Food in China: a mini-guide for expats and travelers

The reason for creation of this mini-guide is to help enhance your experience with Chinese food in China and assist you in choosing meals with confidence for the better enjoyment of your very first dinings out.

Would you like to know how to order safely at any Chinese restaurant, even if you are vegan or vegetarian? Which are Chinese eating habits, and most common dishes?

Keep reading…I got you covered.

guy selling bbq in Lijiang old-town

“What did you eat there?” “Did you get used to the food?” I heard this dozens of times after moving to China. Friends back home, including Chinese friends I’d just met, were curious in how I was dealing with the essentials in my new environment.


I was transporting myself to China, forever set in my Italian ways and on top of that, overloaded suitcases. I had fixed eating habits that I could not easily shake. I take pride in my origins and our traditional dishes. During my travels, I often heard Italian cuisine was the most beloved cuisine in the world.

Time in China revealed that the Chinese shared our adoration for food culture, habits were identical; the Chinese loved their traditions as much as we did. Make no mistake, for them eating a meal “at the due time” rings close to obsession, it creates a type of rush that cause all activities to suddenly cease when the magic words “let’s eat” are uttered: chi fan le 吃饭 了 !

“Dian xin”, or “dim sum” 点心 at Chaofucheng 潮福城, a restaurant in Xiamen. This dish is part of Cantonese and Hong Kong tradition; “dian xin” are served with tea. One of the highlights of Chinese cuisine

Chinese restaurant menu selections back home seemed to pale in comparison to the myriad of items you got to choose from in China.Take a stroll along the streets of a Chinese city and wherever you look there’s a restaurant or a “noodles” or a bbq stall. Standard eateries are open all day, but no later than 9 p.m. and note: owners and their families usually live at the back of the restaurants. Eating out in China is more cost-thrifty than cooking at home.



Due to the custom of giving harsh or sometimes untranslatable names to dishes, restaurants often display pictures of the food or illustrated menus. Otherwise, you are required to ask about them. Chinese cuisine has quite a lot of regional varieties, but renowned specialties can be found everywhere. Getting used to the food and

                                                testing out dishes can take time.


In the early stages of your sojourn in China, carrying a dictionary would be mandatory. Some useful apps would be KT dict, Pleco, and Hanping Lite.

One day, I was invited to dinner by some Chinese friends who ordered a local dish. I’d lived in Xiamen for two years before trying this local specialty for the first time. It’s known as oyster omelet “haili” 海蛎. It was my chance to try something new, but curiosity killed the cat. Following this experimental dinner, I was forced to stay home for two days with a dreadful gut issue!


There are a few Chinese dishes and seasonings that may not agree with you, apart from having anything to do with taste. Chinese food may knock you off your kiester when combined with jet-lag and a sudden change of environment and routine.


Let’s begin our trip with Chinese cuisine.



First trip to Chinese cuisine is breakfast. People in China prefer to avoid sugar: it’s traditionally regarded as a harmful ingredient that feeds the “worms of the intestines.”
Chinese eat for breakfast what they’d eat for lunch or dinner: rice or noodles with meat and veggies, soups. So why not leftovers from the day before?

If you do not wish to spend breakfast (usually 5:30 am to 7:30) at home with biscuits and bottled caffè latte from the local supermarket, you can scope out the places where locals get their breakfast. It’s  common for them to eat warm soup noodles “tangmian” 汤面 or small pork dumplings in broth “bianshi” 扁食 or “hundun” 混沌, which are very salty.

Breakfast at a Chinese house in Qingdao: zhou is served with sautéd green beans and minced pork

Rice porridge “zhou” or “xifan” 稀饭 is a popular breakfast dish in China and South-East Asia, and each that offers zhou cooks it differently. Sometimes, it’s made with pumpkin, rendering it a bit sweet, sometimes some minced meat gives it a more consistent flavor. The Chinese consider rice porridge an excellent breakfast which supplies the body with liquids and gets easily digested. Plain “zhou” is a meal recommended during health recoveries.


