned Ming Dynasty Kangxi Dictionary.
As one of the most complicated characters in the Chinese language, there are few people today who can write it correctly. More often than not, homophonic or close-sounding characters (such as bīngbīng [ 冰冰] or biāobiāo [ 彪彪]) are used in place. To make the strange character even more bizarre, the actual pronunciation of biǎng actually breaks Mandarin’s phonological rules: the “bia” sound of biang is found nowhere else in the language.
The linguistic invention of the Shaanxi people is something that many find marvelous; a creation of a unique central plains culture displaying their linguistic creativity alongside their culinary mastery. For others, adherence to the character represents something unnecessarily pedantic, a complication of a language often criticized for its already complex nature. No matter how you spin it, biǎngbiǎng miàn in it’s written form is a fascinating part of a dish that truly forces you to use your noodle.
The country’s Muslim populations put on quite a dazzling culinary show as well. The cuisine of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang, consisting mostly of roasted mutton, beef, fish, vegetables, flat bread and a host of standout kebabs, is some of the most mouth watering in the Middle Kingdom. Other notable regions where Muslim food is prominent is in Gansu and Ningxia Provinces since there is a notable Hui (Chinese Muslims with Arab and Persian roots) population. Again, you’ll find plenty of lamb kebabs cooked right on the street in these places, but their local specialty is their famous hand-pulled beef noodle soups. Muslim cooking in China also adheres to halal principles and makes excellent use of red pepper.
Treats from the Tibetan kitchen should not go inexperienced while in China. Suited for the extremities of their unyielding climate and land, Tibetan food is characterized by high caloric and warming dishes, with particular emphasis on the all-too-tasty yak meats and yogurts, as well as buttered teas and hardy stews of meat, potatoes and barley.
Onion-stuffed bread (nang)
Chinese dining establishments are as varied as the regional cuisines they serve. Whatever your dining preference, there is a wealth of places waiting for you. As long as you’re not offended by a hole-in-the-wall serving up home-style noodles on busted Lucite tables and rickety, uneven stools while the latest Voice of China fizzles in and out on a 70 dollar TV, then you’ll feel at home in pretty much any eatery in China. If you’re looking for more of the elegant side of the Middle Kingdom, some of the fanciest places around will greet you with beautiful women in traditional cheongsam dresses who will then escort you to a banquet style table, hand you a gilded menu and organize all your tableware. For these places you’d better prepare more than just a wad of cash.
As you can imagine, everything under the sun awaits you in between these two extremes, and you can find cuisine from all over the land in just about any city you go to. Be aware that generally only the fanciest of the fancy restaurants can accept a foreign credit card – we’re serious about that wad of cash.
A typical mid-range restaurant
Ordering, Menus & Tipping
One aspect of Chinese dining that may surprise you is the process of ordering food. It may also surprise you that it is not the act of speaking broken languages and pointing at pictures of food that bothers people, but the fact that servers will stand and wait at your table while you peruse the menu and decide what to eat. It can feel highly pressuring to some, but you need not get frazzled into ordering the first goofy looking thing you see just because you want the server to get on with his or her life. Here are some tips:
• Don’t get nervous. They do this with everyone, and you are not holding them up by taking your time reading the menu. Just order when you are ready and let them stand if they want.
• Don’t feel pressured. Again, they are not trying to hurry you, it’s simply their custom; it’s a vastly different approach to service than in the West.
• If you really don’t want them hovering around you can politely tell them “qǐng děng yī huì ér” (请等一会儿), which means “please wait a minute.”
The next beguiling trait of Chinese dining is the menu. In the bigger cities such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, English menus are plentiful but not everywhere. Mid-range to upscale places generally pride themselves on this provision, but any other place you go to, especially in smaller towns, will have no English on the menu and their most bilingual server will likely be limited to a few rote English phrases. In these instances, pictures can be your best friend or a deceptive con artist, but either way they will ease the process. When pictures and English are both nil, go for broke and point at the first random thing that catches your attention – adventure awaits!
