When I first came to England, I was very confused when people asked me how many meals Chinese people would have per day. I used to say answer: “obviously three, but don’t you have the same?”
Ok, later, I knew, I wasn’t right, of course, different cultures have different eating habits, (like in Spain, people usually eat five times a day.) Don’t even mention how different each meal could be.
Food culture in China
Realizing the differences in terms of food culture between China and Western countries is probably what first made me aware of cultural identity issues. I have been thinking of writing about this for a long time.
If I ambiguously say “three meals per day in Chinese culture“, it is really not precise, especially considering how many different ethnic groups and different regions there are in China. People belonging to different ethnic groups or living in different areas have slightly different eating habit. For example, in very south of China, people would usually have an additional meal in the very late evening, after normal supper. But in North, yes, commonly, three meals – breakfast between 6.30am-7.30am (depending on people’s work schedule), lunch at 12pm to 1pm, and dinner around 7pm.
There is a Chinese old saying reflecting on the eating habit, “at breakfast, you need to eat well; at lunch, you need finish with full stomach; and at dinner, you need to eat less.” Healthy advice, no? However, people nowadays are not taking this rule seriously anymore — food is really a seductive thing. :)
Common Chinese breakfast in Northern provinves could be congee with pickles, soya milk with ‘Youtiao’ (a kind of fried pastry, I always say that it is very similar to Spanish churros), or Chinese steamed ‘bread’; in restaurants that open in the morning for breakfast, you can get noodles or ‘bao zi’ (steamed bread with fillings).
Well, but I grew up with having my dad’s ‘full breakfast’ everyday. He was worried if we were going to have enough energy for our brain to function correctly at school, so he always used to get up at half past 5 in the morning to cook some dishes involving different vegetables, eggs, etc. (Coz we needed to be at school by 7.20).
Why is so early? I don’t know, but traditionally people would get up early to do exercises, the theory is that in the morning, after the green plants ‘clean’ up the air, and before the day time’s pollution starts, it is the best time to inhale fresh oxygen to kick the day off.
Nowadays, toast is becoming adopted by Chinese people as well, it is a new thing in China, despite having bread wasn’t. After my parents’ short visit in England, they went back home and bought a toaster — what a globalization! :)
Lunch normally involves proper dishes and comes with stable food like rice, in North, pastries with different fillings are also very common buys for lunch. Students could take lunch boxes, (since my dad would get up early to make me a big cooked nutritious breakfast, you can imagine my lunch box:))), and working people would either go home or eat in small restaurants — whatever it is, it is followed by a short ‘siesta’, students would just climb on the desks, or people are lucky to have home close to work, they could stay in bed. Don’t people usually say that if you have 20 minutes power nap around mid day, your brain can function better in the evening? — It is like recharge the battery. :)
Anyway, lunch normally cannot be delayed too much, and can never be a sandwich, eating while standing or walking on the road. — See how different.
I read an article somewhere a while ago, it was about German businessmen having meetings with Chinese in Shanghai. At 12pm, Chinese people stood up and said, “it’s lunch time now, let’s go to have lunch, we can keep on talking on the dinning table.” German were very surprised, because they were in the middle of the meeting, not finished yet. ha… It shows how important food is in Chinese culture. :))
Dinner is normally prepared properly at home, although, nowadays, with lots of family run restaurants at very reasonable price, people have started buying food or dinning out often. Home cooked dinner normally involves a meat or fish dish, and vegetable dishes.
Cooking after work certainly can be a burden, but my mum used to say, with a family to take care of (with children and parents-in-laws at home), no matter how tired you are, you have to cook — accept the responsibility of taking care the family.
No matter cooking or eating at home or not, a family eating together is very important, good time to build up family bonds (although nowadays, teenagers might not agree) :)
I am finishing the introductions here, and all the recipes for three meals will be following. Oh, there is another saying in Chinese, “walking ‘100’ steps after dinner can make you live till 99 years old”. ha.. 100 steps is a metaphor, but if you are in China, you will see lots of people having a stroll in the street or gardens around 7.30pm or 8pm ……