Chinese culinary culture: how many meals a day?

When I first arrived in England, I was very confused when people asked me how many meals a day the Chinese usually eat. I would simply answer: “obviously three, but don’t you have the same?”.

Later, I found out that I was not right. Of course, different cultures have different eating habits (in Spain people usually eat five times a day). Don’t even mention how different each meal could be.

Becoming aware of the differences in food culture between China and Western countries was probably what first made me aware of cultural identity issues. I have been thinking of writing about this for a long time.

The bold statement “three meals a day in Chinese culture” is really not precise, especially given the number of different ethnic groups and regions in China. People from different ethnic groups or living in different regions have slightly different eating habits.

For example, in the far south of China, people usually ate an extra meal very late in the evening, after supper. But in the North, we usually have three meals: breakfast between 6.30 am and 7.30 am (depending on people’s working hours), lunch from 12 noon to 1 pm and dinner around 7 pm.

The common Chinese breakfast in the northern provinces might consist of congee with pickles, soy milk with “Youtiao” (a kind of fried pastry) or steamed Chinese “bread”. In restaurants that open in the morning for breakfast, you can also buy noodles or “bao zi” (steamed bread with toppings).

Lunch normally includes appropriate dishes and comes with stable foods like rice. In the northern provinces, pastries with different fillings are also very common purchases for lunch. Students could take lunch boxes and workers would go home or eat in small restaurants. In any case, lunch is usually followed by a short nap.

Some time ago, I read an article about German businessmen meeting Chinese in Shanghai. At noon, the Chinese would get up and say, “It’s lunchtime now, let’s go to lunch, we can continue talking on the dining table.” The Germans were very surprised because they were in the middle of a meeting. It shows how important food is in Chinese culture.

Dinner is normally prepared properly at home, although nowadays with many family restaurants at very reasonable prices people have started to buy food or eat out often. Homemade dinner normally includes a meat or fish dish and several vegetable dishes.

There is another saying in Chinese: “walking 100 steps after dinner can make you live to 99”. While this is obviously a metaphor, in China you will see crowds of people walking the streets or gardens around 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., right after dinner.

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