Chinese Food Facts: 23 Fun Facts About Chinese Cuisine

If you were to ask me to describe Chinese food, I would answer, with overwhelming bias, that it was delicious and steeped in cultural nuance. As is the case with almost every culture in the world, food is an integral part of one’s cultural identity. Chinese food is no different. 

And, with so much history behind the cultural heritage that shaped China into what it is today, you can be sure that there are more than just a few Chinese food facts to unpack if you truly want to understand Chinese food culture. 

I’m here to help you do just that! Here are 23 of the most interesting Chinese food facts you probably didn’t know about!  

1. Chinese food is all about balance

Chinese food hotpot

One of the Chinese food facts that I’m sure many of you have heard about before is that Chinese cuisine is “all about balance”. It’s something that plenty of food bloggers, expert food critics, and even celebrity chefs keep talking about but what exactly does it mean?

For one, many Chinese dishes incorporate and combine five main flavors: sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and salty. The idea is that combining these different flavors achieves a harmonious, well-balanced taste that also signifies the different emotions one experiences in life. Yes, Chinese food is highly philosophical, as you will see as you read on. 

But beyond just stimulating every part of your palette, the balance of flavors in Chinese cuisine is said to also offer health benefits. In addition, most Chinese dishes also contain well-balanced ingredients in terms of macronutrients, as most dishes will contain both meat and vegetables. 

2. Chinese food was developed over centuries and dynasties 

China great wall

I bet this is one of the facts about food in China you probably didn’t know about! Many of the famous food in China today, and even the aforementioned culinary concept of balance itself, was developed over many centuries throughout various dynasties. 

It all started in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BC) where, as the kingdom prospered, food became less of a necessity and more of an art form. It was during this time that the traditional Chinese food philosophy, ba zheng (Eight Treasures, referring to eight ingredients) was coined. 

The dynasties that followed soon introduced sour and salty flavors, while spices came into the picture soon after the opening of the Silk Road. So the next time you’re enjoying your Sweet and Sour Chicken, just know that the deliciousness in your mouth is a result of thousands of years of culinary evolution! 

3. Chinese cooking can generally be categorized into 8 major culinary styles

Szechuan cooking

While every province has its own traditional dishes, a common fact about Chinese good culture is that Chinese cooking can generally be categorized into eight major regional cuisines: Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan, Zhejiang, and Anhui. 

Of all these regional cuisines, the two most popular ones are Cantonese (most popular Chinese stir fry dishes are Cantonese in origin) and Szechuan cuisine, known for its generous use of spicy chili peppers and for Mala hotpot. 

4. Noodles and rice are staples. But so are dumplings

Chinese dumplings

Almost every Chinese meal comes with either noodles or rice. In fact, some might even consider a meal incomplete without a hearty bowl of these staples. 

That said, a lesser-known Chinese staple when it comes to traditional Chinese food is dumplings (jiaozi). These juicy dumplings — a filling of meat and cabbages wrapped in rice flour dumpling skin and boiled to perfection are usually found on dining tables in northern China.

5. The legendary invention of the mantou

Traditional chinese mantou

Another popular food item in China is the mantou, a traditional soft Chinese steamed bun. It’s often eaten with other foods and dipped in gravies for added flavor. For me though, it represents an interesting bit of Chinese food history and folklore.

While mantou (or rather, wheat-based food items) had been a staple food since the Warring States Period, the name mantou was allegedly coined by the brilliant Three Kingdoms era strategist, Zhuge Liang. 

At the time, Zhuge Liang was leading an army against barbarians in Southern China and found his advance blocked by a rapid river. A local had told him that the custom was to sacrifice 50 men to the river deity to ensure safe passage. Not wanting to lose any soldiers, Zhuge Liang commanded his troops to fill livestock meat into buns shaped like human heads and throw those into the river instead. Thus was born the name mantou, which is a play on the word “barbarian’s head”. 

Over time, people began referring to filled buns as baozi while mantou was used specifically for unfilled buns. 

6. We don’t put cheese on everything 

Cheese board

Quick, name one Chinese dish that has cheese in it, I’ll wait. Can’t think of any? I don’t blame you! 

One of the Chinese food facts you’ll realize the more you eat Chinese food is that, we hardly ever use cheese or any dairy products in general. This is especially true when it comes to traditional Chinese food. You see, cheese and dairy products, while consumed regularly on their own in everyday life, don’t really have a place in Chinese cuisine. 

Supposedly, this is due to both historical and health factors. China, in the past, didn’t have environments that were conducive for raising cattle and churning (pardon the pun) our dairy products. What’s more, it’s said that a vast majority of Chinese suffer from some form of lactose intolerance. Although thankfully, I don’t! 

7. Chinese meals are communal

Couple sharing Chinese meal

When you join a Chinese meal for the very first time, you may be in for a dose of culture shock. While it’s the norm for each patron to receive their own plate of food in Western culture, Chinese meals are all about sharing. In fact, sharing a communal meal is one of the most cherished Chinese food traditions!