Here’s a question: “Do I need to tip in China?” Answer: No. Servers here do not work for tips, and if you leave extra money on the table they will think you forgot it and chase you down to return it. If you try to explain that they were nice and you want to give them extra, you will almost certainly be met with a puzzled look. That is them trying to figure out what mental disorder you suffer from. It’s practically unheard of here.
That being said, some of the most upscale restaurants (and hotels and other ritzty establishments) in posh cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong may tack on a gratuity charge. Some of the waiters and staff at these places will also probably expect a tip. As a rule of thumb, if you’re at a place with five stars listed next to its name, you may want to consider tipping.
A typical picture menu without English
Chinese Dining Times
Eating on time is a big deal in China, and if you don’t do it – even if you understandably don’t know when “on time” is – you will be interrogated by any Chinese who finds out. They are simply concerned for your health, so don’t be offended, because punctual dining has been an integral part of Chinese traditional health for generations. This deep belief in a strong correlation between regular eating times and health won’t be a big deal for most of your trip, but it does affect the opening and closing times of restaurants.
Chinese eating times are earlier than most of the world. Breakfast is often around 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, while lunch gets served up around 11:30, and dinner comes off the stove around 18:00. This doesn’t mean you have to eat at those times, but most restaurants (and much of the nation) take an afternoon siesta, closing around 14:30 and reopening for dinner at 17:00. Most restaurants finish serving dinner around 22:00 or 23:00, but in many cities snack streets and stalls keep on buzzing into the wee hours of the morning.
Typical business hours for a restaurant
It doesn’t get much simpler than Chinese breakfast. Porridge – made in a variety of ways, from sweet red bean porridges to millet and barley – a boiled egg, some pickled veggies or boiled peanuts, and possibly a deep-fried dough baton (yóu tiáo; 油条), are all common choices, and breakfast usually comes with a combination of these and soy milk (warm or cold). These breakfast options are generally energizing and healthy, but they can also be very unappealing to some foreigners.
If you need your coffee, bacon, eggs, toast or a general fry-up, you’ll have to head to a café and hope for the best (you’ll at least get coffee) or swing to an international hostel for a sure-fire choice of Western-style breakfasts at hit-or-miss qualities.
Deep-fried dough baton
A Chinese eating extravaganza is nothing without a sampling of this ancient culture’s equally ancient practice of street food. All around China, snack streets (xiǎochī jiē; 小吃街) and night markets (yè shì; 夜市) boast their roadside creations. Taking a good perusal before choosing or just grabbing this and that as the whim takes you are both equally viable approaches, or you could just look around and see what’s popular and jump in line. Night markets and snack streets are some of the most invigorating and enjoyable eating experiences around, so grab a beer and let your hair down with the street food of the Middle Kingdom.
Street food stall
Wangfujing Snack Street
Vegans & Vegetarians
We’re not going to lie, vegetarians have a hard time in China, and veganism can be near impossible. Throughout much of China’s history, famine has been more than a terrible thorn in the population’s side, which meant that preciously rare and pricey meat was a status symbol of the wealthy and healthy. And now that China’s overall prosperity is on the thunderous up, meat is consumed on a massive scale.
If you think that this seems terribly strange considering the enormous influence of Buddhist and Taoist principles – both strict vegetarian practitioners – on the evolution of China, then we are with you. But at the same time it’s important to recall the horrible destruction of these religions during the Cultural Revolution, where the philosophies of these religions were destroyed alongside temples and statues.
That being said, Beijing and Shanghai most certainly offer up a solid selection of vegetarian restaurants. In other cities the pickings will be slim – very slim. Many veggie dishes are cooked in animal fats and veggie soups use chicken, beef, pork or fish broths. In cities without defined veggie restaurants, your best bet is to head to the nearest Buddhist temple and check around for peripheral vegetarian restaurants that welcome the public or just politely ask a monk at the temple if they can point you in the right direction (some might even cook a meal for you).
