Cooking plays a central role in both Chinese society and the national psyche. When Chinese people meet, a common greeting is ‘Nǐ chīfàn le ma?’ (‘Have you eaten yet?’). Work, play, romance, business and family all revolve around food. The catalysts for all manner of enjoyment, meals are occasions for pleasure and entertainment, to clinch deals, strike up new friendships and rekindle old ones. To fully access this tasty domain on home soil, all you need is a visa, a pair of chopsticks, an adventurous palate and a passion for the unusual and unexpected.
China has a broad range of eating options from street food to fine dining; if you don't speak Chinese, you'll find photo menus are common. In most areas it's possible to hunt down specialities from other regions.
- Cheap eats China is the master of good-value snacks and meals at food courts (much better than their Western counterparts), street stands and family-run restaurants.
- Cafes Modern Chinese cities now have good coffee and tea in chic surrounds with Chinese (and Western) lunches or sweet treats, plus speedy wi-fi.
- Restaurants An elevated, modern spin on classic regional dishes is available at every budget.
Real Chinese Food
Because the nation so skilfully exported its cuisine abroad, your very first impressions of China were probably via your taste buds. Chinatowns the world over teem with the aromas of Chinese cuisine, ferried overseas by China’s versatile and hard-working cooks; Sundays often see diners flocking to them for ‘yum cha’ and feasts of dim sum. Chinese food is indeed a wholesome and succulent point of contact between an immigrant Chinese population and everyone else.
But what you see – and taste – abroad is usually just a wafer-thin slice of a very hefty and wholesome pie. Chinese cuisine in the West is lifted from the cookbook of an emigrant community that originated mainly from China’s southern seaboard. In a similar vein, the sing-song melodies of Cantonese were the most familiar of China’s languages in Chinatowns, even though the dialect finds little traction in China beyond Hong Kong, Macau, Guǎngdōng, parts of Guǎngxī and KTV parlours nationwide. So although you may be hard-pressed to avoid dim sum and cha siu in your local Chinatown, finding more ‘obscure’ specialities from elsewhere in China may still be a challenge, or an expensive proposition. The ‘Peking duck’ at your local restaurant, for example, may be at best a distant relative of the fowl fired up over fruit-tree wood in the ovens of Běijīng kǎoyādiàn (Peking duck restaurants).
To get an idea of the size of its diverse menu, remember that China is not that much smaller than Europe. Just as Europe is a patchwork of different nation states, languages, cultural traditions and climates, China is also a smorgasbord of dialects, languages, ethnic minorities and extreme geographic and climatic differences, despite the common Han Chinese cultural glue.
The sheer size of the land, the strength of local culture, and differences in geography and altitude mean there can be little in common between the cuisines of Xīnjiāng and Tibet, even though they are adjacent to each other. Following your nose (and palate) around China is one of the exciting ways to journey the land, so pack a sense of culinary adventure along with your travelling boots!
The evolution of China’s wide-ranging regional cuisines has been influenced by the climate, the distribution of crop and animal varieties, the type of terrain, proximity to the sea, the influence of neighbouring nations and the import of ingredients and flavours. Naturally seafood is prevalent in coastal regions of China, while in Inner Mongolia and Xīnjiāng there is a dependence on meat such as beef and lamb.
Another crucial ingredient is history. The flight of the Song court south of the Yangzi River (Cháng Jiāng) from northern Jurchen invaders in the 12th century helped develop China’s major regional cuisines. This process was further influenced by urbanisation, itself made possible by the commercialisation of agriculture and food distribution; this led to the emergence of the restaurant industry and the further consolidation of regional schools. Further impetus came from the merchants and bureaucrats who travelled the land, and from improved transport options such as the Grand Canal, which allowed for shipping ingredients and recipes between Běijīng in the north and Hángzhōu further south.
