Culture Question:

What’s the biggest differences between China and Western countries about food?

(posted: May 12, 2011)

Food is one of the most enjoyable aspects of cultures to share. I really enjoy eating my way around a country when I travel; every place has its own culinary delights to discover. But all aspects of food culture are not about taste.

Chopsticks vs Forks and Knives
The first obvious difference between China and Western countries about food is the utensils used to eat with. In China people favour the use of chopsticks, while in the West a fork and knife are preferred. This difference in eating tools has a noticable impact on food preparation and table manners as well. Food in China is often cut (frequently clevered in fact) into bite-sized pieces which are easily handled by chopsticks. In the West it is uncommon to have bite-sized pieces of meat served. The diner uses the fork and knife at their disposal to cut each bite of meat as they are ready to eat it.

Not everything in Chinese cooking is cut into bite-sized pieces though. Noodles and many vegatables, and even some cuts of meat, are left large. It is reasonable table manners in China to pick up large food items using chopsticks and then bite off what you can chew. Long noodles can be slurped into the mouth. In the West there is an expectation that the diner, because they have the tools to do so, will cut food into bite-sized pieces and not just bite off a comfortable amount.

Central Dishes vs Individual Plates
Another difference in Chinese and Western food culture is how food is served. In China the food is placed in the centre of the table. Each person has a small plate and/or bowl and takes small amounts from the central dishes, returning to the central dishes many times throughout the meal. In the West, it is common for each diner to have a large plate to themself. Either their entire meal is served to them on this large plate, or there are centrally placed dishes that the diner serves themselves from. But, unlike the Chinese custom, in the West the diner will generally serve from the central dishes only once during a meal, dishing out the entire amont they expect to eat. They may return a second time (for 'seconds'), but generally no more than that. They would not take many small portions over the course of the meal.

Rice and Noodles vs Potatos and Bread
The most common staple foods also differ between China and the West. The Chinese favour rice and noodles while potatos and bread fill the staples slot for many western cuisines. The wide variation between different Western cuisines makes this generalization less accurate though. Certainly Italian cuisine, while welcoming bread, has pasta (noodles) at the center of it. This generalization also may not hold for many individuals in Western countries where multi-cultural influences have mixed many cuisines. I know I grew up eating potatos, rice, noodles and bread all quite frequently; no one of them seemed more of a staple than any other.

Oil, Steaming and Baking
Food preparation techniques also differ between China and the West. Chinese cooking makes liberal use of oil, prepared sauces and msg. Western cooking makes less use of oil (though perhaps not in the Southern U.S. where deep-frying is king) and msg, and, when it uses prepared sauces, uses different ones. Western cooking uses a lot more dairy products in cooking and tends to have more of a focus on meat. While Chinese cooking steams bread, Western cooking steams vegetables. I have not seen steamed bread in the West, nor steamed vegetables in China (which does not mean they don't exist, just that they are not common). Most cooking in Chinese homes is done on a stove top, while a Western kitchen is considered incomplete unless it has an oven. Many dishes in Western homes are baked or roasted in the oven.

Getting to the Meat and Bones
There are also differences in how we like our meats. Chinese like meat close to the bone (necks and chicken feet), Westerners tend to prefer big chunks of meat free of boney bits. As as result of these tastes, chicken breast meat in China is cheap, while in North America this is the most expensive part of the bird. Continuing with the bone theme, Chinese like to cut up the bones so that the flavour can reach the meat and, as a result, clevering a chicken right through the bones is common. In the West, there is a distaste for the bone shards this type of clevering produces and so chicken bones will to be separated at the joints (or even removed completely), not cut through.

This is not an exhaustive list of differences between Chinese and Western countries about food, but it is a fair starting point. You will find some more thoughts on this subject in the sources listed below.

Sources:

  1. Foreigners in China. “Chinese Dinner vs. Western Dinner”, (http://www.foreigners-in-china.com/chinese-dinner.html), 12-May-2011.

  2. Mysterious China Blog. “Chinese Food VS Western-style Food”, December 1, 2008. (http://www.mysteriouschina.com/chinese-food-vs-western-style-food/), 12-May-2011.

  3. Wikipedia. “European Cuisine”, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ European_cuisine), 12-May-2011.

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Chopsticks in hand

Crossed fork and knife