Chinese Culinary Culture: How Many Meals Per Day?

When I first came to England, I was very confused when asked how much food Chinese people usually eat per day. I would simply answer: “obviously, three, but don’t you have the same?”

Later I found out that I was wrong. Of course, different cultures have different eating habits (in Spain they usually eat five times a day). Not to mention how different each meal can be.

Understanding the differences in food culture between China and Western countries is probably the first thing that made me aware of cultural identity issues. I thought about writing about it for a long time.

The bold statement of “three meals a day in Chinese culture” is actually inaccurate, especially given 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 usually eat very late at night after dinner. But in the North, we usually have three meals a day: breakfast from 6:30 to 7:30 (depending on the work schedule of people), lunch from 12:00 to 13:00 and dinner around 19:00.

A typical Chinese breakfast in the northern provinces may consist of broth with pickles, soy milk with “yothao” (a type of fried dough), or steamed Chinese “bread”. Restaurants that open for breakfast in the morning also offer noodles or bao tzu (steamed bread with a filling).

Lunch usually includes the right meals and stable foods such as rice. In the northern provinces, baked goods with different fillings are also often bought for lunch. Students could take lunch boxes with them, and workers either went home or ate in small restaurants. In any case, a short nap usually follows after lunch.

Some time ago I read an article about the meetings of German businessmen with Chinese in Shanghai. At 12 o’clock, the Chinese got up and said: “Now is the time for lunch, let’s go to lunch, we can continue the conversation at the dinner table.” The Germans were very surprised because they were in the midst of a meeting. This shows how important food is in Chinese culture.

Dinner is usually properly prepared at home, although nowadays, with many family-run restaurants available at very reasonable prices, it is common for people to buy food or dine outside the home. A homemade dinner usually includes a meat or fish dish, as well as several vegetable dishes.

There is another Chinese saying: “After taking 100 steps after lunch, you can live to be 99 years old.” While this is obviously a metaphor, in China you will see crowds of people walking the streets or gardens around 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm just after lunch.

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