Chinese Food Habits That Westerners Will Never Understand

There’s little question that the first Americans who arrived in Guangzhou, China, in 1784 were astonished by what they saw. Imperial China must have appeared like a highly unique and odd place, from the architecture to the language and cultural customs.

The diversity of cuisine, unlike anything North Americans had ever tasted, was the most foreign of all. Today, whether ordering takeout, a quick supper, or a celebratory dinner at home, North Americans choose Chinese cuisine.

The distinctive eating customs that exist in these two regions of the globe, however, remain unchanged. Continue reading to learn more about Chinese eating customs Westerners would never comprehend.

Table Positions

Order of Seating

There are guidelines on where to sit at the table and when to do so before the meal starts. It’s possible that sitting is the most significant aspect of Chinese dining customs. Seats are assigned based on family hierarchy or unique visitors.

When toasts are offered, they start with the older or distinguished visitor before moving around the table, with the oldest family member receiving the most prominent seat.

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And wait until the honoree or the family member who is the oldest has been seated before you even consider sitting down. It is disrespectful to do so.

Lazy Susan

A spinning tray, or lazy susan, as it is called in English, may be seen on most Chinese dining tables at home and in restaurants. This elevated turntable, often constructed of wood or glass and situated in the center of the tables, makes it simple for guests to exchange food items.

Style: Family

Most meals are eaten family-style in China. In other words, unlike what is typical in North America, diners are not given separate plates of food.

Instead, a small bowl of plain rice is served to each diner, and a selection of bigger meals is displayed on a communal lazy susan for everyone to pick from. Before rotating the turntable tray to take a portion, take food from the dish in front of you. This lets the people across from you choose from the food placed in front of them.

There are two undesirable behaviors to avoid while serving. To ensure that everyone has a chance to taste the food, limit your portion size and refrain from “digging” through the plate in search of the best bites.

This is seen as being quite impolite. Diners may request permission to re-enter for a second or third scoop once everyone has finished their dish portion.

Two Teacups

It is usual to serve others at the table before oneself while offering yourself a cup of tea and the traditional beverage served with meals in China.

Work your way through, starting with the elderly. The placement of the teapot is also crucial since the spout should never face another person directly. The norm is to rise and move the pot around the table rather than reaching across it if the table is vast or many people are sitting around it.

The same is true when you add more rice to your bowl. Before filling your bowl, offer to replenish those of the other guests at the table, beginning with the seniors.


Chopstick handling involves more than simply teaching yourself how to handle them. Westerners often aren’t aware of the proper way to use chopsticks.

The first rule is to never insert your chopsticks vertically into food. Your bowl of rice is an excellent example of this. The cause? Joss sticks and incense sticks are placed vertically into pots at funerals. Similar chopstick use is evocative of that custom and is seen as unlucky.

Next, always utilize the serving utensils instead of digging into communal dishes with your chopsticks. Last, playing with, chewing on, or skewing your meal with chopsticks is considered impolite.

No Forks Or Spoons

It is unusual to see a spoon or a knife on the table during a meal in China. Typically, soup is taken from the bowl and sipped slowly.

Knives are unlucky and pose a danger to the harmony of the table. Since cuisine is prepared with meticulous regard for shared meals and chopstick usage, asking for a knife may also be considered an insult to the cook.

However, tourists shouldn’t be afraid to ask for spoons, knives, and forks since these are accessible for Western dining at restaurants.

The Menu

Avoid Drinking Alone

The traditional Chinese toast, gan bei, means dry the glass. Everyone at the table should raise their glasses when this toast is delivered, especially by an elder or a guest of honor.

During a gambier toast, not drinking is seen as being very disrespectful and impolite.

Phoenix Claws

Many Westerners are taken aback when a bowl of braised chicken feet is placed on the table, even though the dish’s literal translation is phoenix claws.

To turn chicken claws from strict, leathery toes into delicate, savory feet, this dim sum specialty requires frying, braising, and then boiling them in the sauce.

Western eaters find this meal surprising for more reasons than simply its appearance. Cracking, slurping, and sucking every last bit of cartilage and skin from between and between the tiny bones is necessary to enjoy phoenix claws.

While in a Western restaurant, these noises would be seen as disrespectful; they are a solid indicator of contented customers in China.

Other Strange Foods

Chinese chefs’ propensity to utilize as much of the animals as possible while cooking is another surprise to Westerners. This implies that dishes often include duck stomach, cow tongue, and hog intestines.

The eyes of the fish are a special treat saved for the guest of honor and are usually served to the head. Travelers with sensitive stomachs may skip this visual pleasure by giving it to the older person at the table.

And last, restaurants all around China still serve unusual foods like crocodiles, snapping turtles, soups made with bird nests, and soups prepared with shark fin. But the popularity of these meals has decreased due to restrictions on selling animals for human consumption and conservation initiatives.

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