Vegans can often find animal-free dishes in the big modern cities, but you need to be very careful about the use milk, eggs, yogurt, fish or honey. Making sure you never consume any animal product can be quite a challenge, especially since information on a dish’s contents can be very convoluted. Vegans might be best advised to first ask their hostel or guesthouse to borrow a hotplate and a pan (taking one along with you will probably be too cumbersome) and just cook up their own meals with veggies, noodles, oil and seasonings from the local market. Good luck!
A vegetarian restaurant
The Kids Menu
The children’s menu, as you might have guessed, is conspicuously absent from everywhere in China. Even Western fast food places like McDonalds seem to have forgotten. You will also notice that things like high-chairs and booster seats are hard to come by. If you are in dire need of such things, finding a Western restaurant or mid to high-range Chinese eatery catering to families in particular is your best bet. Some may even offer a kids’ play area.
Just like eating, drinking in China is a world-class and varied experience. The culture around drinking in China, whether it’s beer, Chinese liquor or tea, is a time-honored practice and an integral part of your China trip. To really appreciate what it means to drink in China, you must first apprise yourself of the types of drinks and their importance to the Chinese. The most important of all: tea.
Tea (Chá; 茶)
It’s no joke that tea is a pillar of Chinese civilization. Tea is so deeply woven into Chinese history and culture that a famous Chinese saying goes “Firewood, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea are the seven necessities to begin a day.” It is sipped for a plethora of reasons, including health, longevity, status, digestion facilitation, energy and of course good old-fashioned pleasure.
Tea, like noodles, porcelain, gunpowder and paper-making (among others) originated in China, and to this day there are few things more inherently and utterly Chinese than a cup of green tea. You will be hard pressed to go ten minutes in China without seeing or hearing about tea, which will calmly confront you from storefronts, restaurants, homes, billboards and bus stops.
A legend says that the first cup of tea was inadvertently boiled by Emperor Shennong in 2737 BCE after a tea leaf sailed into his pot of boiling water from a nearby bush. The mystical origins of tea no doubt add to its legendary quality, but the actual first record of tea consumption places the potential origin to a far more remarkable 10th century BCE.
By the time of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) there is solid evidence of tea’s widespread popularity. In the second century CE, Dr. Hua Tuo, famed for inventing a set of longevity animal forms of exercises akin to kung fu, performed the first successful brain surgery in China, and for his generally peerless medical skill, he wrote “to drink bitter tea constantly makes one think better” around the year 160 CE. But it was during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) that the popularity of the relaxing herbal remedy snowballed into a massive mainstream obsession. Around this time, tea made its way to Japan, Korea and eventually over the Silk Road to Europe and the Middle East.
Types of tea
Chinese tea is divided into five main categories, but there are many more when you take into consideration the countless varieties, subgenres, medicinal concoctions and variations of the camellia sinensis (scientific name for tea leaves) plant strains. While some researchers estimate around 700 varieties of Chinese tea, others have compiled lists of over 1,000. This leaves you with a fantastic and somewhat daunting world of tea to explore in China. A good idea is to ask around if you’re looking for a particular quality or effect from your tea. For something medicinal make sure to check with acupuncturists, herbalists or doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). For now, let’s take a quick look at the main categories.
White (bái chá; 白茶): The name comes not from the color of the tea but from the color of the hairs on the unopened tea buds. White tea is lightly oxidized and dried in the sun. It mostly comes from Fujian and Taiwan and has the highest concentration of antioxidants as well a cache of health benefits.
Green (lǜ chá; 绿茶): The most popular and widely consumed type of tea, green tea is the least oxidized of Chinese tea types and gives the drinker a calm, yet focused sensation. It comes with many antioxidants and a wide range of healthy perks.
Oolong (wūlóng chá; 乌龙茶): Oxidation is highest in Oolong tea, which is allowed to sit in the sun for extended periods of time until the leaves wither and curl into what look like little pellets. When it is brewed the leaves open back up and give off deep, rich colors and tastes.