Many Chinese regions lay claim to their own culinary conventions, which may overlap and cross-pollinate each other. The cooking traditions of China’s ethnic minorities aside, Han cooking has traditionally been divided into eight schools (中华八大菜系; zhōnghuá bādàcàixì):
Chuān (川; Sìchuān cuisine)
Huī (徽; Ānhuī cuisine)
Lǔ (鲁; Shāndōng cuisine)
Mǐn (闽; Fújiàn cuisine)
Sū (苏; Jiāngsū cuisine)
Xiāng (湘; Húnán cuisine)
Yuè (粤; Cantonese/Guǎngdōng cuisine)
Zhè (浙; Zhèjiāng cuisine).
Although each school is independent and well defined, it is possible to group these eight culinary traditions into northern, southern, western and eastern cooking.
A common philosophy lies at the heart of Chinese cooking, whatever the school. Most vegetables and fruits are yīn foods, generally moist and soft, possessing a cooling effect while nurturing the feminine aspect. Yáng foods – fried, spicy or with red meat – are warming and nourish the masculine side. Any meal should harmonise flavours and achieve a balance between cooling and warming foods.
Travel Your Taste Buds
China is such a gourmand’s paradise you won’t know when to stop. In the north, fill up on a tasty dish of wontons (húntún) stuffed with juicy leeks and minced pork, or Mongolian hotpot (Ménggǔ huǒguō), a hearty brew of mutton, onions and cabbage.
Chefs from China’s arid northwest might slide a bowl of noodles topped with sliced donkey meat (lǘròu huáng miàn) under your nose or pop sizzling lamb kebabs (kǎo yángròu) between your fingers. Stop by Xī'ān for warming servings of mutton broth and shredded flat bread (yángròu pàomó). A dish of Lánzhōu hand-pulled noodles (lā miàn) is a meal in itself.
In case you’re pining for something sweet, head to Shànghǎi for delicious honey-smoked carp (mìzhī xūnyú), and where you can also dine on more savoury helpings of steaming xiǎolóngbāo dumplings – which require considerable dexterity to consume without meat juices jetting to all compass points.
Cleanse your palate with a glass of heady Shàoxīng yellow wine (Shàoxīng huángjiǔ) or the more delicate flavours of Dragonwell tea (lóngjǐng chá). It may not exactly give you wings, but a dose of Huáng Shān braised pigeon (Huángshān dùngē) will definitely give you the stamina to clamber up the misty inclines of Huángshān.
Some like it hot, and little comes hotter than the fiery flavours of Sìchuān. Begin with mouth-numbing mapo tofu (mápó dòufu), followed by the celebrated spicy chicken with peanuts (gōngbǎo jīdīng). If the smoke isn’t now coming out of your ears, fish smothered in chilli (shuǐzhǔ yú) should have you breathing fire. Alternatively, test your mettle with a volcanic Chóngqìng hotpot.
In the south, relax with morning dim sum in Guǎngzhōu or a bowl of Cantonese snake soup (shé gēng) in one of the city’s boisterous night markets. While in Macau, taste the Macanese dish porco à alentejana, a mouthwatering casserole of pork and clams.
With Shāndōng (鲁菜; lǔcài) – the oldest of the eight regional schools of cooking – at its heart, northern cooking also embraces Běijīng, northeastern (Manchurian) and Shānxī cuisine, creating the most time-honoured and most central form of Chinese cooking.
In the dry northern Chinese wheat belt, an accent falls on millet, sorghum, maize, barley and wheat rather than rice (which requires lush irrigation by water to cultivate). Particularly well suited to the harsh and hardy winter climate, northern cooking is rich and wholesome (northerners partially attribute their taller size, compared to southern Chinese, to its effects). Filling breads – such as mántou (馒头) or bǐng (饼; flat breads) – are steamed, baked or fried, while noodles may form the basis of any northern meal. (The ubiquitous availability of rice means it can always be found, however.) Northern cuisine is frequently quite salty, and appetising dumplings (铰子; jiǎozi) are widely eaten – usually boiled and sometimes fried.
