Food in China is hard to summarize. Like anywhere the food changes drastically depending on where you are and what province or region of the country you’re in. In China, dumplings (jaozi) are popular in the northern provinces whereas spicy food and noodles are more prominent in central and southern provinces (i.e. Henan Province). Cultural Essentials does a great job describing food by region in introduction to Chinese Cuisine.
Health and Sanitation
When eating in China it’s always a good idea to remember a few health and sanitation rules. There are not many rules in regards to food preparation and pretty much anything goes when it comes to what you can use in food. Be mindful that there is an acclimation phase (as a western traveler) when it comes to food in China. A bottle of Pepto and Tums will be well worth the space in your backpack and keeping a few things in mind will make help ensure that the food in China doesn’t ruin your vacation:
4 Warnings about eating and drinking in China
1. Only drink water that is bottled or boiled. Clean water is a massive problem in China due to water pollution. Many people are forced to drink unsanitary water and you don’t want to be one of them. In the first couple months I was continuously sick (at one point the sickest I’ve ever been) and I suspect it had something to do with the water. For more tips on what water to drink in China check out Water and Food Safety.
2. You are not used to their food. This means that your stomach may have an adjustment phase that could possibly last longer than your stay in China. So consider your digestive happiness and the effect it may have on your vacation before chomping down the “local favorite” from a street vendor. Spicy food, Scorpions, and mystery meat is okay most of the time, but be cognizant of the environment and conditions that it is being sold in. Use your best judgment combined with some street smarts and you should be able to enjoy some adventurous eating while avoiding getting sick.
3. The meat is different. Hamburger is seldom seen in China (unless you are at McDonalds or Burger King). Reputable markets and butchers often handle raw meat with their bare hands and butcher animals in the streets (probably more in back allies and rural China), and it will be the same meat that ends up in your soup down the street. As long as it’s cooked properly it really isn’t a huge deal, but it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind. In the absence of hamburger, Chicken has aptly filled the void and you will see it everywhere in China. Chicken feet, entire cooked chickens, chicken intestines and every other part of the chicken are used commonly in Chinese dishes. Mutton and Pork are also popular depending on what part of China you are in.
4. Drinking with Chinese guys. If you find yourself drinking with a handful of Chinese guys you need to be wary of a couple things. People in China will be excited to meet you and they will want to talk to you (regardless of the language barrier), invite you into their homes, and above all else drink with you!
If you are a guy though, be wary … Chinese men will get you drunk by offering you shot after shot and posing toasts as hospitable welcomes to their country. If you start noticing that a different person is coming up to you every few minutes and offering you a shot, you are probably being tag teamed and it is not necessarily hospitable. It’s possible that you are in the presence of a bunch of immature drunk men who just want to get a foreigner drunk. This may sound derogatory or insensitive, but it has occurred way too often not to mention as a caution. They will not mean it offensively or maliciously, but they may get you wasted if you let them.
The head of the table (or the one who is paying) will usually sit furthest from the door. Sometimes it is a different colored chair to signify the importance.
Toasts are common and will be expected. The head of the table will usually start the toasts. I believe the next person is suppose to be the person directly across from them and then the “3 o’clock” and “9 o’clock” positions toast next. Don’t get too caught up on the order though because it rarely gets that far before everyone is drunk and toasts start popping up everywhere. If you find yourself in a meal like this say a toast! It’s respectful, traditional and will be accepted warmly.
Ganbei! This means bottoms up! If someone toasts and says Ganbei it means that the men are expected to finish their drink and women can finish half of their drink.
Don’t drink unless you have to. This is a good rule of thumb because traditional Chinese meals involve a lot of drinking. So if you don’t have to, don’t drink … you will thank yourself later.
Lay your chopsticks flat. Don’t stab them into the food when you are not using them. It’s easy to stab your chopsticks into your rice when you aren’t eating or leave for a minute; but there is a Chopstick Taboo and you should try not to do it.
Don’t eat what lands on the table. If something errantly lands on the table (perhaps a chopstick mishap?), don’t pick it up and put it back on your plate! In the West it’s fairly common to just snatch food off the table and claim the 10 second rule. Not in China though! Just leave it where it is and accept it as a lost cause.
Slurping, burping, and throwing trash on the ground is relatively common. Chewing with your mouth open and being mindful of western table manners will not get you very far in China. People talk while they chew, smoke while you eat, slurp, burp and everything else. Get comfortable, don’t worry about where your elbows are, and just enjoy the meal!
Servers will wait while you to figure out what you want. They are not trying to pressure you or be rude … but they are going to stand there until you tell them what you want.