Black (hóng chá; 红茶): Particularly popular in the West, black is called such for the color of its heavily oxidized leaves. When it is brewed, however, the tea gives of a bold red or maroon color, which has lead to its Chinese name: red tea.
Dark (hēi chá; 黑茶): Dark tea is a type of post-fermented tea, which are teas that have undergone some fermentation to bring out a deep aroma and rich flavor. These teas are strong and particularly coveted around China. They have historically come from Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan, Guangxi and Yunnan. One of the most famous teas in China – Yunnan Pu’er tea – is a type of dark post-fermented tea.
Yellow (huáng chá; 黄茶): Yellow tea is a type of fermented tea that is produced in a similar fashion to green tea, but with an extra drying stage that allows the leaves to become yellow. Yellow tea is similar to green tea in flavor, but with a bit of a deeper palate and aroma to it. Two famous yellow teas are Mending Yellow Tea and Huoshan Yellow.
Beer (Píjiǔ; 啤酒)
Beer, China’s second favorite drink, is everywhere, cheap and for the most part, highly homogenous. Depending on where you go in China you will be greeted by a changeable selection of regional brews, but they rarely stray far from the light lager that pervades nearly all Chinese drafts. Some are better than others, but you will likely find that you can drink buckets of the stuff and hardly get above a buzz (most beers hover around 3.2% ABV). The beers you will most likely come across are the ubiquitous Beijing brewed Yanjing (燕京) and the German inspired Tsingtao (青岛) from Qingdao City, but you should also keep your eyes out for others, such as Harbin’s standout (by Chinese standards) Hapi (哈啤) and Dali’s local brew creatively called Dali Beer.
Baijiu (Báijiǔ; 白酒)
When you hear a Chinese mention Chinese wine, they are probably talking about baijiu, which is most certainly not wine. Rather, it is a white liquor that ranges from around 43% alcohol to the upper 60s in a serious batch. Baijiu’s history goes back hundreds of years and is a very Chinese invention. It’s brewed with sorghum (or rice) and is extremely popular around dinner tables with guests of honor, weddings or banquet style dinners. This is serious stuff, so prepare your toughest stomach defenses if you see a bottle being brought to the table. Furthermore, many Westerners relate the taste to paint thinner, and you can bet your last jiao that you’ll have the hangover of your life the following morning. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again, you’ve been warned!
Moutai, the most prestigious brand of baijiu
Wuliangye, another famous brand of baijiu
Customs & Manners
Your first Chinese dining experience – depending on where and with whom you eat – may leave you with the feeling that the only rule is that there are no rules. Plates pile up, food is consumed with such gusto it’s practically inhaled, and toasts of beer or baijiu are seemingly spouted on whims, bringing the roar of the party to sloppy new heights. You just got to trust us: there are plenty of nuances happening that you won’t see at first (or may notice right away if you’re at a very formal meal), so now it’s time for you to brush up on the customs before you end up being the sloppy party crasher.
While many of these customs and rules are not hard and fast, they will help you understand more of the fascinating and ultra fun dining culture you are about to join. Chinese meals are generally extremely laidback. No one will get upset if you don’t stick to them, but doing your best will not only earn the appreciation of your hosts, but will also show that you are a cool and cultured world traveler.
Probably the most important single factor that governs traditional Chinese dining is the communal meal. If you eat with anyone besides yourself (or other foreigners) you can absolutely expect to share dishes. No, this doesn’t mean that you’re going to sit right next to your Chinese dinner mates, huddle over a single plate and shovel the food into your mouths, inches away from each others’ faces. What it does mean is that you will have your own dining setup that includes: a bowl for rice, chopsticks and sometimes a side plate or two and a cup. Dishes are placed in the center of the table and everyone takes from the dish and places it in, their own bowl of rice (or side plate). For larger meals (especially in fancier restaurants) a Lazy Susan is set in the center to facilitate moving the dishes around the table.
