Living in China today: The Importance of Food

by Andrea Glaab

Chinese Food Culture is big –  in fact, it is possible to say that almost everything in China evolves around some kind of food. It surrounds people everywhere for example with millions of food stalls on the streets or in the form of photos and famous chefs (Link 1) on social networks. The significance of food is linked to the meaning of community, respect and sharing. Meeting for a shared meal is the most common form of meeting with family and friends and meals together are used to make and maintain friendships as well as business relations. To show respect most of the times much more will be ordered than eaten. When asked what they miss the most about their home, Chinese Expats around the world will therefore mostly answer: Chinese food.

China’s culinary diversity is as large as its geographic reach, from North to South and West to East. There are many famous cuisines in China, from Northern Dongbei kitchen originating from Manchu cuisine, to Beijing Roast Duck in the capital, to Southern Cantonese kitchen with Dim Sum, to spicy Sichuan dishes and hotpot. Every province and region has a different taste, different kind of spices and ways of cooking. Especially enlightening and highly recommended to people interested to learn more about regional specialties is the CCTV documentary “A Bite of China” (Link 2) (note: don’t watch it whilst hungry though!).

Depending on the region, the main staple is rice or wheat with wheat being grown and used especially in the North and rice serving as a staple dish in the South. In the countryside, people will consume mostly local food, while in the city, food from all around the world is available. When eating, many Chinese will consider the concept of “Yin and Yang”, which allocates certain foodstuffs special attributes like hot or cold that must be brought into balance (SACU 2001). Some foods are also seen as being more auspicious while some are a symbol of back luck. Special meaning is for example attached to eggs that are dyed red and given to family and friends as a present after the birth of a child for good luck (Ma 2015).

There are many special treats that might seem eccentric for the European palate at first, like pidan 皮蛋 , preserved eggs that have a brownish color; stinky tofu that can be smelled from a mile away, or different kinds of insects as well as modern interpretations of potato chips e.g. with fish soup or chicken and Pepsi taste (Van Hindsbergh 2017, Cost 2013). Every holiday season also has its special treats that are served around that time. On Chinese Spring Festival Jiaozi 饺子, “dumplings” are a must. For the Dragon Boat Festival, people will eat zongzi 粽子, steamed sticky rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. Moon cakes are the special food for the Moon festival in autumn (Ma 2015).


Food culture does also interact with Chinese politics and vice versa. To increase food security, there have been several measures like grain stocks and subsidies while exports of food products were also discouraged (Huang et al. 2015).Nevertheless, China is still suffering from numerous scandals of fake or polluted food each year (Link 3).

With the crackdown on corruption within the Chinese government under Xi Jinping, the food industry was also affected. Delegates from the Chinese parliament were banned from holding luxurious banquets and exchanging high-prized gifts like food and liquor, which are financed by public expenses (AFP 2014). The impact of these regulations can be seen in the case of maotai 茅台 , China’s most famous spirit, which experienced a stark decline in sales (Garrison 2012).

The Chinese cuisine has a lot to offer and can tell a lot about the country’s history and culture. Even though Western restaurants and fast food places are spreading in the country, the love of Chinese for their traditional Chinese food is still strong.


AFP. 2014. China officials banned from holding banquets amid corruption concern. The Telegraph. [retrieved 25th November 2017].

Cost, B. 2013. Top 8 weirdest Chinese chip flavors. The Shanghaiist.  [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Garrison, M. 2012. Moutai shares tumble in China after government restriction. Marketplace. [retrieved 25th November 2017].

Huang, J.; Yang, J. & Rozelle, S. 2015. The political economy of food price policy in China. United Nations University. [retrieved 25th November 2017].

Ma, G. 2015. Food, eating behavior, and culture in Chinese society. Journal of Ethnic Foods.

Marchetto. P. 2016. Unusual Ingredients in Chinese Cooking. China Highlights. [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding 2001. [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Van Hindsbergh, G. 2017. 5 Weirdest and Most Unique Chinese Dishes. China Highlights. [retrieved 9th November 2017].

Further Reads:

Food in China. A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. F. J. Simoons. CRC Press, Boca Raton

Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. K. C. Chang, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

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