As Běijīng was the principal capital through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, Imperial cooking is a chief characteristic of the northern school. Peking duck is Běijīng’s signature dish, served with typical northern ingredients – pancakes, spring onions and fermented bean paste. You can find it all over China, but it’s only true to form in the capital, roasted in ovens fired up with fruit-tree wood.
With China ruled from 1644 to 1911 by non-Han Manchurians, the influence of northeast cuisine (dōngběi cài) has naturally permeated northern cooking, dispensing a legacy of rich and hearty stews, dense breads, preserved foods and dumplings.
Meat roasting is also more common in the north than in other parts of China. Meats in northern China are braised until falling off the bone, or slathered with spices and barbecued until smoky. Pungent garlic, chives and spring onions are used with abandon and also employed raw. Also from the northwest is the Muslim Uyghur cuisine.
The nomadic and carnivorous diet of the Mongolians also infiltrates northern cooking, most noticeably in the Mongolian hotpot and the Mongolian barbecue. Milk from nomadic herds of cattle, goats and horses has also crept into northern cuisine – as yoghurts (suānnǎi), for example.
Some hallmark northern dishes:
|Běijīng kǎoyā||北京烤鸭||Peking duck|
|jiāo zhá yángròu||焦炸羊肉||deep-fried mutton|
|qīng xiāng shāo jī||清香烧鸡||chicken wrapped in lotus leaf|
|ròu bāozi||肉包子||steamed meat buns|
|sān měi dòufu||三美豆腐||sliced bean curd (tofu) with Chinese cabbage|
|shuàn yángròu||涮羊肉||lamb hotpot|
|sì xǐ wánzi||四喜丸子||steamed and fried pork, shrimp and bamboo shoot balls|
|yuán bào lǐ jí||芫爆里脊||stir-fried pork tenderloin with coriander|
|zào liū sān bái||糟溜三白||stir-fried chicken, fish and bamboo shoots|
The southern Chinese – particularly the Cantonese – historically spearheaded successive waves of immigration overseas, leaving aromatic constellations of Chinatowns around the world. Consequently, Westerners most often associate this school of cooking with China.
Typified by Cantonese (粤菜; yuècài) cooking, southern cooking lacks the richness and saltiness of northern cooking and instead coaxes more subtle aromas to the surface. The Cantonese astutely believe that good cooking does not require much flavouring, for it is the xiān (natural freshness) of the ingredients that marks a truly high-grade dish. Hence the near-obsessive attention paid to the freshness of ingredients in southern cuisine.
The hallmark Cantonese dish is dim sum (点心; Mandarin: diǎnxīn). Yum cha (literally ‘drink tea’) – another name for dim sum dining – in Guǎngzhōu and Hong Kong can be enjoyed on any day of the week. Dishes, often in steamers, are wheeled around on trolleys so you can see what's available to order. Well-known dim sum dishes include guōtiē (a kind of fried dumpling), shāomài (a kind of open pork dumpling), chāshāobāo (pork-filled bun) and chūnjuǎn (spring rolls). The extravagantly named fèngzhuǎ (phoenix claw) is the ever-popular steamed chicken’s feet. Xiǎolóngbāo (steamed dumplings) are often sold in dim sum restaurants but are traditionally from Shànghǎi.
Local esteem for Cantonese food is evident in a popular Chinese saying: ‘Be born in Sūzhōu, live in Hángzhōu, eat in Guǎngzhōu and die in Líuzhōu’. (Sūzhōu was famed for its good-looking people, Hángzhōu was a lovely place to live in, Guǎngzhōu was the best place to eat while Liǔzhōu was famed for the wood of its coffins!)
Fújiàn (闽菜; mǐncài) cuisine is another important southern cooking style, with its emphasis on light flavours and, due to the province’s proximity to the East China Sea, seafood.
Hakka cuisine from the disparate and migratory Hakka people (Kèjiāzú) is another feature of southern Chinese cooking, as is the food of Cháozhōu in eastern Guǎngdōng.
