When I first came to England, I was very confused when people asked me how many meals per day do Chinese people usually have. I would simply reply: “obviously three, but don’t you have the same?”.
Later on I found out that I wasn’t right. Of course, different cultures have different eating habits (in Spain, people usually eat five times a day). Don’t even mention how different each meal could be.
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.
The bold statement “three meals per day in Chinese culture” 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 habits.
For example, in the very south of China, people would usually have an additional meal in the very late evening, after supper. But in the North, we usually have three meals: breakfast between 6.30am-7.30am (depending on people’s work schedule), lunch at 12pm to 1pm, and dinner around 7pm.
Common Chinese breakfast in Northern provinces could consist of congee with pickles, soya milk with ‘Youtiao’ (a kind of fried pastry), or Chinese steamed ‘bread’. In restaurants that open in the morning for breakfast, you can also get noodles or ‘bao zi’ (steamed bread with fillings).
Lunch normally involves proper dishes and comes with stable food like rice. In Northern provinces, pastries with different fillings are also very common buys for lunch. Students could take lunch boxes and working people would either go home or eat in small restaurants. In any case, lunch is commonly followed by a short nap.
I read an article somewhere a while ago about German businessmen having meetings with Chinese in Shanghai. At 12pm, Chinese people would stand up and said, “it’s lunch time now, let’s go to have lunch, we can keep on talking on the dining table.” Germans were very surprised, because they were in the middle of a meeting. This 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 dining out often. Home cooked dinner normally involves a meat or fish dish, and several vegetable dishes.
There is another saying in Chinese: “walking 100 steps after dinner can make you live till 99 years old”. Although this is obviously a metaphor, in China you will see crowds of people having a stroll in the streets or gardens around 7.30pm or 8pm, right after dinner.