Chinese New Year. Dining out in China

Starched linen napkins folded into shapes of peacocks, quail eggs with sea cucumber, lotus seed soup - a banquet in the People's Republic of China is an unforgettable experience. But is it typical for Chinese people to go to fancy meals like this?

How do ordinary people dine out in China?

I looked for answers to such questions on a visit to this country and found some interesting answers.

When looking for a restaurant catering to the average Chinese person, choose a place that's crowded - that's usually a sign of good food!

Near the entrance to the restaurant, you'll find a chalkboard with the day's menu.

A typical dish on the menu might be pork shreds stir-fried with bamboo shoots.

One dish, plus a bowl of rice, is ample for one person. Instead of rice, you can sometimes order noodles, dumplings, or steamed bread.

You pay the cashier after you select the dishes you want and after you have decided on the amount of rice you want.

I often had to argue with the cashier at this point, because I wanted to eat only half as much rice as in a usual serving. Once, I took such a small portion that I was even given a lecture on the importance of eating properly.

Grain food is rationed in some areas, some of the time.

Chinese customers also often need ration coupons to give the cashier for rice, noodles, and bread.

Tourists, however, are not expected to have ration coupons, although some places charge extra when the coupons are waived.

After paying, you get plastic or bamboo tokens from the cashier. At better restaurants, you hand your tokens to a waiter.

Less fancy establishments have no waiters, and you go to the kitchen yourself for the food.

You can kibitz with the cook, watch him stir-fry in a large wok (sometimes large enough to bathe in!), and tell him to put in more lean meat and less fat. A lot of good-natured kidding goes on in the kitchen between the cook and the customers.

Noodlemaking in the kitchen is fun to watch.

Noodle shops don't use dried noodles, but make fresh ones on the spot. The most famous kind is made from a single lump of dough, which is stretched and pulled before the customers' eyes into a long, thin noodle that fills up a bowl.

This is too time-consuming for a busy noodle shop, and more often you see the pastry chef roll out the dough on a table and cut it into thin strips.

Another interesting way is to ``shave'' noodles.

The pastry chef places a huge lump of dough on top of his head - and, with a flashing knife in each hand, rapidly shaves off thin slices from the lump. It's an exciting, if somewhat unnerving, performance!

Fast-food places that serve just one or two kinds of food are called xiao chi (small eating).

They serve various kinds of noodles, baozi (meat-filled steamed breads), jiaozi (meat-filled dumplings), wontons, or tofu (bean curd).

The xiao chi places are very popular for lunch.

There is no service charge at the small Chinese restaurants, since there is almost no service, not even table settings.

What about eating utensils?

On your way to the table, you pick up a soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks from a big jar. There is no dinner plate, knife, or fork.

You don't need to cut up the food, since it's already in small pieces.

And you don't need a plate, because you pick up food from the central dish and bring it directly to your rice bowl or mouth.

Dinner napkins?

Try to eat neatly.

In a popular restaurant, it's usually impossible to find an empty table right away.

Don't let this discourage you. You have to count on sharing a table with strangers, and you're fortunate to find an empty seat.

If there's no seat, the trick is to station yourself near people who are in the last stages of a meal. It's the accepted thing, and the turnover is fast.

A meal at a xiao chi doesn't take long, but if you're in too much of a hurry even for that, you can buy hot breads right out of the oven, steamer, or frying pan - and eat on the run.

The fried breads - long and twisted, or an onion-flavored ring - are greasy, but terribly good.

You can find junk food in China if you must.

Hard candy and caramels are sold in confectionery stores - also sponge cake, unfrosted, but sweet and very good.

Except in large cities like Shanghai and Peking, ice cream is rare, but popsicles are everywhere.

In a movie theater, everyone eats popsicles and sunflower seeds, instead of the popcorn and ice cream that is popular in the United States.

Popcorn is not unknown in China, but popped rice is more common.

When the rice-popping man comes around with his machine, you give him a small cupful of rice, which he heats in a tightly sealed container.

As the pressure gauge reaches a certain point, he releases the rice with a tremendous boom that scares the daylights out of chickens and unwary tourists.

Eating out in China is not always an elegant dining experience with starched linen and solicitous waiters. But it's lively and fun - and the food is delicious.

Lensey Namioka is an author of children's books and of ``China, A Traveler's Companion,'' Vanguard Press, New York.

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