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Words for Restaurant Eating: A Chinese Cultural Experience

written by: davidmakofsky • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 4/5/2012

To gain insight into a culture, food and dining is a critical experience. In China, this means learning something about the past and the present of Chinese history and tradition, and at the same time learning some of the words necessary to enjoy your trip to a restaurant.

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    Entering the Restaurant

    Eating in China is a group event, at least more so than I have experienced in the US. When I enter a restaurant, in China, it is often with five to ten people. In Beijing, apartments are small and rooms are shared. The choice is to eat alone or eat with friends. If I invite a friend or two and so do you, then that is how we reach the size group I am talking about. I should note that there are many Western-style restaurants in China, and I am not discussing these in this article.

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    Getting Ready to Order Food

    In a restaurant in Beijing, no matter the size of your group, you are often offered a single menu, càidān菜单. The waiter or server, fúwùyuán服务员, will usually stand there and wait while you order. If it takes some time to decide, then when the group is ready they call her by yelling fúwùyuán服务员. To add to the confusion of the experience, people are yelling this all the time. You will soon learn why

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    The Chinese Tastes

    Following the ancient traditions of Chinese culture the group will decide to order from the Chinese tastes, kǒuwèi口味.

    Wŏ (I) xĭhuan (prefer) chī (eating) là 辣 (hot) yi diǎnr de (a little) – “I think I would like something a little hot and peppery, which could be meat or tofu, or even a vegetable”

    Another wants something yóunì油腻, greasy and oily, but not really spicy.

    Another person may like qīngdàn清淡, which is the opposite of yóunì油腻, not greasy or strongly flavored. Qīngdàn清淡 may in fact be something like 西兰花xīlánhuā, a stir-fried cauliflower. This could also be broccoli, because the Chinese often do not make a clear distinction between broccoli and cauliflower,

    As with many other things here, people say these “tastes” go back 3,000 years, when the Chinese people already knew how to "deliciously" blend the five favors-pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. When it comes to food, the Chinese are not prepared to give up any part of their culture.

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    Ordering Food

    Now we come to actually ordering, and since no one orders for himself or herself, quite a bit of negotiation goes on. I, for instance, do not like to eat tofu, but since I am both elderly and a Westerner, it is difficult to convince the rest of the table that they can order tofu and that I will eat something else. My dislikes also extend to fish heads, and it is almost better to let others choose what they want and simply ignore my preferences. This is easier to say than it is in practice

    There is, as I said, some confusion in the ordering. It may be hard for the person who has taken the orders to distinguish between what people at the table have agreed that they actually want, and what they are actually negotiating to eat. Then, when the wrong dish is brought (or when some of the dishes we ordered are not brought at all), cries of fúwùyuán 服务员 go up, and the eating process continues.

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    Eating

    We eat, of course, with chopsticks, Kuàizi 筷子. If there is some problem with this, many restaurants with Western customers often have dāo chā 刀叉 a knife and fork, literally a sword and a fork, available. The Westerner may find himself eating with a little plastic spoon.

    The meal may be served in one big pot, or on different plates. In any case, the individual eats off one very small plate. I have never exactly understood why this is so, since bigger plates are certainly available in the country, Even at banquets, with plenty of food, there is only one little plate.

    This is not true for buffets, where what we in the West would call a regular sized plate is available.

    Then there are other remarkable experiences. A group ordered a roast chicken and it arrived, head, feet and all. Everyone laughed at my discomfort.

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    The Color of My Surroundings

    In any case, you get used to this, and grow to really enjoy it. . Rénmen cháng shuō jìn zhū zhě chì jìn mò zhě hēi. 人 们 常 说Rénmen cháng shuō (people always say) 近朱者赤jìn zhū zhě chì (close to vermilion I am red) 近魔者黑 jìn mò zhě hēi (close to ink, black). I take the color of my surroundings.