The most popular take-out breakfast is “baozi” 包子, a big chewy dumpling filled with meat (roubao 肉包), veggies (caibao 菜包), sweet peanut sauce (hua sheng bao 花生包) and sweet red beans sauce (doubao 豆包).

Fresh-steamed baozi

The peanut baozi and red beans baozi are vegan!

At the baozi shop you’ ll find mantou” 馒头, a Chinese bread; your cheapest option for breakfast.

 The Chinese usually have baozi with soy bean juice which is a warm, sweet drink also available sugar- free when freshly made, just say qutang” 去糖.

After three years of living in China, finally I switched to a Chinese-style breakfast, dumping cookies and caffe latte for zhou.





When eating out, Chinese menus can make you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of Chinese characters, but keep calm.

Look for rice “fan” or noodles “mian. The easiest choice is fried rice chao fan” 炒饭 (steamed rice sautéed with veggies, minced pork, and egg) or fried noodles “chaomian” 炒面 (same ingredients as the rice).

Ask the owner “laoban” 老板 or the waiter “fuwuyuan” 服务员 to leave out what you don’t want:

“bu yao jidan” 不要鸡蛋 (I don’t want eggs), or “bu yao rou” 不要

or to add something:

“jia xihongshi” 加西红柿 (add tomatoes).

If you order plain steamed rice (“baifan”白饭, or “mifan”米饭) plus side dishes, make sure to ask what type of condiment these particular dishes are prepared with. Either salty, sweet, sweet and sour, spicy or bitter. If you don’t ask you might get a big surprise!

Ask the waiter for advice before ordering. By the way, this is the best way to improve your Chinese.

dinner is ready at a family’s in Xiamen. All the dishes come together, and one shall be a soup

Sichuan Food “chuancai 川菜 is regional and found everywhere in China. Sichuan dishes are known to be the spiciest, but Chinese people like to eat spicy food in every corner of the country. It is useful to keep these words in mind: “bulade不辣的not spicy” and “yi diandian lade一点点辣的 just a bit spicy“.
Here are some of expat’s favorite dishes at Sichuan Restaurants: gangguo baocai” 干锅包菜 (cabbage with pork and onions cooked in a pot), “gongbao jiding” 宫保鸡丁 (chicken with carrots, peppers, and nuts) and the “riben doufu” 日本豆腐 (Japanese-style tofu).


Monosodium glutamate or “weijing”
味精 is used in China as salt is used in Western Cuisine; it’s the Chinese’s favorite seasoning. We often think Chinese food is very tasty, but what it is is the glutamate powder that renders it so palatable!

If you wish to avoid glutamate in your food, just must make it clear while ordering. You can say “bu yao weijing” 不要味精 (I don’t want glutamate) or “weijing, wo bu neng chi” 味精,我不能吃 (I can’t eat glutamate)

Here is another option if you wish to avoid complex menus: dumplings “shuijiao” 水饺: Chinese dumplings boiled in water and served with a dressing of vinegar and chili oil. Fried dumplings “zha jiaozi” 炸饺子 are much tastier,  as they are sautèed in a pan, but heavier than steamed dumplings. Traditionally, dumplings are filled with: pork, onions, and cabbage, but you can find vegetarian dumplings, beef or lamb dumplings and vegan dumplings shops are being launched in a few cities. What’s enticing in these restaurants is that they specialize in dumplings so the offering is large: 10-20 varieties. The price for a portion of dumplings is between 7 to 12 renminbi.

homemade dumplings at a friend’s house in Qingdao



soup noodles “tangmian”

Chinese noodles are always apt to surprise you.

