I got a request to write about food in China and I’ll do my best to give you a good overview of Chinese food. I am not an expert on meat dishes but I’ll try my best anyways.
The title “Chinese food in China” might have you think “dugh! obviously!” but there is more to it. I had Chinese food before I came to China, or at least that’s what I thought. Chinese food you get served in most Chinese restaurants outside of China has nothing to do with the real food you get here in China. I had some “real” Chinese food in Germany by asking for the Chinese menu which is written all in Chinese and you have to know what you order but apart from that, I never had any.
But, back to Chinese food in China. China is a huge country with many different cities and ethnic groups so the food differs from region to region. In general, you can say, food in the south is rather sweet, in the north salty, in the west sour and in the east rather spicy, at least for western standards because I would call northern Chinese food spicy and eastern food not eatable because of all the spice. ;-)
Seasoning and spices
Reading the above, you might see where I am going: Chinese food is often prepared with quite a few chillies in it. Garlic, scallions, ginger, sesame, sichuan pepper and obviously soy sauce are also often used for seasoning.
The main stables in Chinese cuisine are definitely rice even though you always have to order it as a side (in the south of China rice is popular, as in the north they prefer pasta), wheat as in pasta (often in soups), baozi (filled and steamed buns) or jiaozi (filled dumplings). There is also a lot of different types of tofu like dried tofu, tofu skin, stinky tofu, fried tofu, etc… The difference to western dishes with tofu is that here in China tofu is often added to a meat dish or meat is often added to a tofu dish. This obviously makes a vegetarian diet a little harder to enforce, but I will come back to that later.
Chinese dishes contain a lot of different vegetables often in the form of cabbage, mushroom, carrot, beans, eggplant, or broccoli. Depending on the region in China you also get a lot of potatoes or sweet potatoes.
I noticed that you can’t do anything wrong with ordering an eggplant dish. i don’t know how they do it, but eggplants are so tasty here, no matter in what form they come. I haven’t eaten any bad eggplant dish in China up until now and I could only eat eggplants. Unfortunately internet has yet to invent a taste transmitting medium, otherwise I would send you some.
A lot of Chinese dishes contain some sort of meat. You can find beef, pork, chicken and duck among others. You have probably heard of Chinese eating monkey, dog, cat, snake, etc… Those types of meat are only regional and often considered a specialty. I haven’t seen many restaurants that serve “those kinds” of meat.
I have also heard (and seen) that Chinese don’t like to waste, so often whole animals are served, which means they are not filleted, just gutted. As Chinese believe the meat near the bones is the best, as well as the marrow, bones are chopped to splinters which are either soft enough to chew them or are spitted out. This will mostly be the case with poultry and fish. And you might have some or another chicken leg or head sticking out of your dish. :D
The way of eating
Yes, you eat with chopsticks in China when you go to Chinese Restaurants. I have not seen any fork or knife, but I also never asked for those. Eating with chopsticks takes some time to get used to and you might take five times longer to eat a plate of food than with cutlery, but you will master the art at some point. And until then: it’s actually healthy to eat slower, so take it as some kind of diet. ;-)
The good thing with chopsticks is, everything is already cut in small bites, so you just have to get the hang of using chopsticks and then you are ready to shovel all the food into your mouth.
Sharing is caring
When you go to Chinese restaurants you usually share the food, except a bowl of noodles, soup or such. I love the idea of sharing as you can try many different dishes and if you don’t like one thing, you find something else you like. So if you go with a group of friends, you will order many different dishes which are placed in the middle of the table on a turntable and everyone just takes what they want.
As you don’t eat your “own dish”, people, especially Chinese people are afraid there is not enough food, so they order far more than will be actually eaten. This is very common, so don’t be surprised that a lot of food is thrown away. Personally, this does not make me very happy as so many people in this world are starving but it is cultural and I am a guest in this country and have to respect their culture.
Vegetarian in China
As I am a vegetarian myself, I have to write, at least a short paragraph about being a vegetarian in China. Before I came, I’d heard everything from it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done to this will be so damn easy so I was very curious what to expect. After a few weeks here, I can say the following: Chinese people eat a lot of vegetables and tofu, which makes it easy, but, there is also a lot of meat involved, like some minced meat sprinkled on top of otherwise vegetarian dishes. So when you order your food, you have to be specific that you don’t want meat in your dish. The principle is easy but if you don’t speak Chinese, this is almost impossible because most of the waiters won’t speak a word in English.
I read, that many people told the waiters they are vegetarians but still got served meat sprinkles (or such). I never had that problem. The only time that this happened was when I thought there was no meat on the dish, I also didn’t ask and then it came with meat sprinkles on top. But I told them to make it without meat and it was totally fine. Also, as food normally gets prepared the moment you order it, you can easily ask for changes. They might tell you to order a different dish though if they just can’t make it vegetarian.
But, what I’ve noticed, and not only in China but also other Asian countries like Thailand or Myanmar, you have to be more tolerant than you are in western countries where a vegetarian diet is not considered a strange thing. So what does that mean? You might be served Chicken broth or things fried/prepared in the same pan as the meat dishes. I established the rule (here) of if I don’t see the meat, I don’t want to know. Obviously you sometimes taste it. When that is the case and I ordered a noodle soup with vegetables but the broth is a meat broth, I eat the noodles and vegetables and leave the broth. Everyone has to decide for themselves if this is acceptable or not, but for me it is a way of making life easier. I would not do the same in a western country but here the culture doesn’t understand the idea of a vegetarian diet.
I hope this gives a short and small overview of eating in China. I also tell you that this is based on my experience and other people might have had different experiences.