A dinner party in Hefei, Anhui province
Courtesy of the author

A Twelve-Course Lesson on Food in China

Learn the basics of dining culture and avoid the worst embarrassment.

Andrew Johnston
8 min readAug 29, 2022


For many people, the most exciting part of traveling to another country is the food. We talk a big game about the thrill of visiting historical sites, touring museums and participating in interesting rituals, but let’s be honest — most of that is just filling the hours in between meals. And that’s particularly true when you’re visiting a country widely known for its cuisine.

Chinese food is considered one of the world’s great cuisines, and with many regional variations, there’s a lot to discover. But before setting off on a culinary exploration, it’s worth understanding the ways in which dining culture vary between China and the nations of the West. As with any other aspect of life, there are a lot of little differences that can catch the foreign diner off guard.

This is not meant to be a full exploration of China’s dining culture. Over six years, I attended formal dinners with business pros and college students, explored hole-in-the-wall joints and restaurants only attended by locals, and even got an invitation to a Spring Festival Reunion Dinner. Even so, I kept finding myself running into little quirks that surprised me. It’s a big world, and none of us can chart more than a fraction of it.

Food in China
Courtesy of the author

Twelve facts about food and dining in China

1. Rice is standard at home, but not in restaurants

There may be no food more associated with China than rice, and not without reason. Rice is the key staple in the Chinese diet, appearing with any meal in various forms. You may find it plain or fried with any number of ingredients, and it’s not unusual for someone to eat it three times a day.

But for more formal meals — at restaurants, company dinners, even at the Reunion Dinner — it plays a far less significant role. Rice is common mostly because it’s cheap and filling, but when people go out, they are in part trying to demonstrate their wealth. This means featuring the most expensive dishes, usually meat. Rice comes at the end of the meal, if it comes at all.

2. Most restaurants have private rooms

Speaking of which, most restaurants in China don’t look like those in the West. The canteens where people eat on working days are big open areas ringed with food stalls. However, go to a nice restaurant, and you’ll find that private rooms are a common feature. Even small storefront places may have such a room upstairs.

In most places, one must place a reservation and pay a small fee to get one of these private rooms, though I’ve also been led directly into them a few times. The added fee buys special service, with the waitstaff bringing dishes, hot water and anything else the party requests (within reason, of course).

3. Outdoor dining is very common

But if you don’t have a private room, it might be because you’re eating outdoors. Not a lot of restaurants have permanent outdoor facilities — instead, they move lightweight tables and chairs into pedestrian corridors in the evening. Stroll down the street after sundown, and you’ll likely see lots of people enjoying an al fresco repast.

Certain foods are especially popular for outdoor dining. Where I used to live, xiaolongxia — spicy crayfish — are usually enjoyed beneath the evening sky.

Courtesy of the author

4. Street food is common…if it’s allowed by law

Often, those diners will be enjoying street food purchased at nearby stalls. Street food — sold at either semi-permanent installations or from the back of motorized carts — is an important part of Chinese dining culture. In the evening hours, carts will appear as if from nowhere, gathering around schools, bars, and apartment complexes, often in spaces set aside for them.

However, depending on where you live, this might not be such a common sight anymore. Some cities have been cracking down on food carts in particular, and in such places you might have a hard time finding them. They’re also nonexistent in places with more vehicular traffic — street dining is a pedestrian activity.

5. Breakfast isn’t that different from other meals

Americans are used to a continental breakfast — light and sweet, similar to what is served along the Mediterranean. We’re also used to having a pretty hard divide between breakfast foods and those served at other times of the day. Don’t expect to see that divide in China, where rice, noodles, steamed vegetables and dim sum are served in the morning. Perhaps the most common breakfast (at least for diners on the run) is baozi, a steamed bun stuffed with meat and vegetables.

Courtesy of the author

6. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day

In most Western countries, dinner is the day’s most substantial meal. In China, though, it just might be lunch. Many people receive a very long break in the afternoon, which affords an opportunity to enjoy a large meal. By contrast, people may eat relatively light in the evening, getting only noodles or dumplings.

7. There are more than the three official meals

That might be because they’re planning to eat again later. Particularly on days off, many Chinese people eat a fourth meal a few hours after dinner — usually around 10:00 or so.

The added meal is barbecue, which doesn’t look much like what Americans think of when they hear the term. Chinese barbecue includes a range of grilled or deep fried foods, including beef, lamb, vegetables, mushrooms and tofu — all heavily spiced. These foods are served with beer (usually Snow, a Chinese favorite) and people may eat and drink for hours.

Courtesy of the author

8. Cold beverages are hard to find

But be ready for that beer to be served at room temperature. Cold beverages are a rarity in China, and you’ll never get anything cold at dinner unless you specifically request it. There’s a common belief in China that eating hot food with a cold drink can damage the stomach. As a result, you can expect to get tea instead of ice water with your food, and assume soda and beer are going to be served warm unless you see a cold case.

This extends outside of restaurants, by the way — with Chinese people not being used to very cold beverages, many convenience stores keep their cold cases turned down or even turned off. If it’s important to you, check the temperature before buying.

9. It is acceptable to bring outside drinks into a restaurant

If you really want that ice cold Coca-Cola with dinner, one option is to bring it with you. Where most American restaurants frown on this kind of thing (which is a nice way of saying that you might get kicked out), this is quite common in China. Many young people enter restaurants with milk tea that they’ve bought at stalls outside, and I made a habit of taking soft drinks and bottled water into the small restaurants I used to frequent.

Surprisingly, this also applies to food in some cases. I’ve seen people bring outside barbecue into restaurants, and no one seems to have a problem with it.

Courtesy of the author

10. Dessert is uncommon and not served at the end of the meal

There is no tradition of serving a sweet course at the end of a meal in China. Confectionery and other sweet foods are not a traditional part of the Chinese died, though they have become more common in China in recent decades and the younger generation has acquired a taste for them. Even so, if you want something sweet — whether a familiar dish like ice cream or a Chinese specialty like jian dui, a personal favorite — you’ll need to find it on your own accord.

You may occasionally get a sweet dish with a multi-course meal — but don’t expect to get them at the end of the meal. In fact, sweet courses may appear at any point but the end, with fruit or confectionery often served as an appetizer.

11. Most restaurants don’t have napkins

This is a quirk I seldom see mentioned in guides, but it will jump out at you if you spend a lot of time in China. Compared to the United States, China has a limited selection of paper goods, generally limited to facial tissue and toilet tissue. Napkins are not common — you’re far more likely to see what amounts to a box of Kleenex on the table.

There are a few notable exceptions to this. Western-style restaurants tend to feature napkins, the better to maintain the illusion. And should you go to a fast food place and order to go, you’ll find the bag stuffed with the customary overabundance of napkins.

12. Yes, Chinese people also like to take pictures of their food

Some things just don’t change no matter where you go. Get a WeChat account and expect to see pictures of people’s meals on a near daily basis. So don’t feel ashamed about photographing a nice pot of xiaolongxia — they’re almost expecting it.

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Courtesy of the author



Andrew Johnston

Writer of fiction, documentarian, currently stranded in Asia. Learn more at www.findthefabulist.com.