What this means is, instead of getting your own plate, the main dishes are often served in the middle of the table, and each guest is given a bowl or plate of rice or noodles. The idea is to share the main dishes so that everyone gets a taste of everything. This is why you’ll notice most Chinese dishes are cut into bite-sized pieces! 

8. Some ingredients are served whole

Whole chinese roasts

That said, some ingredients are preferably served whole. This is another one of the facts about food in China that throws people off. 

Sometimes when you order a dish, you might see it served to you whole! While this mostly applies to seafood (steamed whole fish, shrimps/prawns with their heads on, and crabs), you might sometimes also be served a whole roasted pig or an entire chicken (with its head on). 

While some may find this offputting, this actually relates back to certain Chinese cultural philosophies, such as how one should not waste food. 

9. There are some interesting Chinese food etiquette and taboos 

Chinese chopsticks taboo

As with many things that permeate Chinese society, there are plenty of do’s and dont’s associated with Chinese food culture. I’m sure you know some of these already, such as not sticking your chopsticks upright in your food, and not picking up food with dirty utensils. 

But some of the more interesting fun facts about Chinese food customs include allowing the oldest person at the table to start the meal, picking up your bowl of rice to avoid bending over at the table (although this is in contrast to some other East Asian cultures), and not waving your chopsticks about in the air. 

One of the Chinese food traditions that I remember most vividly is to not flip over a fish that is served whole! Mostly because I got an earful from my dad when I did so at a family dinner. This taboo originates from the coastal areas of China, where most people rely on fishing to sustain their livelihoods. Flipping over a fish is akin to flipping over a boat, hence, it’s seen as bad luck to do so! 

10. We use chopsticks instead of spoons

Using chopsticks

Another common Chinese food fact that most people already know: chopsticks are the way to go when enjoying Chinese food. 

Yes, I know some of you may struggle with chopsticks, but fret not. Many other young Chinese children, myself included, took a while to master using the chopsticks. But once you do, you’ll be amazed at how versatile they are! 

Apart from picking up food, you can use chopsticks to cut food into smaller pieces, pry meat from bones, and even pick up peanuts! 

11. The way food is presented is important

Chinese food garnish

Whenever you eat out at a Chinese restaurant, you’ll come to realize that many of the dishes are well garnished and decorated. Even the most basic of dishes like a stir-fry is sometimes served atop a bed of lettuce. 

This is because in Chinese food culture, it is believed that the “first bite” of any food, is enjoyed through the eyes. So chefs and cooks will often do their best to present their dishes in a way to seems appetizing. In fact, sometimes, fried fish is served in an upright position to convey that it’s super fresh! 

12. Certain foods have symbolic meaning

Chinese braised fish

Classic Chinese dishes aren’t just mouthwatering delicacies to treat and pamper your palette with. Some of the most popular traditional Chinese dishes and ingredients are an intrinsic part of Chinese food culture, and they have their own symbolic meanings. 

For example, during the Lunar New Year, the biggest celebration for the Chinese, certain foods are eaten to symbolize wealth and fortune. One of the most common dishes is fish, which is pronounced yu in Mandarin, the same way the word “excess” is pronounced. 

13. Eating tangyuan during Winter Solstice 

Chinese tanyuan

Apart from just some types of food having a deeper meaning, the act of eating certain things on specific days is also symbolic in Chinese food culture. 

The most prominent example I can think of is eating tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) during the Winter Solstice (dongzhi). In short, eating tangyuan is a way of inviting prosperity and reunion because of the round shape of the little rice balls.

However, for some of the elder generations, eating tangyuan during the Winter Solstice is symbolic of growing older by a year! 

14. Meat dumplings (zongzi) are a reminder of loyalty to king and country

Zongzi food culture

Okay, I’ll admit, that header probably isn’t the clearest of explanations, but zongzi (hearty meat dumplings made with glutinous rice and wrapped in bamboo leaves) is a unique delicacy that betells a moving story immortalized in Chinese food history.

Often eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Festival in Mandarin), zongzi is said to have originated in the Warring States era of China and was originally intended as an offering to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a brilliant and loyal statesman of the State of Chu who committed suicide after hearing about the fall of his country. Carrying a heavy rock, Qu Yuan walked dejectedly into a lake and drowned. 

To keep the fish from gnawing away at his body, nearby villages threw rice dumplings into the water to feed the fish and paddled out in boats in search of his body. And thus was born the tradition of dragon boat races and eating zongzi during the Duanwu Festival!    

15. The intricacies of Chinese tea ceremonies

Chinese tea ceremony

With China being the biggest exporter of tea leaves in the world, it’s no surprise that Chinese tea ceremonies are a big part of Chinese food culture. In fact, there are so many intricate elements that are involved that even I sometimes miss a few things! 

Generally, there are quite a few “rules” that need to be followed by both the person brewing and serving the tea and the person enjoying it. Many things that seem harmless and not noteworthy on a regular basis can be a sign of great disrespect or insult when pouring or receiving tea! 

