Life in China: Food Culture

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This installment of our Life in China series kicks off a discussion about food culture. Before we get started, bear in mind that we’re looking at things through our American lenses, and we know that naturally we carry our own cultural biases with us as we live and work in China. China remains a foreign country to us, even as it becomes home for the foreseeable future, and we find it interesting to observe how it is different from our permanent home on the other side of the globe. Here is one of the many cultural observations we’ve made since arriving some eight months ago. To be clear, we don’t mean to belittle Chinese food culture, so if at first it comes off that way, just read further for the bigger picture.

The Culture of Food

Isn't it interesting how much of one's culture revolves around food? Here is what we've observed about food culture in China so far.
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In common with people around the globe, Chinese people are huge lovers of food. Just like Italians love Italian food, Chinese folks love Chinese food. My students here practically drool when they discuss anything related to Chinese cuisine.

Since Chinese food is a big deal to lots of folks, last week we wrote about our five favorite dishes we’ve come across here in Shenzhen. While I was writing that post, a phrase I heard shortly after arriving in Shenzhen came to mind. “Chinese people will eat anything,” my colleague informed me. I laughed then, not realizing quite how true it was. In fact, his statement is horrifyingly true.

What do they eat?

Now if you’re a Chinese person you’ll see I’m not being critical of your culture in a moment, even if it sounds that way at first. Here’s the thing, though: it’s heart-rending to see vendors selling live turtles hung up by their shells upside down, or live crabs tied up in bundles and unable to move in the supermarket. When we periodically see live chickens being sold on the street, too, their necks snapped on the spot for the paying customer, that’s jarring, as is seeing freshly slaughtered animals (often with fur still attached) hanging next to the sidewalk. We’re not used to seeing this in our home country. What’s more, the parts and pieces which are consumed are astonishingly different from the States. The first time I saw someone gnawing the meager flesh off a chicken foot and spitting out the toenails, I just about puked. And yes, thanks very much, I have a strong stomach. Now is eating a chicken foot really more disgusting than eating a chicken wing? Probably not, but I’m not accustomed to witnessing it.

chinese food
Lots of deep fried stuff

Now, aside from turtles, what is it that Chinese people eat that a typical American doesn’t? Well, read on. We took a stroll through the storied Dong Men area last weekend. That place is noted for its market. We strolled a number of alleys and side roads which serve as a fresh fish market, where there are tanks full of gigantic crabs and shellfish, eels, regular fish, toads, and the like. Nearby, there is a food street snaking beneath a multistory high-rise, and it is a dark and somewhat dingy, but colorfully illuminated and very crowded warren of stalls, where many of these sea creatures meet their end. You name the sea creature, it was on the grill. Our little boy piped up, “There’s a sea horse!” and sure enough, there were skewered sea horses sold at a booth which also hawked deep fried insects, spiders, and snakes.

Food in ChinaHardly anything is ever baked. Many things are steamed

Dongmen MarketAlmost a buffet

Perhaps because of this, Guangdong (the province Shenzhen is located in, and which was formerly known to us English speakers by the Anglo-ized “Canton”) has a reputation among Chinese people for being a region where people will eat anything, and which brings to mind the comment my coworker made early on.

Here’s where we get to the point. Jenia and I both agree that people here in China don’t try to hide the truth of what they eat like Americans often do. So the cultural observation is twofold: first, Americans like us tend to be pretty soft-hearted toward animals, even those destined for the slaughter. Second, Chinese people tend to be extremely calloused in their attitude toward animals. So there you have it. See, it’s not a criticism of Chinese culture, but an observation about it and my own culture, too.

But what about non-odd food?

There’s plenty of that, of course. There are lots of vegetables, rice, all kinds of noodles. There are steamed buns, both filled and not. I think the Chinese make the best green beans I’ve ever had in my life. Curiously, what we often consider a Chinese staple – the spring rolls – don’t seem to be all that common in this part of the country.

Baking is not very common and not every appliance store sells ovens. Things are usually steamed, pan-fried, or deep-fried. Fresh vegetables don’t often make an appearance but there is a wonderful fresh cucumber salad many restaurants offer.

The culture of eating out

The Chinese seem to eat out A LOT (which isn’t much of a surprise, considering the size of their kitchens). Our normally quiet neighborhood becomes abuzz with activity after dusk when all the restaurants are full, customers sitting both inside and outside. Meals are a group affair. Many places have big round tables with a huge “lazy Susan” in the middle. A lot of food is ordered and shared; sometimes it continues to cook on the table.

outdoor eating in Shenzhen
It’s beginning to get busy

The table is often set with tableware sealed in plastic, a teapot with boiling tea is brought to the table and one proceeds to rinse his or her cup, spoon, bowl, and chopsticks with the tea. Napkins are not a given and can often be charged for. If you ask for water, you will most likely get some very warm water in a cup or a carafe. The only times we encountered serving spoons, they came with rice (steamed or fried). You may, however, receive a pair of plastic gloves with your order: eating with your hands is a no-no (you should see people freak out when they see our kids holding buns in their hands) so the locals wear plastic gloves when eating meat off the bone or pizza. We just wash our hands.

Interestingly enough, our daughter (2.5) is never presented with her own cup here. We think it may have to do with the fact that the local children are often not eating by themselves at that age. We see many children as old as 3 drinking from baby bottles (with nipples) and sippy cups and being fed by their parents and grandparents. Some people seem genuinely fascinated by the fact that our kids are very independent at the table.