Communal eating has many benefits. The first is that you get a much bigger variety in your meal, especially at large dinners where there can be more than a dozen dishes. Instead of just eating your pasta primavera and having a taste of your buddy’s cheese ravioli, you get to eat from a plethora of plates, providing plenty of nutrition from a solid variety of veggies and meats. The second great benefit, and the one most important to the Chinese, is that communal eating gives all relationships at the table a major shot in the arm. This is where business deals are brokered, doctors are hired, new spouses are congratulated, new friendships are struck up (or old ones rekindled), and just about any possible social relationship is beefed up and strengthened.
If you’re at a formal dinner, most often it will take place in a nice restaurant with a Lazy Susan. The Lazy Susan is an attachable round piece that facilitates the dishes moving around the center of larger tables. The Chinese take great pride in honoring guests, and since you are a guest in their country you are almost guaranteed to be at least one of the guests of honor at formal or semi-formal meals. Listed below are some useful tips:
• Wait for the guest of honor or the head of the table to sit or eat before you sit or eat. This really only applies if you are at a business dinner where you are not the guest of honor but are instead honoring someone else.
• Avoid removing the plate from the Lazy Susan to get food. Use chopsticks or a spoon to get your food. You can lift up the plate if it helps, but don’t take it from the Lazy Susan. Standing up to get food is fine.
• Use communal chopsticks for any dishes that provide them. Communal chopsticks are longer and should be left on the rim of the dish for which they are provided. Do not use your personal sticks if communal ones are supplied. (This also includes a spoon if it’s provided). However, if there are no communal utensils available, this rule obviously doesn’t apply.
• Avoid turning the Lazy Susan when others are taking food. This should go without saying. It’s hard to get food if some jerk keeps rotating the dishes. Don’t be that jerk.
• Offer food to others first. Before you have your first helping, and definitely before you finish a dish offer it to others first.
• Keep others in mind when getting extra helping of food. This is another one that shouldn’t have to be said.
• Make sure other people have a chance to eat a dish before you get more. It’s fine to have more, and your hosts will certainly encourage you to eat up, but don’t pig out on one dish, especially if others haven’t had much (or any).
Just out with the crew at a hole-in-the-wall? You probably won’t have a Lazy Susan here, and you can just grab food from each dish and eat at your leisure. Casual dinners almost never have an eating order and as long as you don’t pig out on a dish without giving others a fair share, there are few customs you need to worry about.
Seating customs are rarely observed these days, but if you find yourself at a business dinner or a very formal or upscale environment, you’d better be on your toes for the seating positions to pan out.
Traditionally, the person of the highest position (i.e. social standing or, in the case of a company dinner, the company head) sits in the chair at the head of the table facing east, however that tradition worked much better when tables were square and had a definite east-facing side. These days the rule has evolved to accommodate the use of round tables: the head of the table faces the door. Those of stature just below the head sit closest to him or her, and it descends down the table away from this honor seat. The seat to the left of the honor seat is considered slightly higher than the right. Take note that the host of the dinner, especially in a private home, does not have the seat of honor.
Typical formal Chinese dining table
If you go out to a casual place with some buddies you can sit in whatever chair you come to first.
Drinking & Toasting
The Chinese phrase that seems to catch on the quickest with many expats, ganbei quite literally means “dry glass.” More importantly – as you can hopefully guess – joyful shouts or urgent requests of this word should signal one thing to you: finish your drink. Alcohol is not consumed at every meal, but when it is slurped up (which is quite often) it is done with gusto. There will often be other drinks at the table (such as tea or water), and they can be drunken at leisure. More often than not, however, alcohol is not consumed on your own, but instead with all the drinkers at the table in constant rounds of toasts. Baijiu, strong Chinese white liquor, is usually taken from small glasses about the size of a shot or half a shot, and beer is almost always poured into small cups and often swallowed in one shot.