Rice is the primary staple of southern cuisine. Sparkling paddy fields glitter across the south; the humid climate, plentiful rainfall and well-irrigated land means that rice has been farmed here since the Chinese first populated the region during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220).
Some southern-school dishes:
|bái zhuó xiā||白灼虾||blanched prawns with shredded scallions|
|dōngjiāng yánjú jī||东江盐焗鸡||salt-baked chicken|
|gālí jī||咖喱鸡||curried chicken|
|háoyóu niúròu||蚝油牛肉||beef with oyster sauce|
|kǎo rǔzhū||烤乳猪||crispy suckling pig|
|mì zhī chāshāo||密汁叉烧||roast pork with honey|
|tángcù lǐjī/gǔlǎo ròu||糖醋里脊/咕老肉||sweet-and-sour pork fillets|
|tángcù páigǔ||糖醋排骨||sweet-and-sour spare ribs|
The cuisine of landlocked western China, a region heavily dappled with ethnic shades and contrasting cultures, welcomes the diner to the more scarlet end of the culinary spectrum. The trademark ingredient of the western school is the fiercely hot red chilli, a potent firecracker of an ingredient that floods dishes with an all-pervading spiciness. Aniseed, coriander, garlic and peppercorns are thrown in for good measure to add extra pungency and bite.
The standout cuisine of the western school is fiery Sìchuān (川菜; chuāncài) food, one of China’s eight regional cooking styles, renowned for its eye-watering peppery aromas. One of the things that differentiates Sìchuān cooking from other spicy cuisines is the use of ‘flower pepper’ (huājiāo), a numbing, peppercorn-like herb that floods the mouth with an anaesthetising fragrance in a culinary effect termed málà (numb and hot). A Sìchuān dish you can find cooked up by chefs across China is the delicious sour cabbage fish soup (酸菜鱼; suāncàiyú), which features wholesome fish chunks in a spicy broth. The Chóngqìng hotpot is a force to be reckoned with but must be approached with a stiff upper lip (and copious amounts of liquid refreshment). If you want a hotpot pitched between spicy and mild, select a yuanyang hotpot (yuānyāng huǒgūo), a vessel divided yin-yang style into two different compartments for two different soup bases. Sìchuān restaurants are everywhere in China: swarming around train stations, squeezed away down food streets or squished into street markets with wobbly stools and rickety tables parked out front.
Another of China’s eight regional schools of cooking, dishes from Húnán (湘菜; xiāngcài) are similarly pungent, with a heavy reliance on chilli. Unlike Sìchuān food, flower pepper is not employed and instead spicy flavours are often sharper, fiercer and more to the fore. Meat, particularly in Húnán, is marinated, pickled or otherwise processed before cooking, which is generally by stir- or flash-frying.
Cuisine in Tibet includes tsampa (porridge of roasted barley flour), bö cha (yak-butter tea), momos (dumplings filled with vegetables or yak meat), thugpa (noodles with meat), thenthuk (fried noodle squares) as well as shemdre (rice, potato and yak-meat curry).
Some western-school dishes:
|bàngbàng jī||棒棒鸡||shredded chicken in a hot pepper and sesame sauce|
|Chóngqìng huǒguō||重庆火锅||Chóngqìng hotpot|
|dāndan miàn||担担面||spicy noodles|
|gānshāo yán lǐ||干烧岩鲤||stewed carp with ham and hot-and-sweet sauce|
|huíguō ròu||回锅肉||boiled and stir-fried pork with salty-and-hot sauce|
|málà dòufu||麻辣豆腐||spicy tofu|
|Máoshì Hóngshaōròu||毛氏红烧肉||Mao family braised pork|
|shuǐ zhǔ niúròu||水煮牛肉||spicy fried and boiled beef|
|shuǐzhǔyú||水煮鱼||fried and boiled fish, garlic sprouts and celery|
|suāncàiyú||酸菜鱼||sour-cabbage fish soup|
|yú xiāng ròusī||鱼香肉丝||fish-flavour pork strips|
|zhàcài ròusī||榨菜肉丝||stir-fried pork or beef tenderloin with tuber mustard|
The eastern school of Chinese cuisine derives from a fertile region of China, slashed by waterways and canals, glistening with lakes, fringed by a long coastline and nourished by a subtropical climate. Jiāngsū province itself is the home of Jiāngsū (苏菜; sūcài) cuisine – one of the core regions of the eastern school – and is famed as the ‘Land of Fish and Rice’, a tribute to its abundance of food and produce. The region has been historically prosperous, and in today’s export-oriented economy the eastern provinces are among China’s wealthiest. This combination of riches and bountiful food has created a culture of epicurism and gastronomic enjoyment.