Many restaurants bring the bill to the table immediately after you order and check things off the list as they bring out the food. At first, our knee jerk reaction was to try and pay as soon as the bill is there but that is not necessary. It’s worth mentioning that whoever initiated the dinner out typically covers the bill. In our experience, whenever we’ve eaten out with Chinese families, they always insisted on paying and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

people eating in Nanshan
Some eateries don’t have any indoor seating.

We really like how Chinese people make everyday dinners into gatherings. They don’t seem to need a special occasion to gather around a big table and enjoy a meal with family and friends and that’s something we would like to emulate. It probably helps that eating out here can be very inexpensive.

If you’ve been to China, have your observations been similar? Please let us know in the comments.

Head over to Life in China series to read about our other experiences of being expats in China.

For further reading on the subject of food and eating out in China, check out this extensive article from Lonely Planet.

Our next installment of Life in China will also discuss an interesting aspect of Chinese culture as we’ve encountered it. Stay tuned!

22 thoughts on “Life in China: Food Culture”

  • It is so much fun comparing your experiences in China with my experiences in Japan and of course my own European culture. Japan is not as adventurous as China when it comes to selling live animals, which is very reassuring, but when it comes to the parts of an animal that are eaten here, I think Japan and China might be similar in the way that they eat a lot of intestines that are not eaten in western countries.
    The eating out culture seems also similar, many dinner gatherings with colleagues are normal in Japan. And for me, these are a lot of fun. I have never been to China but I am looking forward to my first trip there next week, and of course, I will try to be adventurous and try all the strange, and not so strange, foods in China.

  • I must say what seems to be different about our city, which is just over the “River” as the people here call it, are the baked goods.
    I am not sure if its just area we live in but Chinese love their baked breads and baked sweet rolls and doughnuts. We sadly love them too hahah not great for the waist line but totally irrasistable, with there sweet cream cheese fillings and egg custurd tarts!
    P.S great read!

    • Well, we do have bakeries here (which is a new thing, we are told) but they lack in variety and the bread is not very good. Chinese doughnuts are great but they aren’t baked 🙂

  • While I respect every culture, I’d still feel very uncomfortable in witnessing such scenes at a market… or anywhere else. I just… can’t, as much as I try to be open minded about this. It’s still murdering an animal on the street.

  • If you think about it, the meat industry in the Western countries is no better. Just because we don’t see what is happening, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening! Imagining the conditions in which the chicken are being raised makes me sick. And for example in my country’s supermarkets, you cannot buy free range eggs! Also, in my family, a soup with chicken legs is a delicacy, funny how things are different between the cultures! 🙂 Your neighborhood looks lovely (if that colorful photo of the restaurants-lined streets is of your neighborhood).

    • Oh, you are absolutely right. We’ve talked about that, too. In the West, we just hide the process and pretend it doesn’t happen. Jenia grew up with chicken feet, too, but it was a “there’s not much else to eat” thing, not a delicacy 🙂 And thanks, we do love our neighborhood!

  • Grilled sea horses. sea turtles, fried insects, spiders, and snakes …. in my opinion, it is not a matter of liking or not liking, but trying to understand life circumstances of different cultures and showing respect to the cultural diversity.

    • Simply understanding that–that things are different for other people and that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing–is an important point and also a realization that can be hard to achieve! That said, we come at things from a vegetarian and animal-loving perspective, so our judgement maybe bit different from the judgements of those who have no qualm with eating animals.

  • I have never been to China but I have always wanted to go and definitely on my bucketlist for sure. lol, I drool over reading and talking about food too, even now looking and reading your post my mouth is watering. Walking through the storied Dong Men in the market sounds interesting, I can’t believe they eat skewered sea horses and hawked deep fried insects, spiders, and snakes no thank you!!!

  • This article really took me down memory lane back to the time we were living in China. We lived a bit further north in Fujian, but many things were the same. And I remember a friend mentioning that people in Guangdong would eat everything. Honestly, I really miss Chinese food and seeing your photos/reading this article makes me do so even more .

  • Interesting point of view. 🙂 Culture shock is what makes us keep traveling right?! Hehe… We also had this kind of culture shock through local food when we were in Laos. But also everytime we go to the USA! Lol

  • Hmm, I’m not sure about “Americans being more soft hearted when it comes to animals”. To the contrary, America is pretty widely known as having one of the most horrific meat and dairy industries, we just hide it in plastic packaging. In fact, many of my friends and my partners family from Uruguay and Argentina actually won’t eat meat products when visiting the US because they insist they can taste the low quality in flavor and texture! As a vegetarian myself, I have to say I appreciate cultures which use everything rather than pick and choose animal bits and throw the rest away… though it would certainly break my heart a bit to see a turtle hanging in the sun. On a side note, I’m actually thinking about relocating to Shenzhen so I enjoyed seeing your photos!

    • That’s interesting about your partner’s family. Yes, at least everything is used, right? America almost certainly has one of the largest and worst industries, but it’s often largely concealed from view, isn’t it? Like you said, it’s in plastic packaging, so the reality of what people are eating is easily ignored. If you end up in Shenzhen, get in touch!

  • From what I’ve heard too, I like that dinners are a big deal and sharing food with others is an important part of life. But I think I would be erring on the side of caution of trying some foods! We love going to the different market stalls in various countries – even at home here in NZ – where there are lots of different cuisines from around the world on offer. But anything that resembles an animal or insect, I can’t deal ha ha! I’m such a wuss. Even baby octopus on skewers – apparently it’s delicious but I can’t bring myself to eating it! I don’t think I’d be able to eat a seahorse or a chicken foot.

    • Totally understandable! And when I asked one of our Chinese friends if she liked the food in the US, she said she didn’t because “all you eat is chicken breast and it isn’t good” :))

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