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May 29, 2010 07:44 AM

china: meal structure: rice looking 2 ways

I live on the East coast of China now, and I think a penny is beginning to drop, but I'd like to check with people who may know more.

At a Chinese meal, domestic or restaurant, there are lots of dishes on the table at the same time (contrasting with the sequential meal structure used in the West). So the question is whether there is a structure to the way these are eaten.

My impression is that it goes like this. ---
a/ Rice (fan) is the centre
b/ The immediate accompaniments (cai 1) are soup and pickle
c/ The fancy accompaniments (cai 2) are the dishes described in cookbooks and promoted at restaurants.

One clue is Chinese table setting --- immediate accompaniments are placed to the right of the rice and behind it, and are individual; while fancy accompaniments are placed in the middle of the table, and are communal. Another is (nearby) Korean and Japanese table settings, which seem similar.

So what can look unstructured actually isn't?

Any thoughts appreciated,


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  1. there is no such thing as one "Chinese" meal. Chinese cuisines are composed of many regional cuisines. "Structurally" how meals are eaten in northern China may be very different from the way it's eaten in eastern, western, or southern China. While rice is prominent in the southern region, noodles (in the wheat belt) are more prominent in the northern region. At home rice may be more a central focus, whereas at a banquet rice is totally secondary.

    2 Replies
    1. re: PeterL

      Hi --- Yes, I mean a local everyday meal (that's Zhejiang for me, non-banquet, using rice).

      1. re: umamihound

        Your initial impression was correct - there's no structure to a Chinese at-home meal.

    2. Definitely no structure to it. Eat what you like however you want to eat it, as that's definitely what everyone else at the table will be doing. The one thing, even after many years, that I can't get used to is that when drinking during the meal (at least in the north/northeast), rice usually isn't served until you are finished with the alcohol, though by that point I'm usually full.

      1. One thing I like about Chinese meals - no strict set of rules, no structure. The only things you look out for are:
        1) Don't stick and leave your chopsticks standing on a bowl of rice. It's considered bad luck as it's akin to joss-sticks standing on an urn, a symbol of death
        2) Don't start eating before the elders are all seated & they start to eat first
        3) Don't pick and choose items from a communal dish using your chopsticks, just pick the piece(s) closest to you
        4) Finish all your rice in a bowl, don't waste any food

        The above are common sense etiquette/rules. Other than that, just enjoy yourself.