China

Food in China: a mini-guide for expats and travelers

March 25, 2017
how to pick food in China

The reason for creation of this mini-guide for expats and travelers is to help enhance their experience with Chinese food in China and assist you in choosing meals with confidence for the better enjoyment of your very first dinings out. Would you like to know how to order safely at any Chinese restaurant, even if you are vegan or vegetarian? Which are Chinese eating habits, and most common dishes?

Keep reading…I got you covered.

“What did you eat there?” “Did you get used to the food?” I heard this dozens of times after moving to China. Friends back home, including Chinese friends I’d just met, were curious in how I was dealing with the essentials in my new environment.”

BE READY TO PUT ASIDE YOUR CULTURAL BACKGROUND WHEN YOU TRY AUTHENTIC CHINESE FOOD IN CHINA

I was transporting myself to China, forever set in my Italian ways and on top of that, overloaded suitcases. Fixed eating habits are difficult to shake. I take pride in my origins and our traditional dishes. During my travels, I often heard Italian cuisine was the most beloved cuisine in the world. 

Time in China revealed that the Chinese shared our adoration for food culture, habits were identical; the Chinese loved their traditions as much as we did. Make no mistake, for them eating a meal “at the due time” rings close to obsession, it creates a type of rush that cause all activities to suddenly cease when the magic words “let’s eat” are uttered: chi fan le 吃饭 了 !

RESTAURANTS IN CHINA

food China guide expats travelers restaurant xiamen
DIMSUM “dianxin” in a Hong Kong-style restaurant in Xiamen

Chinese restaurant menu selections back home seemed to pale in comparison to the myriad of items you got to choose from in China. Take a stroll along the streets of a Chinese city and wherever you look there’s a restaurant or a “noodles” or a bbq stall. Standard eateries are open all day, but no later than 9 p.m. and note: owners and their families usually live at the back of the restaurants. Eating out in China is more cost-thrifty than cooking at home.

 Due to the custom of giving harsh or sometimes untranslatable names to dishes, restaurants often display pictures of the food or illustrated menus. Otherwise, you are required to ask about them. Getting used to the food and testing out dishes can take time.In the early stages of your sojourn in China, carrying a dictionary would be mandatory. Some useful apps would be KT dict, Pleco, and Hanping Lite. If you want to speed up your language-learning process in China, read my other post about Chinese.

MY INITIATION TO CHINESE FOOD IN CHINA

One day, I was invited to dinner by some Chinese friends who ordered a local dish. I’d lived in Xiamen for two years before trying this local specialty for the first time. It’s known as oyster omelet “haili” 海蛎. It was my chance to try something new, but curiosity killed the cat. Following this experimental dinner, I was forced to stay home for two days with a dreadful gut issue!

food China guide expat travelers
Morning baozi near the main train station on Xiamen island

There are a few Chinese dishes and seasonings that may not agree with you, apart from having anything to do with taste. Chinese food may knock you off your kiester when combined with jet-lag and a sudden change of environment and routine.

Let’s begin our trip with Chinese cuisine.

BREAKFAST IN CHINA

First trip to Chinese cuisine is breakfast. People in China prefer to avoid sugar: it’s traditionally regarded as a harmful ingredient that feeds the “worms of the intestines.”
Chinese eat for breakfast what they’d eat for lunch or dinner: rice or noodles with meat and veggies, soups. So why not leftovers from the day before?

If you do not wish to spend breakfast (usually 5:30 am to 7:30) at home with biscuits and bottled caffè latte from the local supermarket, you can scope out the places where locals get their breakfast. It’s  common for them to eat warm soup noodles “tangmian” 汤面 or small pork dumplings in broth “bianshi” 扁食 or “hundun” 混沌, which are very salty.

Rice porridge “zhou” or “xifan” 稀饭 is a popular breakfast dish in China and South-East Asia, and each that offers zhou cooks it differently. Sometimes, it’s made with pumpkin, rendering it a bit sweet, sometimes some minced meat gives it a more consistent flavor. The Chinese consider rice porridge an excellent breakfast which supplies the body with liquids and gets easily digested. Plain “zhou” is a meal recommended during health recoveries.

BREAKFAST STREET-FOOD

The most popular take-out breakfast is “baozi” 包子, a big chewy dumpling filled with meat (roubao 肉包), veggies (caibao 菜包), sweet peanut sauce (hua sheng bao 花生包) and sweet red beans sauce (doubao 豆包).

Peanut baozi and red beans baozi are vegan!

At the baozi shop you’ ll find mantou” 馒头, a Chinese bread; your cheapest option for breakfast.

 The Chinese usually have baozi with soy bean juice which is a warm, sweet drink also available sugar- free when freshly made, just say “qutang” 去糖.

After three years of living in China, finally I switched to a Chinese-style breakfast, dumping cookies and caffe latte for zhou.

CHINESE LUNCH AND DINNER

When eating out, Chinese menus can make you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of Chinese characters, but keep calm.

Look for rice “fan” or noodles “mian”. The easiest choice is fried rice chao fan” 炒饭 (steamed rice sautéed with veggies, minced pork, and egg) or fried noodles “chaomian” 炒面 (same ingredients as the rice).

