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Restaurants in China

While buffets are coming more popular in big cities, most restaurants still serve food “family style.”  That means you are not given an individual plate of food, but rather the dishes are placed in the center of the table--- often on a revolving tray called a lazy Susan in English—so that everyone can try a little of each dish.

Fresh fish is a wonderful treat in China. And if you are in China or are being treated by Chinese friends, fish is usually an essential dish. The fish is served whole, head still attached. You can ask your waiter or waitress to “please divide the dish for us” and he or she will cut into equal portions but still bring the head back on a separate platter and put it on the table.  If the head faces you, this traditionally means you are considered the guest of honor. You don’t have to eat the head; it’s just the restaurant’s way of showing you that it is fresh. Also, don’t be surprised if the waiter or waitress comes to you and actually brings out a plastic box containing the live fish for you to look for you to examine before it is cooked. This may be alarming to some people but it’s a good way to tell if your fish is indeed fresh. It should flop around heartily once the lid of the box is opened.  If not, feel free to order a different fish and tell the server you want one that’s fresher. You can also ask the waiter to recommend which fish is freshest that evening.

One big difference between Western and Chinese restaurants is that it is perfectly acceptable in China to make special request.  While a Western chef might be offended that you dare question his or her recipes, Chinese chefs are proud of their ability to make just about any dish requested.  You can ask for dishes that are not on the menu or for certain cooking styles or f or certain ingredients to be put in or left out.  For example, if you are allergic to MSG, tell your waiter or waitress to ask the cook to leave it out. The only time special requests are denied is if the ingredients are not available.  Because Chinese chefs make everything on the spot rather than in advance, this kind of personal service is possible.

Source: “Everything You Need to Know to Understand China A to Z”, by  May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai

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