Chinese Eating Customs — How to Not Offend a Chinese Host

Learn about Chinese culinary etiquette
to keep meal times pleasant.

Growing up in a Chinese household, I’ve observed that Chinese eating customs differ quite a bit versus Western eating habits. Those who are not aware may risk offending a Chinese host (or likewise feel offended themselves). Whether eating at a Chinese restaurant or visiting the home of a Chinese host, here are some culinary customs to keep in mind.

Family-Style Eating

Unlike in the West where people order individual dishes at restaurants, the Chinese approach to eating involves sharing multiple dishes laced on a table. I had assumed everyone knew this, but found out this was not the case. While in college some acquaintances and I went out for a Chinese dinner. I ordered a plate of all beef fillets braised in a Chinese-style barbeque sauce to compliment the dishes the others had ordered. I had assumed we were eating family-style. However, when the food arrived, everyone just ate off their own plates they had ordered. Had I known, I would not have ordered myself a giant dish of beef.

The Humble Hostess

When eating in someone’s home, the Chinese hostess (often someone’s mom) will notoriously be humble about her cooking skills. The hostess may be the best chef in the world, but when guests sit down for a meal, she may comment about how her food doesn’t have enough taste, the food is not warm enough, etc. Do not give in to this self-criticism! She is merely acting humble, and if anyone agrees with her, she will likely feel deeply offended.

Know Thy Chopsticks

Think chopsticks are just eating utensils? Think again, they are loaded with meaning depending on how they are used. As a sign of politeness, Chinese hosts may serve food to others using their chopsticks — note they are using the backend of the chopsticks. Never use the front end as this would be equivalent to the Western concept of “double-dipping.”

Tapping chopsticks on a rice bowl may seem like innocent drumming, but this is an insult to the cook. It is seen as impolite as tapping is similar to what beggars do on their bowls. Also, in restaurants, people tap their bowls when the chef is too slow cooking the food.

Teapot Etiquette 

Pointing the mouth of a teapot directly at someone is as in impolite gesture, similar to pointing a finger. When drinking tea, always offer to serve others first before pouring into one’s own cup. At a restaurant, when the teapot is empty, simply place the lid partially ajar to indicate it needs a refill (some people turn the lid upside down on the pot). Do not completely remove the lid and place it on the table as this is seen as letting good luck escape.

Slurping and Burping 

Loud slurping and bellowing burping at meal time may offend many in the West, but to the Chinese these are compliments to the chef. It is a sign of contentment from a delicious meal. It’s also a good excuse for kids to make loud noises at the table!

Fighting Over the Bill 

At Chinese restaurants, it’s pretty commonplace to hear people fighting over a bill. But are they really fighting? No, they are going through a friendly ritual of determining who has the privilege of paying the bill. Even if one party knows he is not likely to pay, he has to at least put up a good fight. He must go back and forth insisting on paying until several rounds have passed. After “losing,” he should then shower the winner with gratitude. Some people “win” by using sneaky tactics like pretending to go to the bathroom with the intention of slipping a credit card to the waitress. When this happens, the other parties should praise the winner for his ingeniousness.

These are just some of the many Chinese eating customs I’ve observed. Which ones have you noticed that are not on this list?