For example, if the host pours a cup of tea that is pale from not being brewed long enough, it can be taken as a sign that the host is asking the guest to leave in a hurry. There are also certain actions like tapping your knuckles on the table to convey gratitude!  

16. Fruits are desserts

Chinese fruit dessert

This is one of the most amusing facts about Chinese food that I know of! If you’re at a Chinese restaurant and you order dessert after your meal, don’t be surprised if you’re served a large plate (or basket!) of fresh fruit! 

Yes, the most “traditional” Chinese dessert is a fruit platter, usually consisting of sweet fruits like watermelon, grapes, oranges, and more. That doesn’t mean there are no “proper” Chinese desserts though, there are, such as sweet puddings, pastries, and soups. It just so happens that the most common form of “after-meal delight” in Chinese culture is your daily dose of fiber! 

17. There are some really weird dishes

Stinky tofu

Apart from fruits as desserts, one of the most common (albeit sometimes exaggerated) Chinese food culture facts is that there are some extremely unique (or weird) dishes in Chinese cuisine. In fact, you could even say it’s one of the things that China is known and famous for

There’s, of course, the famous Stinky Tofu (deep-fried fermented tofu), century egg (fermented eggs), and the slightly lesser-known luosifen (river snail noodles) that both give off pungent aromas to kick us off. 

There are also bizarre snacks like stir-fried river rocks, where actual, inedible river rocks, are stir-fried with chili oil, garlic, and a mixture of spices. The point is to suck on the rocks to enjoy the flavors of the condiments and then chuck them away. I’ve never personally tried it myself but I’ve heard that it’s a common dish to enjoy while drinking beer. 

18. There are also some really healthy foods

Herbal chicken soup

On the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to traditional Chinese food, there are also a plethora of Chinese delicacies that promote health. After all, some dishes are made with plenty of medicinal herbs said to contain healing properties! 

One of the most common examples is herbal chicken soup, where a whole chicken (or pieces of it) is boiled till tender in an aromatic broth containing goji berries and other herbs and spices. 

19. China is the biggest consumer of instant ramen

Woman eating ramen

And just like that, we’re hopping back away from the healthy food end of the Chinese cuisine spectrum. Yes, you read that right, China consumes the highest amount of instant ramen in the world, eating about 40 billion servings per year! 

One potential reason is because of how many people exist in China. But personally, I feel that it is also down to the hectic lifestyles that many Chinese students and working professionals lead. Instant ramen is a quick meal that costs very little in China, so it’s no surprise so many people eat this stuff. 

In fact, the instant ramen business is huge in China! With multiple different brands coming up with different flavors every other week. In fact, the industry is so profitable that many instant ramen makers have also branched out into instant meal boxes where you use a heating pack to warm up and “cook” your food! 

20. Takeaways and food deliveries are a massive industry

Food panda outside store

Similarly, takeaways and food deliveries are extremely common in modern Chinese food culture. Whether it be international providers like Uber Eats or local providers like Meituan, you’ll see plenty of food delivery motorbikes running daily on the motorway. 

This is especially true in big cities like Shanghai or Beijing, where it’s much easier to order takeout than to have a meal at a restaurant. 

21. There are yin and yang foods

Chinese food in bowl

I bet many of you didn’t know about this unique Chinese food culture fact! For those not in the know, the concept of yin and yang is heavily rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy. Essentially, it contends that everything in the natural world is made up of two opposite or contrary forces that complement each other. 

The same applies to food (known as “cold” or “hot” foods). Essentially, yin foods are those that can generate cold energy or cool you down, such as watermelon, vegetables, and seafood. On the other hand, yang foods, such as red meat, peppers, and garlic are known to make your body generate warm energy! 

22. Did the Chinese invent ice cream?

Popsicle in sun

There are many contentions as to who actually “invented” ice cream. Some say the Italians, some say Alexander the Great, and some even say that China did it first. Here’s what I know about this debatable Chinese food fact. 

Remember when I said China in the old days wasn’t conducive for breeding cows and hence dairy products were quite rare? Supposedly, around 4,000 years ago, farmers in China would mix milk with overcooked rice and spices, freeze it in the snow, and enjoy it during summer! 

23. Chinese food not invented in China

Fortune cookies

Another common Chinese food fact is that there are plenty of “Chinese” dishes that weren’t actually invented in China. For example, in Malaysia and Singapore, you’ll find unique local dishes like bak kut teh (pork ribs in an aromatic, herby soup) and pan mee (flat rice noodles) that were invented by the Chinese communities there but can’t be found in China. 

And then moving even further away from Asia, you have Americanized Chinese dishes like General Tso’s Chicken, crab rangoon, and fortune cookies, none of which can be found in any restaurant in China! 

And there you have it: 23 incredible Chinese food facts that I bet you probably didn’t know about! Did any of these really surprise or were they generally within your realm of expectations? If you’re ready to find out more about other Asian cuisines, check out these fun facts about Japanese and Korean food, or read about these fun facts about Chinese culture

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