18 Surprising Facts About Chinese Food You Never Knew

Mar 16, 2024

Chinese food is regularly ranked amongst the best cuisines in the world. If you’ve ever tucked into some dumplings, kung pao chicken or Peking duck, it's not hard to see why.

However, beyond the familiar delicious dishes lie many hidden and interesting facts that many people don't know.

In this article, we'll share 18 surprising facts about Chinese food that you might be interested in hearing about.

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#1 Chinese Food Consists of Eight Distinct Regional Cuisines

Chinese food isn't a single type of cuisine, it's an umbrella term used to describe a series of regional culinary cuisines. Each with its own distinct cooking style and traditions. In fact, China boasts a staggering eight different culinary traditions. This includes the most well-known Sichuan and Cantonese, as well as Hunan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, and Fujian.

Hunan Chicken

#2 Staples Used in Chinese Cooking Vary by Region

While rice is a staple in the southern regions of China, northern China prefers wheat-based products like noodles and Mantou buns. This difference is largely due to the climatic conditions that favour the cultivation of different grains in these areas.

Mantou buns are popular in northern China

#3 Chinese Food Is Filled with Symbolism

Many Chinese dishes and ingredients are filled with symbolism and deeper meanings. These are often related to luck, prosperity, and health. For example, at fish (鱼 yú) is popular in our household for Chinese New Year meals because it sounds like "surplus" (余 yú) and thus symbolises abundance. Similarly cutting noodles is bad as noodles are meant to symbolise a long life.

Chinese Fish

#4 Fortune Cookies Are Not Chinese

Despite being a staple dessert in many western Chinese restaurants, fortune cookies are not of Chinese origin. They are believed to have originated from the cookies made by Japanese immigrants in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. They only became popularised as a Chinese restaurant tradition shortly afterwards.

Fortune Cookies

#5 Don’t Leave Your Chopsticks Upright

In Chinese culture, placing chopsticks upright in a bowl is considered taboo. This is because it resembles incense sticks burning at a shrine or funeral, symbolising death. Instead, we recommend that you leave your chopsticks resting across the rim of the bowl, or on a chopsticks rest.

Chopsticks on empty bowl

#6 Chinese Food Is Influenced by Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) heavily influences Chinese cooking. You will see this through many foods and ingredients which are believed to have healing properties. It's common for dishes to be tailored to promote health and balance in the body according to TCM principles.

TCM Ingredients

#7 China Is the Birthplace of Tea

China is considered the birthplace of tea and the Chinese starting drinking it several thousand years ago. Chinese tea culture is deeply intertwined with Chinese cuisine. Different types of tea are often paired with specific dishes to enhance the dining experience. We strongly recommend a pot of Jasmine or Oolong tea to complement a Chinese meal.

Chinese Tea

#8 Chinese Food Is Designed for Sharing

In Chinese tradition, eating is a very communal event. Chinese dining often involves many dishes placed at the centre of the table which are shared among family and friends. It’s common to have a bowl of rice and a plate in your place when the meal starts to help you get going.

Chinese Food For Sharing

#9 Round Dining Tables Symbolise Equality

Round tables are often favoured in Chinese dining for their ability to create a sense of equality among diners. This is because everyone can face each other without differentiation and there is no head. We find that this makes it easier to strike up a conversation with anyone as well as facilitate the sharing of dishes.

Round Table in Chinese Restaurant

#10 Century Eggs Aren't 100 Years Old

A delicacy involving preserving duck, chicken, or quail eggs in a curing mixture for a long period of time, often several weeks to months. The curing mixture commonly consists ingredients such as clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice husks. The end result is a jelly-like texture, and a unique salty and strong flavour.


Century Eggs

#11 Hot Pot Is Over 1,000 Years Old

Chinese hot pot has a history of more than 1,000 years. According to folklore it's origins were as a hearty meal for fishermen and boatmen on the Yangtze River. This was especially popular during cold weather. Others say that hot pot was bought over by the Mongols.

Chinese Hot Pot

#12 Spring Rolls Symbolise Wealth

Often enjoyed during Chinese New Year, spring rolls are filled with vegetables and sometimes meat. They are believed to symbolise wealth due to their golden-brown colour, and long shape that looks like gold bars.

Spring Rolls Symbolise Wealth

#13 Dim Sum Is a Breakfast Dish

Dim Sum, which translates as "touch the heart," originated as a meal to be enjoyed for breakfast or brunch. As one of our favourite types of Chinese cuisine, dim sum involves small, bite-sized portions served in steamer baskets or on small plates. It is designed to be enjoyed with Chinese tea and friends or family in a leisurely manner.

Dim Sum For Breakfast

#14 Mooncakes Symbolise Unity & Completeness

Mooncakes are thick pastries consisting of a sweet, dense filling and often salted egg yolks. They are a staple during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Mooncakes are rich in symbolism, with their round shape representing unity and completeness.

Mooncakes symbolise unity and completeness

#15 The Beggar's Chicken Legend

This famous dish involves wrapping a chicken in lotus leaves and clay and baking it for hours in low heat. It's said to have originated from a beggar who invented this method to cook a stolen chicken without any cooking utensils.

Beggar's Chicken

#16 Tofu Was Invented in China

Tofu, a staple in Chinese and many Asian cuisines, was invented in China over 2,000 years ago. It's made from soybeans and was originally developed as a cheaper protein alternative compared to meat.

Tofu is originally from China

#17 There Are Many Types of Dumplings

Chinese dumplings vary widely across regions. Their shapes, fillings and preparation methods all reflect the local flavours and customs. If you love everything from xiaolongbao and siu mai to har gow, check out our guide to Chinese dumplings.

Chinese dumplings being prepared

#18 Peking Duck Has Imperial Origins

This world-renowned dish traces back to China's imperial era. During this period, it was a favoured delicacy in the royal court, known for its crispy skin and tender meat.

Peking Ducks In Pancakes

Final Word

Chinese cuisine is shaped by thousands of years of history and culture. By exploring the surprising depth of Chinese culinary traditions, we not only learn about the food we eat but also gain insight into the lives and beliefs of the people who created it. It's a never-ending discovery that invites us all to venture beyond the takeout containers and toward a more profound appreciation of one of the world's most intriguing and diverse food cultures.

→ Shop now: Our range of Chinese Food and Ingredients