Chinese basically eat everything alive. This is the result of centuries of famine and deprivation. Not only are all animals looked upon as a possible meal, every scrap is eaten, including snout, brains and intestines. A visit to a local market offers a view of Chinese cuisine. You could make a game out of guessing what you see: anteaters, scorpions, snake, dog. Every non-vegetarian should have no difficulty with dishes prepared from these ingredients. Westerners usually find the cruel treatment of the animals repugnant. Frogs and snakes are skinned alive. All animals are locked up in oppressive and suffocating small cages. The Chinese do not humanise animals in any way. It is food and that is all there is to it. However, normal everyday dinners are less exciting, for the Chinese as well as the visitors, than this market would suggest.
The only really exotic meals you might consume will consist of snake or grasshopper.
As you might expect in a country with such enormous dimensions, there are regional differences. The most outstanding distinction concerns basic food: in the south people eat more rice; in the north there’s more produce made of dough, such as noodles. In the north they also make bread from the grain, often taking the shape of steamed rolls, with or without vegetables or meat inside. The dichotomy does not fully apply.
The Szechuan cuisine is known for its highly seasoned dishes. One of the specialities is ‘hotpot’ (fondue) which can be especially spicy. You choose the ingredients yourself. In Lijiang you can order Naxi buffets, with all kinds of baked cheese. In Xi’an you’ll sense the Muslim influence and you can order delicious kebabs: small skewers with beef or mutton that are barbecued on the spot. Beijing of course has Peking Duck on the menu, in countless varieties.
In the larger cities there is usually the opportunity to eat out on the streets. Since the start of the economic reforms, the Chinese are once again allowed to have their own small businesses, and you will see streets and small squares where they put up their little eating stalls in the evenings. You order by simply pointing out what you want. In this manner, eating is tasty, cheap and fun because you are surrounded by Chinese people. In the smaller tourist towns such as Yangshuo, Lijiang and Dali you will find small eating-places oriented towards westerners. Yoghurt, muesli, pizza and pancakes are very popular here among foreigners. During travelling days on the bus or train you will eat what’s going. The meals will be simple but nourishing. On the train they will be made up of a bowl of rice with mixed vegetables and some meat or fish. During bus rides we will stop at the Chinese equivalent of wayside restaurants, where you will be able to choose, besides rice, from about four ready-made dishes.
For that matter, if the Chinese go out to dinner with a group of people, it is not customary for everyone to order only for themselves.
Several dishes are placed on the table and everybody takes from everything. In restaurants there is a kind of turntable in the middle of the table and all the dishes on it can be turned towards you at your convenience. It is fun to get used to eating in this way when going out to dinner with a group of people. And sure enough, you will eat with chopsticks.
China’s national drink is tea, more specifically: green tea (which is actually not green but light brown). You will have to get used to the taste and you drink it unsweetened.
You will notice that Chinese take glass pots with a lid to work or when travelling. They will cover the bottom of the pot with tealeaves and pour boiled water over it all day long. Boiled water is always available on trains, boats and hotels free of charge. You can make use of it yourself. Coffee is not popular with the Chinese, though nowadays you can obtain instant coffee nearly everywhere. Coca Cola and other soft drinks are available everywhere, as well as alcoholic beverages. Maotai for instance can be compared to gin, though it smells of cheese. Chinese wine is different from European wine. The beer tastes good and is sold in large bottles of more than 0.6 litres. They contain only 2-3 percent alcohol, so you can keep on drinking if you like.