For a first timer, going out for a business meal in China can be a bit intimidating. Trying to make a choice after leafing through a 20-page menu can seem downright impossible. But by keeping a few things in mind, you can avoid some common mistakes.
It is widely believed that Chinese cuisine is one of the world’s most sophisticated. This should come as no surprise, considering how much Chinese people enjoy food-related activities. Going out for big lunches and dinners is the nation’s pastime. The country has an endless parade of dishes to call its own. The variety across regions is astounding. Most times, even the same dish can differ dramatically from place to place.
Restaurants are generally big, multifloor buildings that are more akin to a banquet hall. They are often extravagant, with private rooms and a large wait staff that fawns over guests’ needs. Menus come adorned with well designed hard covers and pages of pictured scrumptious dishes.
Here are some tips to keep the confusion factor at a minimum:
- Most of the time, menus are in Chinese. In general, they will also have accompanying pictures you can use to order. In an overwhelming majority of cases, it is unlikely that the wait staff of the restaurant you are visiting will speak English. While you can participate in the ordering, you may be better off if you just let your Chinese companions order. They are usually happy to do so.
- There is no such a thing as ordering for yourself. The Chinese like to share their meals. They order several dishes, usually a table full of them, and then each dish is circulated for everyone to sample until it’s gone.
- Acquaint yourself with chopsticks. It is not unusual for restaurants to not have western utensils such as forks and knives. Don’t be offended if your host tries to help you polish your chopstick skills or makes comments about them. To the Chinese, anyone who didn’t grow up using chopsticks undoubtedly comes off a little amateurish when using them.
- Remember, don’t start eating before your hosts. They may take that as disrespect or disapproval. Also, the Chinese culture is very hierarchical. This is reflected at the table where seniors and higher status people get first dibs on main dishes.
- Don’t assume what is initially on the table is all there will be to eat. It may seem there is a lot of food already but more will arrive over a period of time. You will want to pace yourself to avoid being too full to sample what may be your host’s favorite dish.
- Don’t expect a glass of ice-cold water to be automatically served with the food. The Chinese don’t like drinking cold water. Instead they enjoy hot tea with their lunches and dinners. The tea is served at the beginning of meals. If you want water, you have to order it separately.
- Sure you can ask what is in a certain dish, but you may not want to find out the delicious crunchy things you really enjoyed were fried silkworms.
- You may want to choose a mild alcohol when ordering drinks because you will not be drinking at your own pace. Every time someone raises their glass to you, you have to drink and you have to drink an entire glassful of whatever you ordered. And they will keep on refilling your glass for seemingly endless toasts.
- Business may or may not be discussed during the meal. Feel free to delve into the subject if it comes up. If it doesn’t, don’t worry; that is also normal.
- Generally if they invite you they will pay for the meal. There is no such thing as splitting the bill.
Food is one of the most fascinating and innovative aspects of China. Relax and enjoy yourself during your business meal. Be adventurous. Try everything in front of you. At the very least you will have stories to tell to your family and friends, and more likely than not you will enjoy the food.