If I had one of my nostalgic episodes, I would visit the “northwest pulled noodles” “xibei lamian” 西北拉面 restaurants. Here noodles are also “halal”. In Xibei Lamian restaurants the noodles are made by hand right after the waiter submits your order. Portions are usually quite generous and prices fair (9 to 14 RMB). All dishes are accompanied by a typical black pepper/coriander soup that can be refilled. The most popular type of noodles in “xibei lamian” restaurants are the “ban mian” noodles, 拌面 which are topped with minced beef, onions and peppers. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you can order a yummy cold noodles dish called “liang mian” 凉面, which is topped whith raw vegetables like: cucumber, tomatoes and onions into which fried eggs can be added.
Another delicious noodles dish accessible anywhere is “chaomifen” 炒米粉 which consists in rice noodles costing a mere 6 RMB.

“Chao mifen” noodles are cooked with tiny bits of pork meat, onion, veggies, soy sauce, and carrots.



Going vegan in China isn’t a super easy task.
The nice thing is every neighborhood has a street market where you can find ripe fruit, veggies, and endless amounts of fresh inexpensive homemade tofu (doufu 豆腐) .
You’ll find out that Chinese have different kinds of green leaves veggies and chards, like the small leaf “pak choi”, in Chinese “xiao baicai” 小白菜.

Veggies at the street market

In Southern China, it’s easy to find mango and coconut vendors on the street. They cut the fruit in pieces for you or make juice and bottle it. You can easily find cane juice or pineapple juice if in season.

Fruit in China is a bit pricer than other foods, however, you can buy fruit and vegetables Taobao 淘宝 and have them delivered directly to your home.

Street vendor of pineapples & pineapple juice

Being vegan can be quite challenging  when eating out because so many sauces and dressing contain fish. Even the simplest vegetable dishes are cooked in oils to which meat was previously added to enhance the taste.
If you live in an area with a Buddhist temple you might easily find vegan restaurants, usually pricier than average restaurants.




vegan dumplings at Pan&Dumplings in Xiamen

Fresh salads can be found in Western-style coffee bars, while standard restaurants prefer to cook vegetables, even lettuce.

A bit of bad news for vegetarians.

Cheese isn’t popular in China.
I’ll never forget my Chinese friends reaction when I brought back Parmesan cheese from Italy. They weren’t even able to swallow it!
However, big supermarkets like Metro and shops for foreign customers sell cheddar, spreadable cheeses and American cheese.

A wonderful food suitable for vegan and vegetarian is the “liang pi” 凉皮: cold rice noodles covereded with tiny slices of: cucumber, peanuts, vinegar, tofu, and chili.

“liangpi” is a dish from Shanxi province but available everywhere in China


 For those whom prefer to personally select ingredients a “malatang” 麻辣烫 stall is the greatest option. The chef boils them then add seasoning (standard malatang powder contains meat and MSG).

The result looks like this:





Selling food on the streets in China is common practice.

I met foreigners who said they wouldn’t risk their health and eat such dirty unsafe food. However, I dare you to resist the joy of  sitting on a tiny stool in the middle of a walking street, waiting for the bbq guy to deliver varieties of skewers.
Street food is a crucial part of Chinese social life.

The “yexiao” 夜宵 (night snack) is what I miss the most about living in China. I used to love to run out at 11 pm or later for street noodles or bbq skewers.

When I couldn’t fall asleep, it was nice to be able to go outside even just for a walk and see the sreet still alive and vibrant. What a nice feeling!

I must admit that once, the day after eating street bbq 烧烤 “shaokao”, I wasn’t feeling well. BBQers rub MSG powder, spices and oil of unknown origin onto the skewers.
If you see a Chinese doctor for the flue or inflammation, he/she will suggest you try first the following natural cure: drinking a lot of warm water and avoiding bbq for two weeks.

Handmade snacks, sort of “Chinese burgers,” from Henan province traditional street food

Sometimes even the body needs to adjust to new environments and even new bacteria, this is normal. Do not let that deter you from enjoying all authentic Chinese cuisine has to offer.

What’s the best dish you tried in China?

I’d like to hear from you, share your experience in the comments below




















  • Robert Erman

    September 9, 2017

    Nice experience..i like chinnese food

    • lizanna3891

      September 9, 2017

      thanx 🙂


Leave a Reply