South of Jiāngsū, Zhèjiāng (浙菜; zhècài) cuisine is another cornerstone of Eastern cooking. The Song dynasty saw the blossoming of the restaurant industry here; in Hángzhōu, the southern Song-dynasty capital, restaurants and teahouses accounted for two-thirds of the city’s business during a splendidly rich cultural era. One of Hángzhōu’s most famous dishes, dōngpō ròu (named after the celebrated poet and governor of Hángzhōu, Su Dongpo), was invented during this era.
Generally more oily and sweeter than other Chinese schools, the eastern school revels in fish and seafood, reflecting its geographical proximity to major rivers and the sea. Fish is usually qīngzhēng (清蒸; steamed) but can be stir-fried, pan-fried or grilled. Hairy crabs (dàzháxiè) are a Shànghǎi speciality between October and December. Eaten with soy, ginger and vinegar and downed with warm Shàoxīng wine, the best crabs come from Yangcheng Lake. The crab is believed to increase the body’s yīn (coldness), so yáng (warmth) is added by imbibing lukewarm rice wine with it. It is also usual to eat male and female crabs together.
As with Cantonese food, freshness is a key ingredient in the cuisine, and sauces and seasonings are only employed to augment essential flavours. Stir-frying and steaming are also used, the latter with Shànghǎi’s famous xiǎolóngbāo, steamer buns filled with nuggets of pork or crab swimming in a scalding meat broth. Learning how to devour these carefully without the meat juice squirting everywhere and scalding the roof of your mouth (or blinding your neighbour) requires some (quite enjoyable) practice.
With a lightness of flavour, Ānhuī (徽菜; huīcài) cuisine – one of China’s eight principle culinary traditions and firmly in the eastern cooking sphere – puts less emphasis on seafood. Braising and stewing of vegetables and wildlife from its mountainous habitats is a pronounced feature of this regional cuisine.
China’s best soy sauce is also produced in the eastern provinces, and the technique of braising meat using soy sauce, sugar and spices was perfected here. Meat cooked in this manner takes on a dark mauve hue auspiciously described as ‘red’, a colour associated with good fortune.
Famous dishes from the eastern school:
|gōngbào jīdīng||宫爆鸡丁||spicy chicken with peanuts, aka kung pao chicken|
|háoyóu niúròu||蚝油牛肉||beef with oyster sauce|
|hóngshāo páigǔ||红烧排骨||red-braised spare ribs|
|hóngshāo qiézi||红烧茄子||red-cooked aubergine|
|hóngshāo yú||红烧鱼||red-braised fish|
|húntùn tāng||馄饨汤||wonton soup|
|jiācháng dòufu||家常豆腐||‘homestyle’ tofu|
|jīdànmiàn||鸡蛋面||noodles and egg|
|qīngjiāo ròupiàn||青椒肉片||pork and green peppers|
|shāguō dòufu||沙锅豆腐||bean-curd (tofu) casserole|
|tiěbǎn niúròu||铁板牛肉||sizzling beef platter|
|xīhóngshì chǎojīdàn||西红柿炒鸡蛋||fried egg and tomato|
|xīhóngshì jīdàntāng||西红柿鸡蛋汤||egg and tomato soup|
|xīhóngshì niúròu||西红柿牛肉||beef and tomato|
|yúxiāng qiézi||鱼香茄子||fish-flavoured aubergine|
Besides China’s regional cuisines, there is a tasty variety of jiāchángcài (homestyle) dishes you will see all over the land, cooked up in restaurants and along food streets.
