Where to Eat in China
China has a mind-boggling array of eating options, many of them ridiculously cheap.
If you’re on a budget, there are tiny canteens where you can eat for under a dollar. Every town in China has plenty of these small, cheap, hole-in-the-wall, places whose appearance often belies the excellent fare sold within.
But for not a lot more, there are private dining rooms and regional specialties just waiting. Restaurants range from lavish affairs (often in upscale hotels) to smaller family businesses. Traditionally they have three floors, the bottom of which may be more akin to a canteen, the middle a standard restaurant and the top housing private dining rooms (for which you may have to pay a supplement).
Dining in China is a social affair and, if you’re traveling in a group or on business, you may find yourself in a lavish Chinese banquet hall.
Conversely, for the single traveler, restaurants offer a hurdle; Chinese food is designed to be eaten by groups sharing a number of different dishes that offer a wide variety of tastes and textures. On your own you’ll only be able to manage one of these dishes and thus part of the essence of eating in China is lost – indeed, sitting by yourself with your one dish in a restaurant surrounded by noisy groups, you may feel even more out of place than usual.
However, there is some salvation for the single traveler – canteens and street vendors offer meals for one and, although choices are more limited, it’s generally cheap and tasty fare and you won’t be the only one dining alone. Street vendors often have a few chairs and tables and may sell beer, while more elaborate set-ups in nightmarkets can resemble outdoor restaurants with all the food on display. In touristy areas always ask the price before ordering, as even though it still won’t add up to much, some places will inflate prices enormously for foreigners.
Bear in mind that people eat early in China; breakfast is from , lunch from and dinner from . After that you may have to hunt out a street stall or fast food joint.
Unfortunately, accessing China’s cornucopia of foods isn’t always straightforward, principally because of the language barrier. Thus, many travelers leave with less than the full picture after a trip overrun with dumplings, noodles and stir fries.
However, there are several ways to combat this and ensure you get the most from your chopsticks. Go to restaurants with an English menu – this is an easy way to start, although be aware that the English menu will probably have only a fraction of the dishes the kitchen can actually prepare, those that they think will appeal to foreigners, which are often blander or less exotic in their ingredients.
If there isn’t an English menu, start with the language section of this guide, which gives both the pinyin and the Chinese characters for all the phrases and dishes listed in this section, along with many more. When ordering, bear in mind they’re more likely to have dishes from the region which you’re in (keyi jieshao yidao cai ma literally “can you introduce a dish?” is always a good question to ask).
Have a look around – seeing what other folks are eating and pointing at whatever you like the look of should do the trick. Similarly, the staff may invite you back into the kitchen (or the raw produce may be on display), in which case, pointing should once again get across your meaning and you can use the language section to explain how you would like it cooked.
Try to order a balance of foods for your group – one or two meat dishes, one fish and one or two vegetable or tofu dishes along with rice or noodles for a group of should suffice. This is the way Chinese food is designed to be eaten, offering contrasting flavors and textures, and it also means you’re sure to find something you like.
If the above sounds like a culinary disaster waiting to happen, you could go on an organized group tour. If you’re on a tour, chances are you’ll have a guide or tour leader familiar with both the language and the cuisine and who can pick the best regional specialties for you.
A few other points are worth noting
- Dishes will usually serve at least two when eaten with rice, although some places offer small and large plates.
- If a meat dish doesn’t specify, it will be pork, the staple meat of the country.
- Rice tends to be served at the end of the meal (only to be used as a filler once the best dishes are consumed), unless you specify you want it at the same time as the meal itself.
- The flavor enhancer, MSG (monosodium glutamate), is heavily used in much of the food – indeed sometimes you are given extra should you wish to put it in! MSG can cause headaches and more serious health problems and is best avoided, especially as the food is tasty enough already. Say “wo bu yao weijing,” (I don’t want MSG) when ordering.
Drinks in China
Eating and Drinking in China
Culinary experiences not to miss in China
China Travel guide homepage
Beijing travel guide homepage
Cities and regions of China homepage