If food reflects a society’s lifestyle at any given point in time, the same goes for the way we set our table, be it for our everyday meals or for the more formal, festive occasions.
China has a millenary culinary tradition, and food is an important part of Chinese culture. Like in many other civilisations, Chinese cuisine has evolved, and so have table manners and table setting, or so we think. Then there’s the incredible diversity of cultures, traditions and even languages that coexist in this immense country, which makes any attempt at generalising a pitiful cliché. Yet if we were to pick a single transversal trait to Chinese society at large, it would have to be the widespread passion for food and the way it is enjoyed.
The way the table is set depends directly from table manners, and the kind of food that is served. Round tables are generally preferred as they facilitate conviviality. In the traditional Chinese basic setting, a plate sits in front of each diner. A soup bowl may be placed on top of it. Around this central piece, clockwise and starting from the left, the napkin, a rice bowl, a tea cup, a small sauce dish, a spoon, a chopstick rest and, of course, the chopsticks themselves. From here, there are infinite possibilities as to the quality, the refinement and the value of the crockery and the accessories involved.
More daring settings may incorporate some additional fusion elements, like forks and knives, and glasses for water and wine, which are generally laid out following the same globalised rules applying to “Western style” table setting.
Food is served in communal dishes placed at the centre of the table, often on a lazy Susan (not a cliché) to facilitate serving. Dishes are not passed around, but guests reach for the communal dishes and place food on their individual plates. If no serving utensils are provided, guests can use the back end of their chopsticks to serve themselves.
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