Notable jiāchángcài dishes:
|jiāng cōng chǎo xiè||姜葱炒蟹||stir-fried crab with ginger and scallions|
|mìzhī xūnyú||蜜汁熏鱼||honey-smoked carp|
|níng shì shànyú||宁式鳝鱼||stir-fried eel with onion|
|qiézhī yúkuài||茄汁鱼块||fish fillet in tomato sauce|
|qīng zhēng guìyú||清蒸鳜鱼||steamed Mandarin fish|
|sōngzǐ guìyú||松子鳜鱼||Mandarin fish with pine nuts|
|suānlà yóuyú||酸辣鱿鱼||hot-and-sour squid|
|yóubào xiārén||油爆虾仁||fried shrimp|
|zhá hēi lǐyú||炸黑鲤鱼||fried black carp|
|zhá yúwán||炸鱼丸||fish balls|
Dining: the Ins & Outs
Chinese eateries come in every conceivable shape, size and type: from shabby, hole-in-the-wall noodle outfits with flimsy PVC furniture, blaring TV sets and well-worn plastic menus to gilded, banquet-style restaurants where elegant cheongsam-clad waitresses show you to your seat, straighten your chopsticks and bring you a warm hand towel and a gold-embossed wine list. In between are legions of very serviceable midrange restaurants serving cuisine from across China.
As dining in China is such a big, sociable and often ostentatious affair, many Chinese banqueting-style restaurants have huge round tables, thousand-candle-power electric lights and precious little sense of intimacy or romance. Overattentive and ever-present staff can add to the discomfort for foreigners.
Tipping is never done at cheap restaurants in mainland China. Smart, international restaurants will encourage tipping, but it is not obligatory and it’s uncertain whether wait staff receive their tips at the end of the night.
Hotel restaurants automatically add a 15% service charge; some high-end restaurants may do the same.
The Chinese eat early. Lunch usually commences from around 11.30am, either self-cooked or a takeaway at home, or in a streetside restaurant. Dinner kicks off from around 6pm. Reflecting these dining times, some restaurants open at around 11am, close for an afternoon break at about 2.30pm, open again around 5pm and then close in the late evening. Street-food vendors then take over the duty of feeding the late-night hungry folk.
In Běijīng, Shànghǎi and other large cities, you may be proudly presented with an English menu (英文菜谱; Yīngwén càipǔ). In smaller towns and out in the sticks, don’t expect anything other than a Chinese-language menu and a hovering waitress with no English-language skills. The best is undoubtedly the ever-handy photo menu. If you like the look of what other diners are eating, just point at it (我要那个; wǒ yào nàgè; ‘I want that’ – a very handy phrase). Alternatively, pop into the kitchen and point out the meats and vegetables you would like to eat.
Desserts & Sweets
The Chinese do not generally eat dessert, but fruit – typically watermelon (xīguā) or oranges (chéng) – often concludes a meal. Ice cream can be ordered in some places, but in general sweet desserts (tiánpǐn) are consumed as snacks and are seldom available in restaurants.
Chinese meal-times are generally relaxed affairs with no strict rules of etiquette. Meals can commence in a Confucian vein before spiralling into total Taoist mayhem, fuelled by incessant toasts with báijiǔ (a white spirit) or beer and furious smoking by the men.