Ask the owner “laoban” 老板 or the waiter “fuwuyuan” 服务员 to leave out what you don’t want:

“bu yao jidan” 不要鸡蛋 (I don’t want eggs), or “bu yao rou” 不要

or to add something:

“jia xihongshi” 加西红柿 (add tomatoes).

If you order plain steamed rice (“baifan”白饭, or “mifan”米饭) plus side dishes, make sure to ask what type of condiment these particular dishes are prepared with. Either salty, sweet, sweet and sour, spicy or bitter. If you don’t ask you might get a big surprise!

Ask the waiter for advice before ordering. By the way, this is the best way to improve your Chinese.

Food China guide expats and travelers Chinese supper fish course
Dinner’s ready in a house in Xiamen. Traditionally, all the dishes come at the same time, and one shall be a soup.

Sichuan Food “chuancai 川菜 is regional and found everywhere in China. Dishes from Sichuan are the spiciest, but Chinese people like to eat spicy food in every corner of the country. It is useful to keep these words in mind: “bulade不辣的not spicy” and “yi diandian lade一点点辣的 just a bit spicy“.
Here are some of expat’s favorite dishes at Sichuan Restaurants: “gangguo baocai” 干锅包菜 (cabbage with pork and onions cooked in a pot), “gongbao jiding” 宫保鸡丁 (chicken with carrots, peppers, and nuts) and the “riben doufu” 日本豆腐 (Japanese-style tofu).

MSG IN CHINESE FOOD IN CHINA

Monosodium glutamate or “weijing” 味精 is used in China as salt is used in Western Cuisine; it’s the Chinese’s favorite seasoning. We often think Chinese food is very tasty, but what it is is the glutamate powder that renders it so palatable!

If you wish to avoid glutamate in your food, just must make it clear while ordering. You can say “bu yao weijing” 不要味精 (I don’t want glutamate) or “weijing, wo bu neng chi” 味精,我不能吃 (I can’t eat glutamate)

Here is another option if you wish to avoid complex menus: dumplings “shuijiao” 水饺: Chinese dumplings boiled in water and served with a dressing of vinegar and chili oil. Fried dumplings “zha jiaozi” 炸饺子 are much tastier,  as they are sautèed in a pan, but heavier than steamed dumplings. Dumplings’ filling contains pork, onions, and cabbage, but you can find vegetarian dumplings, beef or lamb dumplings. Vegan dumplings-only shops are opening in a few cities. What’s enticing in these restaurants is that they specialize in dumplings so the offering is large: 10-20 varieties. The price for a portion of dumplings is between 7 to 12 renminbi.

food china guide expat travelers home-made dumplings qingdao
home-made dumplings “jiaozi” at a friend’s house in Qingdao

 

CHINESE NOODLES IN CHINA

food China guide expats travelers soup noodles "malatang" Xiamen restaurant
soup noodles “tangmian

Chinese noodles are always apt to surprise you. If I had one of my nostalgic episodes, I would visit the “northwest pulled noodles” “xibei lamian” 西北拉面 restaurants. Here noodles are also “halal”. Xibei Lamian’s chefs make noodles by hand right after the waiter submits your order. Portions are usually quite generous and prices fair (9 to 14 RMB). All dishes come with a typical black pepper/coriander soup. The most popular type of noodles in “xibei lamian” restaurants are the “ban mian” noodles, 拌面 with minced beef, onions and peppers. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you can order the cold noodle “liang mian” 凉面, which has raw vegetables like: cucumber, tomatoes and onions with optional egg on top.
Another delicious noodles dish accessible anywhere is “chaomifen” 炒米粉 which consists in rice noodles costing a mere 6 RMB.

“Chao mifen” noodles have tiny bits of pork meat, onion, veggies, soy sauce, and carrots.

 

VEGAN AND VEGETARIAN FOOD IN CHINA

Going vegan in China isn’t a super easy task.
The nice thing is every neighborhood has a street market where you can find ripe fruit, veggies, and endless amounts of fresh inexpensive homemade tofu (doufu 豆腐) .
You’ll find out that Chinese have different kinds of green leaves veggies and chards, like the small leaf “pak choi”, in Chinese “xiao baicai” 小白菜.

In Southern China, it’s easy to find mango and coconut vendors on the street. They cut the fruit in pieces for you or make juice and bottle it. You can easily find cane juice or pineapple juice if in season.

Fruit in China is a bit pricer than other foods, however, you can buy fruit and vegetables Taobao 淘宝 and have them delivered directly to your home.

food China guide expat travelers street food vegen vegetarian
Street vendor of pineapples and pineapple juice

Being vegan can be quite challenging  when eating out because so many sauces and dressing contain fish. Even the cooking oil for the simplest vegetable dishes contains meat to enhance the taste.
If you live in an area with a Buddhist temple you might easily find vegan restaurants, usually pricier than average restaurants.

 

food China guide expat travelers vegan home-made dumplings
vegan dumplings in Xiamen

Western-style coffee bars have Western-style salads, while standard restaurants prefer to cook vegetables, even lettuce.

