There are varying ways to greet people in Chinese depending on the time of day "早上好 (zǎoshang hǎo) good morning" or the situation "好久不见 (háo jiǔ bú jiàn) long time no see." One of the more baffling greetings you're likely to encounter in China is "你吃了吗? (Nǐ chī le ma?)." Understood literally, this expression means "Have you eaten?" Don't be fooled, though, this isn't someone asking you out to dinner, but rather asking, "How are you?"
"你吃了吗? (Nǐ chī le ma?)" is a traditional Chinese greeting, dating back to the days when food was scarce, and if you had eaten, you were doing pretty well.
As one of the world's great culinary cultures, the Chinese language is rife with expressions regarding food. Just take a look at some of these examples:
"糊口 (húkǒu)" means "to make a living." Literally, "paste mouth."
"饭碗 (fànwǎn)" means "job." Literally, "rice bowl."
"吃醋 (chīcù)" means "jealous." Literally, "eat vinegar."
As you have probably noticed, the literal meanings of these expressions are often very different from the figurative meaning. These kinds of expressions are called idioms, and lots of idioms in China revolve around food. A popular saying these days is "吃货 (chīhuò)," which describes people who are food enthusiasts, usually neutral in tone, it can sometimes be used negatively.
Look at a few longer expressions:
"吃不消 (chī bù xiāo)" means "to be unable to stand (exertion,fatigue,etc.)."
"吃不准 (chī bù zhǔn)" means "to not be sure about something."
"吃得开 (chī de kāi)" means "to be very popular."
"干什么吃的 (gān shéme chī de)" means "to fail to do something."
Take a look at these examples and try to spot the food idioms.
Rúguǒ bù nǔlì gōngzuò, nǐ chízǎo huì diūdiào fànwǎn de.
1. 如果 不 努力 工作， 你 迟早 会 丢掉 饭碗 的。
If you don't work hard, sooner or later you will lose your job.
Tā zài zhège gōngsī hěn chīdekāi.
2. 他在 这个 公司 很 吃得开。
He is very popular in this company.
Nǐ shì gān shénme chīde? Zhème jiǎndān de shìqing dōu bàn bù hǎo.
3. 你是 干 什么 吃的？ 这么 简单 的 事情 都 办 不 好。
What are you doing? Can't you do even a simple thing like this? (Usuallya boss to their employee.)
As you can see above, food idioms are quite common in the workplace. And the next time you're on the street and someone asks you, "你吃了吗? (Nǐ chī le ma?) Have you eaten?" you can just smile and say, "我吃了。(Wǒ chī le.) I've eaten."