Meals typically unfold with one person ordering on behalf of a group. When a group dines, a selection of dishes is ordered for everyone to share rather than individual diners ordering a dish just for themselves. As they arrive, dishes are placed communally in the centre of the table or on a lazy Susan, which may be revolved by the host so that the principal guest gets first choice of whatever dish arrives. It is common practice and not impolite (unless messy) to use your own chopsticks to serve yourself straight from each dish. Soup may appear midway through the meal or at the end. Rice often arrives at the end of the meal; if you would like it earlier, just ask. Chinese diners will often slurp their noodles quite noisily, which is not considered to be impolite.
It is good form to fill your neighbours’ tea cups or beer glasses when they are empty. To serve yourself tea or any other drink without serving others first is bad form; appreciation to the pourer is indicated by gently tapping the middle finger on the table.
When your teapot needs a refill, signal this to the waiter by simply taking the lid off the pot.
It’s best to wait until someone announces a toast before drinking your beer; if you want to get a quick shot in, propose a toast to the host. The Chinese do in fact toast each other much more than in the West – often each time they drink. A formal toast is conducted by raising your glass in both hands in the direction of the toastee and crying out gānbēi (literally, ‘dry the glass’) which is the cue to drain your glass in one hit – this can be quite a challenge if your drink is 65% báijiǔ. Your glass will be rapidly refilled to the top after you drain it, in preparation for the next toast (which may rapidly follow).
Smokers can light up during the meal, unless they are in the nonsmoking area of a restaurant. Depending on the restaurant, smokers may smoke through the entire meal. If you are a smoker, ensure you hand around your cigarettes to others, which is standard procedure.
Don’t use your chopsticks to point at people or gesticulate with them – and never stick your chopsticks upright in bowls of rice (it’s a portent of death).
Last but not least, don't insist on paying for the bill if someone else is tenaciously determined to pay – usually the person who invited you to dinner. By all means offer to pay, but then raise your hands in mock surrender when resistance is met: to pay for a meal when another person is determined to do it is to make them lose face.
Chinese toothpick etiquette is similar to that found in other Asian nations: one hand excavates with the toothpick, while the other hand shields the mouth.
Snacking your way around China is a fine way to sample the different flavours of the land while on the move. Most towns have a street market or a night market (夜市; yèshì), a great place for good-value snacks and meals; you can either take it away or park yourself on a wobbly stool and grab a beer.
Street markets such as Kāifēng’s boisterous night market abound with choices you may not find in restaurants. Vocal vendors will be forcing their tasty creations on you but you can also see what other people are buying and what’s being cooked up; all you have to do is join the queue and point.
Eating with Kids
Similar to travelling with children in China, dining out with kids can be a challenge. Budget eateries won’t have kids’ menus; nor will they have booster seats. Smarter restaurants may supply these but it can be touch-and-go. In large cities you will be able to find more restaurants switched on to the needs of families; Western restaurants especially may have a play area, kids’ menu, activities, booster seats and other paraphernalia.
Breakfast in China is generally light, simple and over and done with quickly. The meal may consist of merely a bowl of rice porridge (粥; zhōu) or its watery cousin, rice gruel (稀饭; xīfàn). Pickles, boiled eggs, steamed buns, fried peanuts and deep-fried dough sticks (油条; yóutiáo) are also popular, washed down with warm soybean milk. Breakfast at your Chinese hotel may consist of some or all of these.
Coffee is rarely drunk at breakfast time, unless the family is modern, urban and middle-class, but it’s easy to find in cafes, especially in large towns. Sliced bread (面包; miànbāo) was once rare but is increasingly common, as is butter (黄油; huángyóu).
If you’d rather chew on a legume than a leg of lamb, it can be hard to find truly vegetarian dishes. China’s history of famine and poverty means the consumption of meat has always been a sign of status, and is symbolic of health and wealth. Eating meat is also considered to enhance male virility, so vegetarian men raise eyebrows. Partly because of this, there is virtually no vegetarian movement in China, although Chinese people may forgo meat for Buddhist reasons. For the same reasons, they may avoid meat on certain days of the month but remain carnivorous at other times.
