Explore China

What to eat in China

Food in China varies from region to region, so the term “Chinese food” is a blanket term, just like “Western food”. While visiting, try a bit of everything. Be aware that some “Chinese” food, such as Beef and Broccoli or Chow Mein should be avoided (if you could even find them), as these are not real Chinese dishes.

Do keep in mind that undercooked food or poor hygiene can cause bacterial or parasitic infection, particularly during warm or hot weather. Thus it is advisable to take great care about (and perhaps abstain from) eating seafood and meat on the street during the summer. In addition, unless you’re in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or other large cities, raw meat and seafood should be avoided. That all being said, the hygienic conditions of a restaurant are usually satisfactory which means that there is little risk of diarrhea. Chinese gourmands place emphasis on freshness, so meals will most likely be cooked upon order. Searing hot woks over coal or gas fires make even street food usually safe to eat.

Most restaurants only have one menu – the Chinese one.

Certain Chinese dishes contain ingredients some people may prefer to avoid, such as dog, snake or endangered species. However, it is very unlikely that you will order these dishes by mistake. Dog and snake are usually served in specialty restaurants which do not hide their ingredients. Obviously, products made from endangered ingredients will have astronomical prices and would not be listed on the regular menu anyway.

Generally speaking, rice is the main staple in the south, while wheat, mostly in the form of noodles, is the main staple in the north.

Regional Cuisines

Four Great Traditions

Jiangsu / Zhejiang / Shanghai”, Huaiyang cuisine): Huaiyang cuisine has a sweet side to it and is almost never spicy. Pork, freshwater fish, and other aquatic creatures serve as the meat base in most dishes, which are usually more meticulous and light compared to the more “brash” eating styles of northern China. Huaiyang cuisine also includes several breakfast choices such as crab soup dumplings, thousand-layered cake, steamed dumplings, tofu noodles, and wild vegetable steamed buns.

Cantonese / Guangzhou / Hong Kong: the style most Western visitors are already familiar with to some extent. Not too spicy, the emphasis is on freshly cooked ingredients and seafood. Dim Sum, small snacks usually eaten for breakfast or lunch, are a highlight. That being said, Cantonese cuisine is also among the most adventurous in China in terms of variety of ingredients as the Cantonese are famous, even among the Chinese, for their wide definition of what is considered edible.

Shandong cuisine: Although modern transport has greatly increased the availability of ingredients throughout China, Shandong cuisine remains rooted in its ancient traditions. Most notable is the staggering array of seafood, including scallops, prawns, clams, sea cucumbers and squid.

Sichuan: A popular saying is that it is so spicy your mouth will go numb. Although famously hot and spicy, not all dishes are made with live chilies; the numbing sensation actually comes from the Sichuan peppercorn. Sichuanese food is widely available outside Sichuan and also native to Chongqing. To find authentic Sichuanese food outside Sichuan or Chongqing, look for small eateries sporting the characters for Sichuan cuisine in neighborhoods with many migrant workers. These tend to be cheaper and better than the ubiquitous up-market Sichuan restaurants.

Famous Traditions

(The Other Four of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisine):

Fujian: uses ingredients mostly from coastal and estuarial waterways. “Buddha Jumps over a Wall” is particularly famous. According to legend, the smell was so good a monk forgot his vegetarian vows and leaped over the wall to have some. Fujian cuisine can be split into at least two distinct cuisines: Minnan cuisine from the area around Xiamen and Mindong cuisine from the area around Fuzhou.

Zhejiang: includes the foods of Hangzhou Ningbo, and Shaoxing. A delicately seasoned, light-tasting mix of seafood and vegetables often served in soup. Sometimes lightly sweetened or sometimes sweet and sour, Zhejiang dishes frequently involve cooked meats and vegetables in combination.

Hunan: the cuisine of the Xiangjiang region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan Province. Similar, in some ways, to Sichuanese cuisine, it can actually be “spicier” in the Western sense.

