Food culture in China is very different from the way it is in the West. Foreign travellers might suffer from a bit of culture shock when they’re travelling, and they may need some special accommodations to help them feel more comfortable. This is your quick guide to understanding some of the requests or accommodations that you might encounter.
One major difference between cultures surrounding food is around ordering food. In the west, everybody orders their own separate meals. Generally entrées aren’t shared, but pre-meal appetizers are shared by everybody at the table. Many restaurants in the west, even those that are considered to be higher-end or fancier, offer some variation on “Pub food”. A pub is a term for a bar that has it’s origins in England. These bars usually offer “informal” menu items that are often simplified versions of traditional dishes from around the world such as macaroni and cheese, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, sandwiches, wraps, pasta, and more. French fries and other potato-based foods are often served as sides, along with simple vegetables that are steamed or sautéed.
So what does all of this mean to you? First and foremost, many western guests won’t be used to ordering food that is meant to be shared by the entire table and may request to have their own meal. Secondly, while many travellers want to experience the culture in every sense of the word, other travellers may not be willing or able to adjust their diet due to medical restrictions or their taste in food and may request menu items that are closer to the ones that they are used to.
When waiting on and serving western guests, it may beneficial to tell them about the options that will best represent the local cuisine, but to also mention the dishes that may make them feel a little more at home.
Let’s get something obvious out of the way; westerners are not usually taught to use chopsticks. That doesn’t mean that many westerners haven’t learned to use chopsticks or that they’re unwilling to use them. It just means that many may be unfamiliar with them. In the west, almost exclusively, tables are set with a napkin, fork and knife. Generally, spoons will only be given out if the dish requires one, such as soup or pasta, or if the guest requests one. When serving western guests, give them the option of using forks and knives if they’re available. But don’t assume that they will be unwilling or unable to use chopsticks. Some guests will ask for them but some won’t. The point is to give them the option and let them make the decision.
A western table is also usually set with salt, pepper and, depending on how formal the restaurant is, ketchup and white vinegar. Guests may request that salt and pepper be brought to the table or ask if they can get some salt and pepper. The best way to proceed here is not to ask outright if they need these items, but to ask if they have everything they need to enjoy their meal. If they need ketchup or salt and pepper, they’ll probably ask.
And there you have it! This is by no means an exhaustive list on the differences between western and eastern food culture, but it covers the big differences. The important thing to understand is that food is very important in every culture, and being comfortable is the priority for guests. It is your job to anticipate the requests you might hear and offer the most fitting accommodations your establishment has to offer. It comes down to the basic principle of hospitality and tourism; listen to the guest’s wants and needs and do your best to fulfill them.
Were there a few words that you didn’t recognize? Find them here!
- Culture shock– The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
- Entrée– The main course of a meal.
- Appetizer– a small dish of food or a drink taken before a meal or the main course of a meal to stimulate one’s appetite.
- Macaroni and cheese– A dish made with macaroni and a thick, creamy cheese sauce.
- Hamburger– a round patty of ground beef, fried or grilled and typically served on a bun or roll and garnished with various condiments.
- Cheeseburger– A hamburger served with cheese.
- Sandwich– An item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with meat, cheese, or other filling between them, eaten as a light meal.
- Wrap– Similar to a sandwich, but made with a flat bread. The flatbread wraps around the filling.
- Pasta– A dish originally from Italy consisting of dough made from durum wheat and water, extruded or stamped into various shapes and typically cooked in boiling water.
- French fries– A thin strip of deep-fried potato.
- Sauté– Fried quickly in a little hot fat.
- Cuisine– A style or method of cooking, especially as characteristic of a particular country, region, or establishment.
- Obvious– Easily perceived or understood; clear, self-evident, or apparent.
- Ketchup– A spicy sauce made chiefly from tomatoes and vinegar, used as a condiment.
- White vinegar– A sour-tasting liquid containing acetic acid, obtained by fermenting dilute alcoholic liquids, typically wine, cider, or beer, and used as a condiment or for pickling.
- Outright– Open and direct; not concealed.
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