Chinese Table – Food, Customs, Traditions, Identities – by Mariya Taberko. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Image 1] Hot pot (火锅 huo3 guo1) seems to be everyone’s favorite meal, particularly on special occasions.
During my time studying Chinese in Beijing, our program would take each class to a local restaurant after the weekly Friday exam, and would treat us to lunch while we chatted with our classmates and teachers about things outside of course material. Because my class and the class directly above mine both had a mere two students each, we joined forces on Fridays and invited two office staff members, bringing our group total to about eight people every week. For every Chinese table, we would designate a different student to select a restaurant and reserve seats for our group—this way, we got to try all sorts of new foods from different parts of China. This is especially significant because in China, every region has its own distinct specialties, flavors, or even cooking methods, (their 特色 te4 se4). This is obviously different from restaurants in the US, where the variety comes not from different regions in America, but rather different nations’ cuisines.
[Image 2] Just one portion of one week’s Chinese table meal. This particular restaurant’s specialty is donkey meat!
I particularly love the Chinese table tradition at our program. Not only for the delicious (and free!) food, but especially because I get a chance to really get to know my teachers, and talk about all sorts of topics. And I mean, all sorts. Obviously in the beginning, when our Chinese was more limited, our conversations were much more simple. Towards the end of the program, we were able to move past topics such as “my hometown’s weather”, and cover more complicated areas of conversation, (such as instructions on how to prepare certain foods, or our future career aspirations, etc.).
[Image 3] One week’s busy schedule forced us to bring Chinese table into the classroom! Even take-away meals can be shared.
Chinese food culture really lends itself to things like Chinese table. In the United States, when
you go to a restaurant with a friend, you each order a separate dish, typically with individual sides included. In China, if you go out with friends, you each order what you want, and you share what you ordered with the table, (if you’re in a bigger group there is usually a lazy susan involved). For a typical meal, you would order a bigger meat dish, and some ?? (su4 cai4), or veggie dishes (these can be hot or cold, and are usually side dishes). Finally, each person can choose to order a small bowl of rice to go along with his or her meal.
[Image 4] You can usually tell you’re at a Peking duck restaurant by the chopstick holders.
Though each Friday’s meal was unique and delicious, my favorite meal was from our last Chinese table. Since our class saved up quite a bit from our weekly restaurant budget, our teachers thought we should go somewhere special for the last Chinese table. After throwing around some ideas, we finally decided on a local Peking duck restaurant.
[Image 5] Sitting around this beautiful spread of delicious food, we reflected on our growth since the last time we all ate Peking duck together, during our very first Chinese table in Beijing.
Mariya Taberko, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, Global Studies – 2017
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20 responses to “Chinese Table – Food, Customs, Traditions, Identities – by Mariya Taberko. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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What have you notice in the difference of these regions? (ie are different spices more prominent or missing altogether in a certain region?) What region as been your favorite thus far? How would you describe Chinese food in America, is it a blend of different regions or would you say that it is its own unique brand?
I think that it is fascinating to see how foods can change from region to region. Food, I believe, are a big part of someones culture and identity. Your staple food , for example, can easily determine what region of the country ( if it is a big country) you are from. Usually, in different regions of the country they practice different traditions. I had the opportunity of traveling to China a few years ago and I remember how different their food was from the Chinese restaurants back home. I think that when foods that are not native to a country are cooked they lack the true essence of what they are and taste like. Yes, they might taste delicious to you, but do they really taste like this in their home country or are they modified in order to meet a cultures expectations and desires?
Tables serve more than the purpose of displaying food but presents the opportunity to connect. What a unique experience it was for you to be part of a group that allowed you to continually learn and try new things. Also, I think food is a great incentive for getting through the school week. Will you incorporate this new tradition when you return to the United States? I would recommend eating out a various ‘ethnic’ communities based in the Twin Cities that provide various takes to similar dishes.