Anhui cuisine is known for its use of wild herbs, from both the land and the sea, and simple methods of preparation. Braising and stewing are common cooking techniques. Frying and stir-frying are used much less frequently in Anhui cuisine than in other Chinese culinary traditions. Anhui cuisine consists of three styles: the Yangtze River region, Huai River region, and southern Anhui region. Anhui has ample uncultivated fields and forests, so the wild herbs used in the region’s cuisine are readily available.

Other traditions

Shanghai: because of its geographical location, Shanghai cuisine is considered to be a good mix of northern and southern Chinese cooking styles. The most famous dishes are xiaolongbao and chives dumplings. Another specialty is “pulled noodles”, from which Japanese ramen and Korean ramyeon are believed to be derived. Fried dishes are often somewhat sweet.

Teochew / Chaozhou: originating from the Shantou area in northern Guangdong, is familiar to most Southeast Asian and Hong Kong Chinese. Famous dishes include braised duck, yam paste dessert and fishballs.

Guizhou: combines elements of Sichuan and Xiang cuisine, making liberal use of spicy, peppery and sour flavors. The peculiar zhergen, a regional root vegetable, adds an unmistakable sour-peppery flavor to many dishes. Minority dishes such as Sour Fish Hot Pot are widely enjoyed.

Hainan: famous among the Chinese, but relatively unknown to foreigners, is characterized by the relatively heavy use of coconuts. The signature specialties are the “Four Famous Dishes of Hainan” : Wenchang chicken, Dongshan goat, Jiaji duck and Hele crab.

Beijing: home-style noodles and baozi, Peking Duck, cabbage dishes, great pickles. Not fancy, but great and satisfying.

Imperial: the food of the late Qing court, made famous by the Empress Dowager Cixi, can be sampled at high-end specialized restaurants in Beijing. The cuisine combines elements of Manchu frontier food such as venison with exotica such as camel’s paw, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

Fast food

Various types of Chinese food provide quick, cheap, tasty, light meals. Street food and snacks sold from portable vendors can be found throughout China’s cities. Wangfujing district’s Snack Street in Beijing is a notable, if touristy, area for street food. In Cantonese-speaking areas, street-food vendors are called gai bin dong; such ventures can grow into a substantial business with the stalls actually only barely ‘mobile’. Nationwide quick eats include:

Various, usually sweet, items from the ubiquitous bakeries. A great variety of sweets and sweet food found in China are sold as snacks, rather than as a post-meal dessert course in restaurants as in the West.

Barbecued sticks of meat from street vendors. Yang rou chuan, or fiery Xinjiang-style lamb kebabs, are particularly renowned.

Jiaozi, which Chinese translate as “dumplings”, boiled, steamed or fried ravioli-like items with a variety of fillings. These are found throughout Asia; momos, mandu, gyoza, and jiaozi are all basically variations of the same thing.

Baozi, steamed buns with savory, sweet or vegetable fillings.

Mantou, steamed bread available on the roadside, a cheap and filling snack.

Lanzhou-style lamian, fresh hand-pulled noodles. This industry is heavily dominated by members of the Hui ethnic group – look for a tiny restaurant with staff in Muslim dress, white fez-like hats on the men and head scarves on the women.

In Guangdong and sometimes elsewhere, dim sum. At any major tourist destination in China, you may well find someone serving dim sum for Hong Kong customers.

The Western notion of fast food is arguably as popular as the domestic variety. KFC, McDonald’s, Subway and Pizza Hut are ubiquitous, at least in mid-sized cities and above. Although common, the menus and flavors in these Western chains have been altered to suit Chinese tastes, such as McDonald’s Red Bean Mcflurry. There are a few Burger Kings, Domino’s and Papa John’s as well, but only in major cities. Chinese chains are also widespread. These include Dicos – chicken burgers, fries, etc., cheaper than KFC and some say better – and Kung Fu  – which has a more Chinese menu.