The Chinese love to eat, and from market-stall buns and soup, right through to the intricate variations of regional cookery, China boasts one of the world’s greatest cuisines. Meals are considered social events, and the process is accordingly geared to a group of diners sharing a variety of different dishes with their companions. Fresh ingredients are available from any market stall, though unless you’re living long term in the country there are few opportunities to cook for yourself.
In the south, rice as grain, noodles, or dumpling wrappers is the staple, replaced in the cooler north by wheat, formed into buns or noodles. Meat is held to be invigorating and, ideally, forms the backbone of any meal. Pork is the most common meat used, except in areas with a strong Muslim tradition where it’s replaced with mutton or beef. Fowl is considered especially good during old age or convalescence; most rural people in central and southern China seem to own a couple of chickens, and the countryside is littered with duck and geese farms. Fish and seafood are highly regarded and can be expensive, as are rarer game meats.
Eggs – duck, chicken or quail – are a popular nationwide snack, often flavoured by hard-boiling in a mixture of tea, soy sauce and star anise. There’s also the so-called “thousand-year-old” variety, preserved for a few months in ash and straw – they look gruesome, with translucent brown albumen and green yolks, but actually have a delicate, brackish flavour. Dairy products serve limited purposes in China. Goat’s cheese and yoghurt are eaten in parts of Yunnan and the Northwest, but milk is considered fit only for children and the elderly and is not used in cooking.
Vegetables accompany nearly every Chinese meal, used in most cases to balance tastes and textures of meat, but also appearing as dishes in their own right. Though the selection can be very thin in some parts of the country, there’s usually a wide range on offer, from leafy greens to water chestnuts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seaweed and radish.
Soya beans are ubiquitous in Chinese cooking, being a good source of protein in a country where meat has often been a luxury. The small green beans are sometimes eaten straight in the south, but are more often salted and used to thicken sauces, fermented to produce soy sauce, or boiled and pressed to make white cakes of tofu (bean curd). Fresh tofu is flavourless and as soft as custard, though it can be pressed further to create a firmer texture, deep-fried until crisp, or cooked in stock and used as a meat substitute in vegetarian cooking. The skin that forms on top of the liquid while tofu is being made is itself skimmed off, dried, and used as a wrapping for spring rolls and the like.
Seasonal availability is smoothed over by a huge variety of dried, salted and pickled vegetables, meats and seafood, which often characterize local cooking styles. There’s also an enormous assortment of regional fruit, great to clean the palate or fill a space between meals.
Breakfast is not a big event by Chinese standards, more something to line the stomach for a few hours. Much of the country is content with a bowl of rice porridge flavoured with pickles and eaten with plain buns, or sweetened soya milk accompanied by a fried dough stick; dumplings, sometimes in soup, are another favourite. Guangdong and Hong Kong are the exceptions, where the traditional breakfast of dim sum (also known as yum cha) involves a selection of tiny buns, dumplings and dishes served with tea.
Other snacks and street food are served through the day from small, early-opening stalls located around markets, train and bus stations. These serve grilled chicken wings; kebabs; spiced noodles; baked yams and potatoes; boiled eggs; various steamed or stewed dishes dished up in earthenware sandpots; grilled corn and – in places such as Beijing and Sichuan – countless local treats. Also common are steamed buns, which are either stuffed with meat or vegetables (baozi) or plain (mantou, literally “bald heads”). The buns originated in the north and are especially warming on a winter’s day; a sweeter Cantonese variety is stuffed with barbecued pork. Another northern snack now found everywhere is the ravioli-like jiaozi, again with a meat or vegetable filling and either fried or steamed; shuijiao are boiled jiaozi served in soup. Some small restaurants specialize in jiaozi, containing a bewildering range of fillings and always sold by weight.
The cheapest hole-in-the-wall canteens are necessarily basic, with simple food costing a few yuan a serve and often much better than you’d expect from the furnishings. Proper restaurants are usually bright, busy places whose preferred atmosphere is renao, or “hot and noisy”, rather than the often quiet norm in the West. Prices at these places obviously vary a lot, but even expensive-looking establishments charge only ¥20–50 for a main dish, and servings tend to be generous.
While the cheaper places might have long hours, restaurant opening times are early and short: breakfast lasts from around 6–9am; lunch 11am–2pm; and dinner from around 5–9pm, after which the staff will be yawning and sweeping the debris off the tables around your ankles.
Pointing is all that’s required at street stalls and small restaurants; they’ll usually have the fare laid out, ready for cooking or already done. In proper restaurants you’ll be given a menu – most likely Chinese-only, unless you’re in a tourist area, though many now have pictures, and some are on tablets (more fiddly than useful). Alternatively, have a look at what other diners are eating – the Chinese are often delighted that a foreigner wants to eat Chinese food, and will indicate the best options on their table.
When ordering, unless eating a one-dish meal like Peking duck or a hotpot, try to select items with a range of tastes and textures; it’s also usual to include a soup. In cheap places, servings of noodles or rice are huge, but as they are considered basic stomach fillers, quantities decline the more upmarket you go.
Dishes are all served at once, placed in the middle of the table for diners to share. With some poultry dishes you can crunch up the smaller bones, but anything else is spat out on to the tablecloth or floor, more or less discreetly depending on the establishment – watch what others are doing. Soups tend to be bland and are consumed last (except in the south where they may be served first or as part of the main meal) to wash the meal down, the liquid slurped from a spoon or the bowl once the noodles, vegetables or meat in it have been picked out and eaten. Desserts aren’t a regular feature in China, though sweet soups and buns are eaten (the latter not confined to main meals) in the south, particularly at festive occasions.