Thank you for the article Mariya. The pictures look amazing! As I am reading this on an empty stomach, the food looked absolutely delicious. The Chinese table idea seems great; you are very lucky you got to participate in this program. Since food is a big part of a particular culture, I think this was a great way to enrich your study even more. Was the program focused on language? I’m impressed that you were able to converse well in Mandarin after such a short time.
It is really interesting to hear that food is different from region to region, where as for the most part in the U.S., like you said, it is only different based on the nationality of the food you eat. What makes the food different from region to region? I find it really intriguing about the Chinese table and that you share between everyone. I feel as though that makes the conversation not only more interesting, but also more meaningful. Are there a lot of different aspects to meal time expectations in China than there are in the U.S.?
I enjoyed reading about the variations between Chinese and US with regards to how there is a slight difference in the way we order food when with friends. I actually like the idea of how in Chinese culture, when going out to a restaurant, you don’t order something for yourself individually, and that serves as your meal. Rather, you order something to be shared with the group. I think this is something that we should attempt to try more often in US culture. This trip seems like an amazing experience, and I am sure that there are many cultural areas in China to be experienced. It is amazing to notice how even though China is its’ own entity, however, its’ various regions appear to have its’ own distinct cultures, foods, practices, etc.
Thank your for sharing your experience. The whole idea of the Chinese table is really fascinating. The idea that everyone tends to order separately and then they end up sharing is just such a different style compared to teh western idea of usually ordering your own meal with your own sides. Just from reading your article it seems like a Chinese table is based around a community style where conversation and sharing are key aspects of the meal.I feel like the closet thing to a Chinese table in America is usually family dinners but sadly we have seen this tradition disappear over the years. The food looked delicious! Great Article!
The food in all of the pictures looks delicious. I like the idea of everyone sharing their food at the table and ordering different things. I had the thought of when I go out to eat with my friends would we be able to do the same thing because I feel it would be difficult sharing certain foods and also some of my friends would end up eating way more than others. I will say that the sharing makes the restaurant experience feel like it is more of a family dinner I bet because I love going home and sitting around the table with family passing the food and talking with one another. The fact that you got to go out to eat with staff is something I feel would be very helpful in a school setting especially when in another country. Its a big thing to be able to relate to teachers and staff to help you learn better, and when in another country talking with the teachers is probably a great help to learn the language and customs. This is a great article and really makes me want to go eat some Chinese food and to travel to China to eat at a restaurant.
The idea of sharing all the food that is ordered is wonderful. Especially if someone orders something you have never tried. I wish more people in the United States ate every meal like this. That is not to say that at holidays and smaller family gatherings we do not all share the food that is prepared. The comment about how the United States has a mixture of food that we have acquired from immigration of new people and our history as a nation is completely true. The staple food choices change across the United States and if we look back historically there would most likely be a reason for why the food became popular. Growing up my dad’s side of the family always talked about Polish food because we identified as being from Polish descent (probably due to the last name). Although, this is not completely true. I find it interesting how Americans who are not from the early generation of immigration tend to hold on to one or two aspects of the culture they identify with historically. In reality, most white Americans are from European descent, but we still feel the need to identify with that culture even if we have never visited that nation. The food we choose to cook at holidays like Thanksgiving are sometimes a reflection of the nation we believe our descendants to be from. Food is really an interesting topic when you tie it to historical significance and social customs.
I think it’s very interesting to read about your program studying Chinese in Beijing. It’s fascinating to learn about how each region in China has their own specialties, flavors, and even cooking methods. In addition to read about the differences between China and the United States in how we order food with our friends. The Chinese Table tradition sounds very cool! Do you think that the United States should incorporate a tradition similar to this? The photos of the food you took look very delicious! Is there anything while trying some new food that you were a little nervous about trying? Thank you for sharing the great article, Mariya!