You will find that vegetables are often fried in animal-based oils; vegetable soups are often made with chicken or beef stock, so simply choosing 'vegetable' items on the menu is ineffective. A dish that you are told does not contain meat may still mean it is riddled with tiny pieces of meat. In Běijīng and Shànghǎi you will, however, find a generous crop of vegetarian restaurants to choose from, alongside outfits such as Element Fresh, which has a decent range of healthy vegetarian options.
Out of the large cities, your best bet may be to head to a sizeable active Buddhist temple or monastery, where Buddhist vegetarian restaurants are often open to the public. Buddhist vegetarian food typically consists of ‘mock meat’ dishes created from tofu, wheat gluten, potato and other vegetables. Some of the dishes are almost works of art, with vegetarian ingredients sculpted to look like spare ribs or fried chicken. Sometimes the chefs go to great lengths to create ‘bones’ from carrots and lotus roots.
If you want to say ‘I am a vegetarian’ in Chinese, the phrase to use is 'wǒ chī sù' (我吃素).
An old Chinese saying identifies tea as one of the seven basic necessities of life, along with firewood, oil, rice, salt, soy sauce and vinegar. The Chinese were the first to cultivate tea, and the art of brewing and drinking it has been popular since Tang times (AD 618–907). Tea is to the Chinese what fine wine is to the French: a beloved beverage savoured for its fine aroma, distinctive flavour and pleasing aftertaste.
China has three main types of tea: green tea (lǜ chá), black tea (hóng chá) and wūlóng (a semifermented tea, halfway between black and green tea). In addition, there are other variations, including jasmine (cháshuǐ) and chrysanthemum (júhuā chá). Some famous regional teas of China are Fújiàn’s tiě guānyīn, pú’ěrh from Yúnnán and Zhèjiāng’s lóngjǐng tea. Eight-treasure tea (bābǎo chá) consists of rock sugar, dates, nuts and tea combined in a cup; it makes a delicious treat.
If tea is the most popular drink in China, then beer (啤酒; píjiǔ) is surely second. Many towns and cities have their own brewery and label, although a remarkable feat of socialist standardisation ensures a striking similarity in flavour and strength. You can drink bath tubs of the stuff and still navigate a straight line. If you want your beer cold, ask for liáng de (凉的); if you want it truly arctic, call for bīngzhèn de (冰镇的).
The best-known beer is Tsingtao, made with Láo Shān mineral water, which lends it a sparkling quality. It was originally a German beer, since the town of Qīngdǎo (formerly spelt ‘Tsingtao’) was once a German concession; the Chinese inherited the brewery, which dates to 1903, along with Bavarian brewing methods.
Several foreign beers are also brewed in China and there's a growing market for craft brews in the wealthier cities. If you crave variety, many of the bars we list should have a selection of foreign imported beers; prices will be high, however.
Surging demand for imported wines has seen China remain the world’s largest consumer of red wine in recent years. Expensive French reds (hóngjiǔ) are treasured in a fashionable market that was only finding its feet a mere 17 years ago. Wine has become the drink of choice among an increasingly sophisticated business class eager to appear discerning and flamboyant. Unfortunately this also means you can pay way over the odds at restaurants in Shànghǎi or Běijīng for imported wines. White wine consumption in China is increasingly associated with female drinkers.
China has also cultivated vines and produced wine for an estimated 4000 years, and Chinese wines are generally cheaper than imports from abroad. The provinces of Xīnjiāng and Níngxià, in the distant northwest of China, are famous for their vineyards.
The word ‘wine’ gets rather loosely translated – many Chinese ‘wines’ are in fact spirits. Maotai, a favourite of Chinese drinkers, is a very expensive spirit called báijiǔ made from sorghum (a type of millet) and used for toasts at banquets. The cheap alternative is Erguotou, distilled in Běijīng but available all over China; look out for the Red Star (Hongxing) brand. Báijiǔ ranges across the alcohol spectrum, from milder forms to around 65% proof. Milder rice wine is intended mainly for cooking rather than drinking but can be drunk warm like sake.