Resting your chopsticks together across the top of your bowl means that you’ve finished eating. After a meal, the Chinese don’t hang around to talk over drinks as in the West, but get up straight away and leave. In canteens, you’ll pay up front, while at restaurants you ask for the bill and pay either the waiter or at the front till. Tipping is not expected in mainland China, though in Hong Kong you generally leave around ten percent.
There’s a fair amount of Western and international food available in China, though supply and quality vary. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing have the best range, with some excellent restaurants covering everything from Russian to Brazilian cuisine, and there are international food restaurants in every Chinese city of any size, with Korean and Japanese the best represented. Elsewhere, upmarket hotels may have Western restaurants, serving expensive but huge buffet breakfasts of scrambled egg, bacon, toast, cereal and coffee; and there’s a growing number of cafés in many cities, especially ones with large foreign expat populations. Burger, fried chicken and pizza places are ubiquitous, including domestic chains such as Dicos alongside McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Self-catering for tourists is feasible to a point. Instant noodles are a favourite travel food with the Chinese, available anywhere – just add boiling water, leave for five minutes, then stir in the flavourings supplied. Fresh fruit and veg from markets needs to be washed and peeled before eating raw; you can supplement things with dried fruit, nuts and seeds, roast and cured meats, biscuits and all manner of snacks. In cities, these things are also sold in more hygienic situations in supermarkets; many provincial capitals also have branches of the international chain Carrefour (家乐福, jiālèfú), where you can generally find small caches of Western foods.
Water is easily available in China, but never drink what comes out of the tap. Boiled water is always on hand in hotels and trains, either provided in large vacuum flasks or an urn, and you can buy bottled spring water at station stalls and supermarkets.
Tea has been known in China since antiquity and was originally drunk for medicinal reasons. Over the centuries a whole social culture has sprung up around this beverage, spawning teahouses that once held the same place in Chinese society that the local pub or bar does in the West. Plantations of neat rows of low tea bushes adorn hillsides across southern China, while the brew is enthusiastically consumed from the highlands of Tibet – where it’s mixed with barley meal and butter – to every restaurant and household between Hong Kong and Beijing. Unfortunately, in a land where a pot of tea used to be plonked in front of every restaurant-goer before they’d even sat down, you now usually have to pay for the privilege – and your tea can work out more expensive than the rest of your meal.
Chinese tea comes in red, green and flower-scented varieties, depending on how it’s processed; only Hainan produces Indian-style black tea. Some regional kinds, such as pu’er from Yunnan, Fujian’s tie guanyin, Zhejiang’s longjing or Sichuan’s zhuye qing, are highly sought after; indeed, after locals in Yunnan decided that banks weren’t paying enough interest, they started investing in pu’er tea stocks, causing prices to soar.
The manner in which it’s served also varies from place to place: sometimes it comes in huge mugs with a lid, elsewhere in dainty cups served from a miniature pot; there are also formalized tea rituals in parts of Fujian and Guangdong. When drinking in company, it’s polite to top up others’ cups before your own, whenever they become empty; if someone does this for you, lightly tap your first two fingers on the table to show your thanks. If you’ve had enough, leave your cup full, and in a restaurant take the lid off or turn it over if you want the pot refilled during the meal.
Chinese leaf tea is never drunk with milk or sugar, though recently Taiwanese bubble tea – Indian-style tea with milk, sugar and sago balls – has become popular in the south. It’s also worth trying some Muslim babao cha or Eight Treasures Tea, which involves dried fruit, nuts, seeds and crystallized sugar heaped into a cup with the remaining space filled with hot water, poured with panache from an immensely long-spouted copper kettle.
The popularity of beer in China rivals that of tea, and, for men, is the preferred mealtime beverage (drinking alcohol in public is considered improper for Chinese women, though not for foreigners). The first brewery was set up in the northeastern port of Qingdao by the Germans in the nineteenth century, and now, though the Tsingtao label is widely available, just about every province produces at least one brand of 4% Pilsner. Sold in 660ml bottles, it’s always drinkable, often pretty good, and is actually cheaper than bottled water. Draught beer is becoming available across the country.
Watch out for the term “wine” on English menus, which usually denotes spirits, made from rice, sorghum or millet. Serving spirits to guests is a sign of hospitality, and they’re always used for toasting at banquets. Again, local home-made varieties can be quite good, while mainstream brands – especially the expensive, nationally famous Moutai and Wuliangye – are pretty vile to the Western palate. China does have several commercial wine labels, the best of which is Changyu from Yantai in Shandong province, and there are ongoing efforts to launch wine as a stylish niche product, with limited success so far.
Western-style bars are found in all major cities. These establishments serve both local and imported beers and spirits, and are popular with China’s middle class, as well as foreigners. Mostly, though, the Chinese drink alcohol only with their meals – all restaurants serve at least local brews and spirits. Imported beers and spirits are sold in large department stores and in city bars, but are always expensive.
Canned drinks, usually sold unchilled, include various lemonades and colas. Fruit juices can be unusual and refreshing, however, flavoured with chunks of lychee, lotus and water chestnuts. Milk is sold in powder form as baby food, and increasingly in bottles for adult consumption as its benefits for invalids and the elderly become accepted wisdom.
Coffee has long been grown and drunk in Yunnan and Hainan, and coffee culture is now taking off across China, with cafés in every major city across the land. The quality of what you’ll get varies widely; it’s pretty good in the trendy brunch-houses of Beijing and Shanghai, for example, though pretty wretched in the generic (and huge) local chains. If you simply need to staisfy your caffeine cravings, head to McDonald’s or KFC, which serve passable coffee (with milk, if you’d like) for very low prices; or buy imported instant powder in any supermarket.