When a toast goes down the gullet, glasses are immediately filled up, usually by your comrades around the table, and if they fill you up, you should take it upon yourself to fill up their glasses in turn. Most of the time large bottles of baijiu are set in the center of the table and used communally, though it is possible that small bottles are ordered for each individual drinker or – more often – small pouring pitcher to fill your cup from. Beer bottles are usually ordered to match the drinkers at the table, but everyone’s glasses are filled from one or two bottles at a time. Teapots are usually left at the table, or glasses may be filled regularly by servers.
Keep in mind that if you are the guest at a Chinese dinner you will likely be encouraged to drink a lot. Every five minutes someone will raise a glass to you and warmly encourage you to drink. If you’re not a drinker everyone will be fine with you drinking tea, but if you drink any alcohol you’d better be ready for your hosts to not let you skip out on a toast the rest of the night.
In formal settings the first toast is presented by the guest of honor or the head of the table while the entire table stands. Toasts continue to descend down the status tree from there, which can be very important at business dinners, and sitting or standing can vary from table to table. Rule of thumb: do what everyone around you does. You won’t always be expected to give a toast when your turn comes – often you can just raise your glass to the table and call ganbei – but if you feel the need to prepare some common toasts to impress your dinner mates, feel free to make a toast to friendship.
When tapping glasses for a cheers, keep the rim of your glass below those of higher stature. This rule is quite formal, but very important if you are at a business dinner, company dinner, or a very formal dinner. It’s also very important for seniors (see Elders below for more info).
In less formal settings toasts can be given by anyone at any time. A special guest might give the toast in slightly formal occasions, but it’s not so strict. If you’re at a casual dinner feel free to just raise your glass and cheers your dining friends whenever you feel thirsty. At these chill dinners you can also drink alcohol at will without a cheers, but we swear you’ll quickly find that constantly cheers-ing your friends is a lot of fun!
How about tapping glasses? If you’re at a big table or in a very formal setting, tapping glasses is not necessary. You can just raise yours and acknowledge the table before you drink. If you’re sitting close together at a small table feel free to clink the night away.
Tea is quite different than alcohol, but the differences really only apply if you are out for tea specifically, such as at a teahouse. If you are dining at a restaurant and drinking tea instead of alcohol, you need not heed the customs so strictly.
• Hold the lid on the teapot when you pour. Many Westerners do not realize at first that the lids of the teapots in China are (generally) not attached. This is specifically the case with ceramic or glass teapots in teahouses, which contrasts to the attached lids of many metal pots in the West. Hold the lid – otherwise it will fall in your companion’s teacup. Ouch!
• Use your right hand to pour and your left to hold the lid. This is an age old custom to show honor. It’s easy, so remember to do it.
• Avoid pointing the spout of the teapot at table members. This rule is not terribly strict, but you should avoid pointing the spout at others if possible because if it points at a person it indicates they are not welcome.
• Offer tea to others before pouring for yourself. This habit is fairly common in the West as well (or is becoming more common), and it’s a great way to show your courtesy and appreciation of your tea buddies.
• Leave the lid ajar to signal more hot water from the server. Don’t take the top off completely and definitely do not put it on the table, which is considered dirty.
• Tap your knuckles on the table to show gratitude for your cup being refilled. This is only done if your teacup is refilled by a server, and is particular to Honk Kong and the Guangdong area.
• Tea drinking is almost (stress almost) always at least a semi-formal experience. However, if you’re with a close friend, you don’t have to worry so much about who you serve first, but it’s best (and easy) if you apply all of these customs anytime you’re out for tea.
Yup, that’s right, there’re rules for chopsticks, too. These are not so hard and fast either, but chopsticks certainly have their faux pas that you should look to avoid if you plan to keep good form while eating. Forks are nearly non-existent here, so if you’re not at least a little bit proficient with chopsticks, then you’d better get practicing (see pg 1,317 for how to use chopsticks properly). If you ask your server for a fork, even in perfect Chinese, you’ll probably be taken for quite the jokester. Seriously, get to work on the chopstick skills.