A bit of bad news for vegetarians: cheese isn’t popular in China.
I’ll never forget my Chinese friends reaction when I brought back Parmesan cheese from Italy. They weren’t even able to swallow it!
However, big supermarkets like Metro and shops for foreign customers sell cheddar, spreadable cheeses and American cheese.

A yummy option suitable for vegans and vegetarians is the “liang pi” 凉皮: cold rice noodles covereded with tiny slices of: cucumber, peanuts, vinegar, tofu, and chili. It’s lightly sour.

food China guide expats travelers vegan noodles
liangpi” (cold skin) is a vegan dish from Shanxi province but available everywhere in China

 

FALSE VEGAN FOOD IN CHINA

For those whom prefer to personally select ingredients a “malatang” 麻辣烫 stall is the greatest option. The chef boils them then add seasoning (standard malatang powder contains meat and MSG).

 it looks like this:

 

food China guide expat travelers budget meal Malatang
Malatang, popular dish in China

STREET FOOD IN CHINA

Selling food on the streets in China is common practice.

food China guide expat travelers street food
street food: a guy selling bbq in Dali, Yunnan

I met foreigners who said they wouldn’t risk their health and eat such dirty unsafe food. However, I dare you to resist the joy of  sitting on a tiny stool in the middle of a walking street, waiting for the bbq guy to deliver varieties of skewers.
Street food is a crucial part of Chinese social life.

The “yexiao” 夜宵 (night snack) is what I miss the most about living in China. I used to love to run out at 11 pm or later for street noodles or bbq skewers.

When I couldn’t fall asleep, it was nice to be able to go outside even just for a walk and see the sreet still alive and vibrant. What a nice feeling!

I must admit that once, the day after eating street bbq 烧烤 “shaokao”, I wasn’t feeling well. BBQers rub MSG powder, spices and oil of unknown origin onto the skewers.
If you see a Chinese doctor for the flue or inflammation, he/she will suggest you try first the following natural cure: drinking a lot of warm water and avoiding bbq for two weeks.

food in China guide for expat and travelers street food
street food in China: Henan-style burgers

Sometimes even the body needs to adjust to new environments and even new bacteria, this is normal. Do not let that deter you from enjoying all authentic Chinese cuisine has to offer.

Are you a foodie in China?

I’d like to hear from you, share your experience in the comments below

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  1. Wow a lot many dishes to try I was always a foodie but never knew that these many dishes are available in China must try these thanks Ann for letting us about these wonderful dishes

  2. Chinese food is great and the presentation always beautiful. I like your comments on the street food and risking health. Without trying the real street food, one does not experience the culture. I have found this in many countries over the years, some street food will surprise you.

  3. I love chinese food sooo much !!!

    I often eat noodles home made! they obviously aren’t from a real recipe but I love it !
    I also love nem’s and the rice too !

  4. I never knew that the Chinese don’t really eat sugar or cheese . . . interesting! Awesome tips, especially the helpful Chinese words. Will bookmark for if I ever travel there!

  5. this all looks amazing, i am in aw with the presentation. i bet the food was amazing and you had a great time, even though you were having a tough time without getting foods heavy in oil.

  6. All the food looks delicious, especially the dumplings. I haven’t been to China, but I love the food. Great advice to get use to the new environment.

  7. Being a vegetarian I had a tough time when I visited China a few years ago. Thank you for the informative article, it is a good guidance for my next trip.

  8. It looks like you had a great time and experience. I have to be honest I’m not sure how much of all of those dishes I would have tried, but it definitely is getting out of your comfort zone to be able to really experience another culture!

  9. China has never really been on my list of travels, but if it were, this list would be very helpful. I love the tips and the pictures are great

  10. Such an informative post on the food culture in China. So many great options to try! This was very knowledgeable. Thanks for sharing!

  11. This was a very informative article. I like Chinese food and would love to try some of the street food there. I know that it will be way different than what we experience in USA.

  12. This is a very helpful article especially for someone like me who would love to visit China someday. Your explanation of the chinese food, and mentioning how they are called would be very useful. Also Id love to try the street food, but based on your experience i think i should skip that.

  13. Wow this is really make me craving too much..Its really really good food for us and we need to maintain eating like this food to keep our body healthy.We keep eating this when I was in Hongkong its really good food.Thanks for sharing

  14. It can be tricky finding vegan food in America, but I was nervous about being able to eat while traveling. It’s good to know things can be found and especially helpful to know what to ask for.

    1. Hi Heather, I actually started feeling the need to go vegan when I was still living in China. I left the country a couple of months later… synchronicity 😀

  15. All of this food looks like it would be so amazing! I have only tried certain dishes but would like to try more.

    1. These are the most common! There’s a universe of delicious food, I’d love to visit the autonomous regions and try more 🙂

  16. That’s a pretty detailed guide on food in China SO I’m pinning it rightaway! Good to know there are options for Vegans.

  17. Where exactly did you find these vegan dumplings in Xiamen??? They look delicious and I’m always on the hunt for vegan/vegetarian dumpling! 🙂

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