When I first came to England, I was very confused when people asked me how many meals a day the Chinese usually eat. I would simply reply, “obviously three, but don’t you have the same one?”
I later found out that I was not right. Of course, different cultures have different eating habits (in Spain, people usually eat five times a day). Don’t even mention how each meal can be different.
Noticing the differences in food culture between China and Western countries was probably what first made me aware of cultural identity issues. I’ve been thinking about writing about it for a long time.
The bold statement “three meals a day in Chinese culture” is not really accurate, especially considering how many different ethnic groups and regions there are in China. People belonging to different ethnic groups or who live in different areas have slightly different eating habits.
For example, in southern China, people usually ate an additional meal late at night, after dinner. In the North, we usually eat three meals: breakfast between 6:30 am and 7:30 am (depending on people’s working hours), lunch from 12pm to 1pm and dinner around 7pm.
The common Chinese breakfast in the northern provinces could consist of porridge with pickles, soy milk with ‘Youtiao’ (a type of fried dough) or Chinese steamed ‘bread’. In the restaurants that open in the morning for breakfast, you can also eat pasta or ‘bao zi’ (steamed bread with stuffing).
Lunch usually involves adequate dishes and comes with stable foods, such as rice. In the northern provinces, pastries with different fillings are also very common for lunch. Students could take lunch boxes and workers would go home or eat in small restaurants. In any case, lunch is usually followed by a short nap.
I read an article some time ago about German businesspeople meeting Chinese in Shanghai. At 12 o’clock, the Chinese would get up and say: “now it’s time for lunch, let’s have lunch, we can continue talking at the dinner table”. The Germans were very surprised, as they were in the middle of a meeting. This shows the importance of food in Chinese culture.
Dinner is usually well prepared at home, although today, with many reasonably priced family restaurants, people have often started to buy food or dine out. Homemade dinner usually 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 to 99”. While this is obviously a metaphor, in China you will see a crowd of people strolling the streets or gardens around 7:30 pm or 8 pm, right after dinner.