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5 Chinese eating habits explained
Why shouldn't you stick your chopsticks in the rice? How do you politely snip off noodles? Myths and superstitions of Chinese dining unraveled here
No doubt you once thought that as soon as your skills were honed, you’d become the chopstick-wielding version of Edward Scissorhands, embarking on a masterful two-pronged exploration of China’s culinary culture.
Well, not quite.
Chinese dining etiquette is built on tradition, not dexterity.
We asked Lawrence Lo, founder of LHY Etiquette Consultancy Limited, to explain the enigmatic cultural origins of some common table manners, just in time for your Chinese New Year banquet.
1. Do not rest chopsticks vertically in rice
While it may minimize the transition time between the voracious gobbling of food and intermittent sipping of a Tsingtao or cup of cha, stowing chopsticks in this way is neither prudent nor polite.
Meaning: It’s a harbinger of death.
Just as the number four, si (四), is considered inauspicious for its homophonous relation to the word si (死), meaning death, the sight of two upright chopsticks in a bowl is reminiscent of the incense sticks that the Chinese traditionally burn in veneration of deceased loved ones.
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But you can easily avoid unwittingly displaying this dark omen.
“In restaurants there are always chopstick stands,” says Lo. “So it’s natural to put your chopsticks there.”
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If in a tiny mom and pop establishment lacking the niceties, resting your chopsticks on the edge of your bowl instead will not incense those around you.
2. Never turn over the fish
In Chinese restaurants, the standard is for a fish to be served whole.
After working your way through the tender top side, it may seem logical to simply flip the fish and continue. Unfortunately, doing so has an unforeseen consequence.
Meaning: You’ve capsized the boat.
According to Lo, this is of more concern in regions that rely strongly on fishing or are located along the coast.
“The fish symbolizes the boat,” he explains. By turning it over, you’re casting the hapless fishermen into Davy Jones’ locker.
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But you don’t have to resign yourself to picking and prodding.
Using your chopsticks, pick up the backbone at a point near the tail and gently pull upward until you’ve dislodged the bone from the meat beneath. Then simply slide the “boat” to the side of the plate, and continue eating.
3. Birthday noodles
Chinese tradition calls for a birthday girl or boy to slurp a bowl of noodles as a celebration of the many years ahead. And as “Lady and the Tramp” so aptly demonstrated, that one long noodle can be a great thing.
Meaning: It symbolizes longevity.
In this case, that long strip of noodle is a metaphor for the long walk of life. Yet this tradition comes with an addendum: do not cut the noodles.
“That symbolizes cutting your life off,” says Lo. It's not a very positive message on the day of one’s birth.
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Thankfully, cutting applies mainly to severing with a knife or with chopsticks. Biting is a practical and, Lo says, acceptable way of ensuring you don't look like a hamster with filled cheek pouches.
“You should slurp your noodles,” Lo adds. “That means it tastes good. It’s like swishing wine in your mouth so that it mixes with oxygen -- it’s the same idea.”
4. Tea tapping is a must
A tea cup should never be allowed to run dry.
Your host, or members of your dinner party, will regularly refill the cups of those around them, who tap the table in response. Go ahead and follow suit.
Meaning: It’s a show of thanks.
According to legend, there was once an emperor who regularly impersonated a commoner in order to get acquainted with his people.
One night, while at a teahouse, the emperor poured tea for his accompanying servant.
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“Traditionally, the servant would have kneeled down to show respect, but that would have betrayed the emperor’s identity,” explains Lo. “So he tapped the table instead.”
Two fingers, two knees.
“There’s a stronger tea-drinking culture in southeast China,” says Lo, adding that the habit may be more prevalent in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Regardless, saying “thank you” is just as permissible, so don’t fret if this custom isn’t second nature to you.
5. Always order an even number of dishes
When out with a sizable crowd, you want to ensure you order enough food. A rule of thumb is to order dishes equivalent to the number of people in your party, plus one. But if you’re an even-numbered crowd, this will put you at odds -- in numbers and in fortune.
Meaning: Odd number of dishes symbolizes death (again).
“For regular meals, you’d always order an even number of dishes, because an odd number is usually only ordered at a funeral meal,” says Lo.
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This has nothing to do with homonyms, but rather with qi.
According to Chinese belief, odd numbers are associated with yin qi rather than yang. In the yin-yang equation of balance, yin is cold, yang is hot -- dark and light, death and life, respectively.
Lo adds a qualifier: “This applies more to banquets and formal events, and is mostly related to the first-round order. You can add dishes as you need them afterward.”
Thankfully, Lo assures us that in informal settings among friends, no one’s likely to be counting.