Eating out in China comes in two forms: street food or restaurants. Street food deserves its own section, which is elsewhere on this site (or it will be, when I get around to it).
There are a couple of general notes about dining in restaurants worth mentioning. Unlike in the west, the food is usually shared, with each diner taking a chopstick-full at a time from the communal dish on which an item is served. It is possible, though not considered very good manners, to take a portion from the communal dish and put it on your own plate, if you prefer to do that, but the plates from which people eat are only the size of side-plates in the West. If rice is served, (which is always optional in the North, where not many people bother with it) then that is usually at the end of the meal, unless you specifically order it to come with the other dishes. Pancakes or bread-type items are served as normal dishes, noodles may be either with or at the end of the meal (more popular in the North, instead of rice). Oddly enough, rice an noodles are collectively referred to as “main food”.
Meal times are not particularly strict, but most offices and schools/colleges have a two-hour lunchbreak, so people can ‘have a rest’ after eating.
Breakfast is usually some kind of porridge (‘yellow rice’ (soghum) is popular, but some ‘congees’ can be pretty complex) with ‘mantou’ (steamed bread), tofu ‘brains’ (really nice) and dough sticks, wonton soup, or some kind of filled pancake or ‘pie’ (shallow-fried, or cooked on a hot plate, rather than baked in an oven – ovens are pretty rare, and not to be found in a normal household – with a ‘pastry’ that is more like a bread dough), or possibly a combination of any of the above. Western-style cereals are becoming more common at home, but a cooked breakfast as in the UK or US is only available at tourist hotels, as is a European ‘continental’ breakfast.
Lunch can be something simple, like one dish with rice/noodles/shredded pancake, or as extensive as you like, depending on where you go.
Dinner can last a whole evening, though one thing that may seem strange at first is that everyone just gets up and goes once they’ve all finished eating their meal. There is no hanging about for further drinks or chat, although there is often some dispute about who’s paying, with each person trying to pay for everything. It can get quite heated, depending on how much liquid fuel has been consumed.
Hot water – never cold – is usually provided free of charge at the time of ordering (or may already be on the table in a kettle or flask). If you don’t like hot water, you can always order tea. Traditionally, Chinese people do not drink cold drinks with a meal, although that is changing, as beer and western-style wines are becoming more popular. The most common alcoholic drink is still ‘baijiu’, which is usually translated as ‘white wine’, but is actually a spirit, with a strength varying between 20% and 70% alcohol. It is common practice for people to take their own booze in with them to a restaurant, even when the restaurant sells beer and baijiu (very few sell western-style wines, even in larger cities). Simple glasses are provided, of about 150ml size.
Toasts are common, each one ending with ‘Ganbei’ (meaning ‘bottoms-up’), when drinkers traditionally empty their glasses – the effects of this custom can be pretty severe, and it’s not uncommon to see people staggering about after lunchtime, puking in the toilets, or driving while very clearly under the influence.
While in Qinhuangdao, I ate out quite often with colleagues or students in various styles of Chinese restaurant, from cheap and cheerful to notably extravagant. In Jinan, I was usually with other expat teachers, most of whom were American and not really interested in Chinese food, so it was a bit harder to find good places. I refused to go to McDonald’s or KFC on the grounds that they’re not restaurants and I wanted nourishment, not salt and fat. It was easier to persuade some of them to go to Korean restaurants (popular in China, and, it would seem, the USA), because one of them was Korean-American and would side with me. In general, they wanted fewer vegetables and lots of meat, preferably fried or barbecued. More about barbecues below. First I’ll give some examples of types of restaurant. More about specific regions in the relevant sections.
Or you could see or even try some recipes.
There are not so many of these, as places tend to specialise, or at least have “signature dishes”, as I think they are currently called. However, there are some standard dishes, which are available – with regional or local variations – almost everywhere.
A motorway service station
This was my first experience of food in China, experienced (I can’t honestly say ‘enjoyed’) on the journey from Beijing Capital Airport to Qinhuangdao. It was a flat price; pay at the counter and collect your metal tray and chopsticks, then help yourself to the buffet of hot and cold food. A lot of the hot food turned out to be cold, since the bain maries were not actually in use – I would later discover that this is usually the case for Chinese catering establishments (e.g. university canteens). There were some odd looking things, but the quality was not too awful.
Warning, if you go to one: if the tray is wet, dry it with a tissue before putting food on it. If you don’t, you may have trouble. The tap-water is not drinkable, and this is the probable cause of most stomach upsets. Salads can also be a bit risky for the same reason.
There are a lot of specialist fish or seafood restaurants, especially in Qinhuangdao and Qingdao, because they’re on the coast. Inland, e.g. in Chengdu, fish can be pretty expensive, unless it comes from a local river (with associated risk of pollution). Many restaurants specialise in a particular regional style of cooking, but the procedure is nearly always the same: select your fish from a tank and tell the waiter/waitress how you’d like it cooked.
A popular dish is ‘beltfish’ (aka “hairtail”, Trichiurus lepturus) or something very like grilled or fried sardines on a skewer. These are very good. Unfortunately, carp is also popular, mud-coloured and tasting like mud. There are better alternatives, although the fish is never filleted (at least, nowhere I went). This proved too daunting for my American colleagues, since they are not used to dealing with the bones. The skewered sardines (I’m not sure they are actual sardines, but they are about that size) and ‘beltfish’ are common even in non-specialist restaurants. I didn’t get to eat much fish in Jinan, except with one American and his Chinese wife, who knew a good place – in an underground car-park. The fish here were not in a tank, but laid out on a large slab with plenty of ice. Lots of variety, including some very rare, and even endangered, species, apparently. Awful ambience, but very good food at reasonable prices; no wonder it was always busy.
