Here’s how dining out in China differs from dining out at a Chinese restaurant in Detroit or Windsor.
You don’t have to ask for chopsticks. They’re made of wood, not plastic.
You’re not asked what spice level you want. It’s assumed that each dish has a correct spice level. At Sichuan places, not all dishes are hot, but those that are hot are comfortably so. (Perhaps they’re fierier in Sichuan province itself?)
Tea is brought automatically, before the meal and throughout.
Ordering involves a great deal of consultative back-and-forth with the waitperson.
No standard-size plates are used, except as serving platters. Diners use their chopsticks to transfer food from the platters to their own small bowls or to their individual rice bowls, a relatively small amount at a time. The rice absorbs the various sauces. Small bowls are a definite advantage, for the Westerner, over trying to chase the last grains of rice around your plate with chopsticks.
Salted peanuts are sometimes served as an appetizer, which diners pick up one by one with their sticks.
Water and napkins are not provided. (At one posh place, I was glad to see fancily folded pink napkins arranged at each place before the meal — but the server whisked them away as we sat down!)
It wasn’t necessarily a good idea to know what I was eating. At the one restaurant with English translations (a Shanxi place), most of the descriptions were along the lines of "Mixed Cucumber Cooked Pig’s Nose" and "intestine of mutton." Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org