Los Angeles has one of the largest Chinese immigrant communities in the world. Naturally, fabulous and authentic Chinese food is abundant if you know where to look. And if you want to take advantage of this epicurean bounty when you visit L.A, check out the A Taste of China in LA food tasting tour. You might want to know how to eat Chinese food like Chinese do. Here are some useful insider tips:
1) Everything will be shared.
All of the dishes on a table in China are shared. Sharing and fostering a sense of belonging to a community is practiced in China through the most important daily activity--eating. No dish on a Chinese table belongs to anyone in particular. Everyone gets to try a few bites and share all the dishes (your own rice bowl is not what I'm referring to of course). If you notice someone has already ordered your favorite dish, it will be shared with you, so there's no need to order it again for yourself. Order something else that will add variety.
2) Use chopsticks, duhhhh!
Don't be shy or embarrassed. Being caught eating Chinese food with a fork and knife is far less cool than clumsily using chopsticks. Using chopsticks is the only way to eat Chinese food. Nobody is born with Chopstick skills (except maybe this baby zen master). For the rest of us, practice makes perfect.
3) When to order noodles and fried rice
Did you know that fried rice is how leftover rice is revived in China? Chinese don't generally order fried rice to enjoy with other dishes. Order white rice and eat it with all of those delicious sauces. In general, both Noodles and fried rice are eaten for a quick filling meal alone or when you don't feel like sharing. They are definitely not for a festive group outing. Like all rules, there is one exception for noodles. Noodles are a good luck symbol of longevity, so they have become a birthday food. If you are celebrating a birthday at a banquet, you can order a bowl of noodles for the birthday boy/girl, and everyone can share their "longevity" with the rest of the table.
4) Don't hoard.
Remember, you are sharing. NEVER pile up morsels of your favorite dish onto your own bowl. One piece from each dish is all you should take at once. The more you grab, the less there is for the others to enjoy. Piling up is hoarding and is considered extremely rude. And it's even worse if you don't finish it!
5) Slow down.
Have you wondered how few Chinese are overweight even though they love to eat so much and take such a long time to eat a meal? One reason is that the Chinese diet is rich in vegetables, another trick is that Chinese tend to eat very slowly. Grab and savor one bite at a time. And put down your chopsticks between each bite to savor and enjoy your company as well as your food. In China, dining is a time for communication and building personal relationships. For better or worse, lots of business in China is done over long festive meals. So pace yourself. Enjoy eating for at least an hour--two hours for a large banquet.
6) Go with as many people as possible to taste more dishes.
The more the merrier can't be more true than in a Chinese restaurant outing. There are usually 50 dishes on a typical Chinese menu, so you need to take a lot of friends. How else would you sample them all eventually? But don't forget to make a reservation for a banquet table with a lazy Susan if you have a group of 8 or more. Also remember to give yourself at least 2 hours for your meal.
8) Order dishes in even numbers unless it's associated with a funeral or death.
Like most old cultures, there are arbitrary rules and superstitions that surround food in China, such as the importance of even and odd numbers. Even numbers are always luckier and are the better choice as a rule of thumb. Of course, if no one is looking, or there is no Chinese at the table, the Chinese Kitchen God may look the other way too.
9) Try some dishes beyond the usual tired few.
Chinese restaurants in north America all have the same few signature dishes such as the sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken, hot and sour soup, beef and broccoli, etc. The truth has long been leaked that these are NOT the Chinese dishes that Chinese eat. There are a lot of great Chinese dishes that most Americans have never tasted. So venture out to order something unfamiliar on the menu. If it sounds very strange, usually you can blame it on a Google Translation. Try to verify with the waiter what it actually is. One very popular dish among Chinese people that has been translated with terrifying implication is "husband and wife's sliced lung" (I will save the long story about where that name came from for another day). It's actually tender beef slices (not anybody's lung by the way) marinated in a delicious hot and spicy sauce. Also, learn to appreciate bones (the meat around a bone is the tastiest part). Try some strange-sounding vegetables such as silk melon and [insert unfamiliar word]-choy. By the way, Dofu (it's “dofu" NOT “tofu" in Chinese) is the most misunderstood food in the world. If you don't expect Dofu to be a meat or cheese substitute you just might like it. Indeed, most Dofu dishes in China also have meat in them.
10) What to do with the last piece of food.
Don't grab the last piece of food on a dish unless you're sure everyone has had a chance to try it. Still, wait for the end of the meal to make the move. Traditionally, this is a test for the future daughter-in-law or son-in-law's first dinner visit. If the future in-law grabs the last piece, it shows that the young woman or young man lacks manners and consideration for the others. As a guest, don't grab it unless the host has offered. As a host, you must offer it to the guest. What if you are at a restaurant? Read my first line again.
11) Who and when to pour the drink
Drinking is a very important part of sharing a meal, and building relationships. In general, you shouldn't pour a beverage for yourself. If you are really thirsty for it, pour it for the others first, then yourself. If you are a host, pour the beverages for your guests, and keep up with the refills. Don't drink an alcoholic beverage without someone initiating a toast. It's a long game, so pace yourself with small sips, or you will find yourself reaching your limit only half way through the meal. If no one is hosting, pour beverages for the elderly and your boss first. If this cultural rule makes you uncomfortable, only use this rule when you are eating with many Chinese in China. And rest easy if you have already followed rules 1-10 above, you have already won over your Chinese friends. After all, you are still in America.
12) The Bill Fight
If you are in a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese, you will often notice a couple of good-natured, but vigorous disputes at the cashier between Chinese people. They literally physically push each other to try to win a battle to pay the bill. The general rule is that if someone comes to visit from out of town, you are the host and you pay for the meal. Your guest might feel that he or she won't have an opportunity to return the favor soon, and he and she has troubled you a lot for the visit, but it doesn't matter. As the guest, you shouldn't take the rule for granted. You should nonetheless fight to pay for the bill. Sometimes, the best way is to slip the credit card at some point of the meal to outsmart each other or coordinate with the cashier of the restaurant ahead of the time if you are adamant about paying for the bill. I personally hate this process, so all I can advise is to do what makes sense to you and your group.