There are lots of these. Rice is for Southerners. In the North, people love their dumplings. Actually, they do in the South too, except there they are usually part of a Dimsum selection and much more expensive. In the North, people eat noodles and rice (usually at the end of a meal) too, but steamed buns (‘mantou’) and dumplings (‘jiaozi’) are always favourite, and many restaurants specialise in these.
The dumplings can be boiled, steamed, or fried/braised. There are lots of different fillings, usually involving pork, with mushroom or leek or cabbage, though I’ve also had tomato-and-egg, various kinds of fish (a speciality of Qingdao) beef, lamb, and (everybody’s favourite) donkey! They can be served in a broth (small ones, wontons) for breakfast or just as they come, in which case a small plate of unpeeled garlic cloves and bottles of soy sauce and aged black vinegar (very like balsamic vinegar; milder than Western vinegars – some people like to drink this as is, it’s so nice) are usually already on every table as accompaniments. Bottles of mild dark vinegar-based dipping sauce for dumplings (already including soy sauce) can be bought in supermarkets. Beijing-style pickled garlic – mild, sweet, and delicious! – may also be available, if you’re lucky.
Hotpot, Malatang, Mala Xiangguo restaurants – See Hotpot and friends
There is also more about hotpot lower down this page under Recipes.
There are almost too many of these. Some streets have dozens next to each other, with customers sitting outside on long tables. They are absurdly popular, but the quality is very variable.
A variation on this is the “Brazilian Barbecue” restaurant. Usually this is a brew-house, with Bavarian-style light and dark beers (brewed using equipment from Germany). The food is Chinese barbecue-style, often with a salad-bar and buffet as well, but there are pictures of famous Brazilian footballers on the walls. Worth a visit, if only because of the beer (and, really, sometimes it is only because of the beer).
In Jinan’s ‘Muslim Quarter’, all the outside tables from the various restaurants were together in an open square, and every grilled item was the same price, so the servers simply counted the number of skewers the customers had.
Interestingly, most of the Muslim barbecue places (at least in Jinan) sell alcohol, and in summer it is possible to buy a barrel (or two – they’re polypins, really) of fresh draft beer for your table. In some, whole shoulders of lamb are partly cooked and brought to the table to be finished off by the customers.
These are often small Muslim-run (not always, but mostly Uighur or Hui) places, selling Lanzhou pulled noodles. This is a Halal speciality, although in some places, the meat content is so meagre, they needn’t bother. I have a Chinese friend, who always goes to one of these in any town with which he is unfamiliar, because you always know what you’re going to get, they are normally cleaner than equivalently-priced Chinese places, and not expensive. Occasionally, you come across one that is actually very good. Just don’t expect enough meat for an American.
There are also non-Muslim noodle restaurants, specialising in regional noodle dishes (e.g Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese etc.). These are usually more expensive than the cheap and cheerful Muslim places.
That is to say, a Chinese version of Western food. These are distinct from the ubiquitous (in big cities) McDonalds and KFCs catering for junk-food addicts, which are fashionable among Chinese children, but despised by grown-ups. Strange mixtures can be found in a ‘Western food’ restaurant, such as a burger with fried egg and spaghetti (no bun). They do have ketchup. But no brown sauce.
These are very popular in China. Most are family run, but there are a few chains as well. They all have very similar menus, but the quality varies quite a lot. Nearly all do “Korean-style” barbecue in the evenings plus a limited lunchtime menu.
There are not so many of these (I wonder why?), but some of the bigger chains have outlets in major cities. They are relatively expensive, but can be very good.
For now, these are in no particular order. I will eventually get around to grouping them by major ingredient(s) or in some other logical way.
It’s probably worth noting that pork and chicken can be substituted for each other in most Chinese stir-fried dishes, and this is done in smaller restaurants, if they run out of either meat – even without telling the customer!
Bangbang Ji (“Bang bang” chicken)
Sichuanese Red Chicken (aka Chicken chunks in red-oil sauce)
Gongbao Jiding (“Kung Po” chicken) – Gongbao Rouding is the same dish with pork.
Gaoshan Xiaotudou (spicy fried potato)- Vegetarian
Zhajiang Mian (“Deep-fried sauce” noodles)
Jian Bing (Chinese crepes/Filled breakfast pancakes) – Vegetarian optional
JingJiangRouSi (Shredded pork in ‘Capital’ (Beijing-style) sauce)
Hotpot – for Vegetarian, just skip the meat or fish and emphasize the tofu – only suitable for groups
Malatang and Mala Xiangguo – these are both restaurant meals, though they could be cooked at home, if there are many diners
Mapo Doufu (probably the most popular dish with tofu) – vegetarian versions are possible
Ziran Yangrou (Cumin Lamb)
“Xinjiang” or “Beijing” Lamb Skewers
Shuizhuyu (“Water-boiled” fish – a lot more interesting than it sounds)
A few special things
Here are some special ingredients, which are difficult – close to impossible – to find in the West.
Riben Doufu (“Japanese” egg doufu) – Vegetarian
Chinese Toon (leaves of young Chinese mahogany) – Vegetarian
Pipixia (looks like a prehistoric ancestor of prawns and lobster)