Mariya, thank you for sharing your experiences in China a long with the photos of the cuisine you have been eating. The pictures made me hungry to say the least. It is very fascinating for me to look at the dishes served in China compared to the food I would get at a Chinese restaurant here in the States. The idea of ordering your own meal and sharing with others is also really great, and I think would be a great idea to adopt in America. It would make eating food more of a personal experience because we are sharing with others. Sharing a meal with others is one of the most intimate things we can do as humans, and to share these foods I feel would bring people together.
This is wonderful! I started to become hungry myself as I read and looked at the pictures in your article. I wonder, however, what exactly is a “Pecking duck” restaurant and what makes is particularly special? Eating is a very communal activity across the human-race/experience. I think it is extremely interesting how eating meals is even more communal in China through the sharing of food and ordering of one meal (versus the U.S. alternative of ordering two separate meals). How has this impacted the nature of your meal times?
Fantastic article! I really enjoyed learning about Chinese food. Food can be the on of the major staples for cultures all around the world. I think it is fascinating that Chinese food will differ from the different areas in China itself, while American food tends to be very similar everywhere you go. American food is very dependent, as you mentioned in your article, upon other cultures, and I don’t think it does an excellent job of getting the flavors right or representing the culture the food is from. Not many restaurants have authentic food, only a snippet of the real thing. I wonder how different America would be if US-food became a staple of our culture: if we had foods distinctive to our country. Also, the Chinese table is very cool! I am taking Russian right now, and we have a similar thing. Only we meet at one restaurant every week. I have only been once so far, but immersing myself in the language was amazing, even if overwhelming at first. It must have been a wonderful trip!
I love that each area has their own food! I think that’s so amazing and beautiful that they’re able to be so diverse and cultural throughout their entire country. I wonder what it’s like when they travel? If they get sick of the food that they have to eat in different areas or if they enjoy trying everyone else’s. I also really love the fact that they share their meals. I feel like it’s such a simple way to make the meal more special between those involved, like you’re able to share a piece of yourself without saying anything. I wish it was a normality in the US for me! I’d love to be able to share food with those I’m with! Thank you for sharing your experience while abroad!
Very interesting story, thank you for sharing your adventure. I like the idea that everyone shares what they order and uses meal time to communicate when they are eating. Also it is fascinating that you got to experience more than one restaurant and a different variety of food. How do these Chinese restaurants compare to the ones in America? Did you have a good or bad experiences when trying different foods?
I think I would love a trip like this and a course that would treat their students like friends. I would love to have free food, not to mention in abundance. I think the interaction between the professors and their students would establish a desire to get the grades they desire for the students. This tradition is rare in the United States as most of our food does not come the States but rather from other countries. This is particularly interesting because I bet that most of the food in China is far more fresh tasting.
This is a really interesting article and I enjoyed reading about your experience. One thing in particular that stood out to me was the Chinese table because everyone orders individually but ends up sharing all the food that is ordered. This is a completely different concept from the US and I find it incredible how much you can learn about different countries solely based off of their food. I’m planning on traveling to China soon and look forward to trying some of the foods from pictures and experiencing the traditions you mentioned. You brought up how there were specific restaurants in Beijing for the different regions of China, but I’m curious to know if you saw a lot of restaurants for different nations’ cuisines or if they are not very common?
Thanks for sharing
Thank you for sharing your experiences while in China! I have always wanted to visit China and this makes me want to even more because I love Chinese food! After reading your post, it definitely is evident that through meals, you and the group of people you were with were better able to communicate and build a relationship with one another. In my history class right now, we are learning about the Han and Roman empires and how they became so successful and lasted so many years compared to previous empires. A key trait that these empires had was that they valued communication. According to our text, Tignor et. al. mentions that the Roman empire built an unprecedented number of roads to connect far-flung parts of their empire (2018, p. 267). They also build the Colosseum which held big events that many people went to which also fostered their idea of communication. Communication is so important to any culture and I am glad you and your group members were able to form a relationship over communication during meals.