Chop Sticks are a reality … start practicing. Don’t think of chop sticks as a fun game that just ends with a fork when you get frustrated … there aren’t any forks coming. Chinese people will enjoy watching you struggle with chopsticks so if you can, get good before you come to China. You may even gain a tiny bit of respect from the locals if you can eat effortlessly with chop sticks.
Cigarettes. Everyone in China seems to smoke. If you are at a meal with Chinese men they will almost definitely offer you cigarettes throughout the meal. I’m not sure what the polite way to turn down cigarettes and liquor is in China; but I expect that there is no polite way. (If you don’t smoke you can always put the cigarette in your ear; which seems to be acceptable in most places). If you adamantly don’t drink and/or smoke; stating that up front and then sticking to it throughout the evening probably won’t offend anyone either… this is a grey area in Chinese etiquette. If you accept cigarettes it’s always a good idea to return the favor if you have any.
5 Popular foods you may encounter in China
1. Hot Pot. There is boiling broth and spices (either in the middle of the table or individually). Meats, vegetables, noodles, etc. are cooked in the broth and then plucked out with chop sticks. Very common, slightly expensive, but definitely worth trying.
2. Noodles. They are everywhere and they are very common. Noodles are always cheap, mixed with all kinds of vegetables and meats, mixed with soups and broths, and come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Ramen Noodles are actually extremely popular in China as well (and they are much better than the ones back home). Noodles are slurped noisily and can be a challenge to amateur chopstick hands 😉
3. Street Food consists of some of the best and worst food in China. There is a massive range of street food and some of it is amazing while some of it is not worth the experience. Use your best judgment and you should be fine. All-in-all, I have thoroughly enjoyed Chinese BBQ, street sandwiches with pork and mutton, candied fruit, fish on a stick, sweet potatoes, and pastries that I’ve gotten from the street. I’ve heard that the farther south you go the more “interesting” food becomes …. In regards to rumors of snakes, rats, cats, and dogs; the rumors are almost definitely true, not as common as people think though, but available to the curious traveler. (By the way… that smell of death that wafts from the streets in China is just “Stinky Tofu.” The taste isn’t quite as bad as the smell).
4. Dumplings. Meat and/or vegetables wrapped in dough. They are prepared in different ways depending on where you are in China and from my experience they are delicious everywhere. They always make a tame transition to Chinese food and are a safe bet if you are worried about easing in to to the whole eating process.
5. Chinese BBQ. This may be more common in central or rural China (where I am from) but you will see a version of Chinese BBQ in many street vending stands. Pork, mutton, chicken, fish and beef are served on skewers with a wide variety of spices and flavors. It’s the closest food to home that I’ve tried; not counting fast food restaurants.
1. Warm water. Ice is hard to come by in China and seldom used. As a result, water is served warm-hot before most meals. It is odd at first but surprisingly satisfying once you get used to it. I have been in China for 6 months now and I have never got a glass of ice water before a meal.
2. Baijiu. Stands for “white wine” in Chinese and taste nothing like white wine. Ranging from 1 to 1,000+ RMB, it is the most popular hard alcohol in China and used to toast with at most meals. It is excessively strong (40-70%), rarely mixed and will give you a terrible hangover.
3. Milk Tea. I like to think of this as China’s little secret. Milk Tea is vastly popular, cheap, and refreshing. You will see it in all the convenient stores and most restaurants have it. Everyone seems to love it and it isn’t hard to understand why … I’m surprised it hasn’t taken off back home.
4. Beer (píjiǔ). Beer in China is weak, light, and usually served warm. China is not the best place for the beer lover of the west, but there are a few decent light beers. Tsingtao (pronounced Chin-Dow) seems to be the most popular, followed by Harbin, Snow, and Budweiser which aren’t all that great. Dark beer is unheard of unless you go to Irish Pubs or Expat Bars (which are around in the bigger cities).
5. Tea. It isn’t surprising that tea makes the list. Tea is extremely common and the Chinese have perfected it. They use tea to drink, to relax and for medicinal purposes. For a casual cultural experience, spend an evening in a tea house … you won’t regret it.
Hard to find items:
If you are in China for a decent amount of time there will be some western foods that you may start to miss. The following is a list of items that are difficult to find in China. As always, a bigger city will make these things more regularly available and western markets and Fast Food restaurants will have some things. As a general rule of thumb though, these are the hard to find foods in China:
– Olive Oil
– Dark Beer
– Spaghetti (tons of noodles but no spaghetti noodles)
– Tomato Sauce (at least what you’re used to)