The mind-boggling array of dishes. The chopsticks. The challenge of getting food from the serving dish to your bowl and finally to your mouth.
Eating Chinese food can be a daunting prospect for even the most experienced Western diners.
Especially for those who are aware that there’s an etiquette observed among many Chinese people, particularly during formal and business meals.
But James Wong, managing director of Birmingham’s long-established and well-respected Chung Ying restaurant group, has explained how the avoid the pitfalls.
He stresses that his etiquette guide applies most strictly to formal meals and are relaxed when friends or family sit down more casually.
And, anyway, he’s quick to explain that the Chinese have a saying: “If you don’t know, you can’t be blamed.”
So any faux pas are likely to be forgiven.
Respect the host
Expect the host to decide who sits where – his most valued guests nearest to him, with the host’s closest friends or colleagues sitting by those less privileged.
The host is likely to select the dishes – choosing an array of styles to suit every palate and making sure that included are expensive dishes such as lobster, scallops or other seafood.
At a formal dinner, don’t dream of helping yourself until the host begins proceedings.
And don’t be surprised if the host doesn’t seem to be eating or drinking much – the main aim is to ensure the pleasure of guests.
When tea is poured, tap your second and third fingers on the table to say thank-you – legend has it that it was a way of mimicking a bow when the Emperor filled your cup.
Pour tea for others before yourself – starting with the elders as a sign of respect.
But don’t leave the spout of the teapot pointing at anyone – it’s regarded as an insult.
When the pot’s empty, leave the lid balanced on top rather than closed so that the waiter knows a refill is needed.
The meal is likely to be eaten at a circular table using a revolving wheel called a Lazy Susan.
Always choose food from the serving bowl closest to you. Other dishes – including any personal favourites – will find their way round to you eventualy.
Take only a mouthful of food at a time – it’s regarded as very rude to take more.
Certainly don’t hog your favourite dish.
First put your food in your rice bowl before again lifting it to eat.
Grip the bowl with your first, second and third fingers underneath and your thumb on top and hold it close to your mouth because it’s thought uncouth to slouch over your food.
Side plates are there for bones or other inedible bits of food – not to eat from.
Don’t spit out such items of food – use your chopsticks or fingers.
Elders may offer to serve you – accept whether you want the food or not.
Some restaurants provide extra pairs of chopsticks that are known as Gung Kuai and used so that food can be served hygienically rather than by using those that have been in diners’ mouths.
Never point your chopsticks at anyone – it’s extremely rude.
And don’t leave your chopsticks stuck vertically into your rice bowl because then they will resemble the incense that Chinese people burn to honour their dead ancestors.
Don’t rattle your chopsticks on glasses, drum them on the table or otherwise play with them – they’re there as tools to use to eat.
You won’t find knives on Chinese tables – they’re thought to represent violence.
The lack of knives is why Chinese food is generally cut into small pieces beforehand.
If you need to use the phone, make your apologies and leave the table to do so.
It’s customary to over-order and for food to be left at the end of a meal – a sign that guests have been well-fed.
The Chinese are known for their generosity and will often sneakily pay the bill or squabble to do so, though at formal meals the host will undoubtedly pick up the tab.
For more information of Chung Ying, Ching Ying Garden and Chung Ying Central, go to https://www.chungying.co.uk
I work as a freelance consultant with the Chung Ying group.