• Do not stick your chopsticks into the dish when not using them (i.e. they are sticking out of the food up into the air). This action goes back to the Chinese custom of leaving certain dishes to the deceased and, unless you’re sending dinner to your long dead great aunt, it is very bad form. Place your chopsticks flat on the bowl or plate with each end of the sticks on the rim of the dish.
• This may be obvious, but don’t chew on the end of your chopsticks. This one cannot be stressed enough. Not only is it disgusting, but it also looks ridiculous and is terrible form. You’re not a five-year-old so don’t chew on your tableware – period. If you have a habit of chewing on pencils (or anything for that matter) get to work on breaking it now.
• Don’t lick the food of your chopsticks. In the West it seems natural and very satisfying to put that sauce-covered spoon in your mouth and clean it off like a mini carwash, but in China it’s very uncouth.
• You shouldn’t use your chopsticks to move dishes. You’ve got hands, use them. If you can’t reach a plate, then let someone else help.
• Chopsticks are not for pointing. If you need to indicate someone or something use your finger.
• Put the chopsticks on the chopstick rest. You’ll really only see this at fancier restaurants. If there’s a chopstick rest (a little ceramic piece with an indentation for the sticks) you can use it to set down your sticks. This one’s not a big deal, as long as you don’t stick them in your food.
• Don’t use your chopsticks as drum sticks. No need for explanation, you’ll look like a complete idiot if you do so.
These rules apply no matter if you’re at a formal or casual dinner (except the chopstick rest). Actually, chopstick etiquette is mostly common sense and is universal.
Read more about How to Use Chopsticks here.
Elders are extremely important in Chinese society. They are given special attention in almost every situation, and it’s especially important for you to observe customs regarding elders when out for a meal.
There are two types of elders you should pay attention to when eating: those who are considered seniors (more or less over 60 years old) and those who are older than you. Seniors are held in exceptionally high regard, and they are the ones you should be most aware of when observing customs. Those who are older than you also have special consideration, but such relationships are less strict and may also depend on the title of your elder.
Wait for seniors to sit or eat before you sit or eat. This is important to observe in formal settings. Seniors are often default guests of honor and will usually sit even before company heads or guests of honor.
Offer a dish or drink to seniors or your elders before you take any. This is very important at formal dinners, and still should be considered at semi-formal dinners. Seniors are the number one priority, and you should always ask them if they want anything before you take your first helping, before you finish the dish, or before you pour more tea or alcohol for yourself or others. Pour order goes: seniors, elders, others, you.
Keep the rim of your glass below those who are older than you when giving a cheers. This should always be observed – formal or not – when you are tapping glasses with someone who is a generation older than you. Few people will say anything, but it is a huge faux pas if your rim is higher than your elder or even boss or superior when tapping their glass during a cheers.
There is little difference between a formal and casual setting when seniors are involved. If you are out for a casual dinner but a senior is there, expect to observe all the customs above. Otherwise, you don’t need to pay special attention to rules for those who are older unless they are a generation above you. In that case offering to fill their glass is good and you should still keep your rim below theirs when tapping glasses.
You are a guest in China, and that means you will never be allowed to pay the bill when invited to a dinner, or even when you invite Chinese friends to dinner. You can offer to pay, but they will rarely let you and you need to just accept this. It is a very high honor for Chinese to treat you while in their country, so let them do so and enjoy the custom. Keep in mind that if you ever invite them to visit you in your country you should certainly reciprocate their generosity and hospitality.
You will also see the Chinese argue amongst each other as to who should pay the bill; or more accurately, why they will not let the other person pay. It is very customary in China to not only offer to pay the bill, but also to vehemently protest when someone else tries to pay. Ultimately, the one who invites will win out and get to pay; it is a loss of face if he or she does not get to pay for those he or she invited to dinner. Sometimes it gets pretty rowdy, but it’s all in good nature and you shouldn’t worry if you see them getting physical (i.e. holding each other back from the table or the cash register).
It’s common for Chinese people to fight over who gets to pay the bill.