What Foreigners Like to Eat in China

All the phrase books I looked at had these incredibly long and comprehensive lists of things to order in restaurants from Peking Duck (běijīng kǎoyā 北京烤鸭) to sandwiches (sānmíngzhì 三明治) to bamboo shoots (zhúsǔn 竹笋). For foreigners in China the problems with the phrase-book lists are:

  1. The stuff might not be available in every part of the country.
  2. We don’t want Western food, we’re in China.
  3. There is an infinite way to prepare any given vegetable or meat.
  4. A lot of that stuff is only available in ritzy restaurants, and we’re often more than happy to eat in little hole-in-the-wall places

That means it’s possible to have the phrase book and actually not be able to order anything. This article is supposed to solve that problem.

Furthermore, most foreigners I know in China have found those few things they like to eat and just keep ordering them over and over. Nothing wrong with that. Who wants to memorize a huge list of dishes when we can learn just a few and be happy every time?

So, by observing what I and other foreigners like to order, I’ve put together a little list of sure-fire winners that should be not only available most places in China but also nutritious (yǒu yíngyǎng 有营养) and tasty (hǎochī 好吃).

The Chinese generally seem to divide foods into four main categories:

  1. fàn = rice
  2. miàn(tiáo) () = noodles
  3. tāng = soup
  4. cài = everything else (vegetables, meats, dishes that don’t involve rice or noodles and are not liquid-based)

We’ll take the categories one by one. Why go category by category? If you ever go out to eat with a Chinese person, they will ask, “What do you want to eat? Rice? Noodles…?” much like in the West we say, “Mexican? Thai? Chinese…?” so you have to know the different classes of food.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather just the “all stars” for foreigners’ palettes.

fàn = rice-based dishes

  • mǐfàn 米饭 = good ol’ white rice (I always get weird looks when this is the first thing I order).
  • jīdàn chǎofàn 鸡蛋炒饭 = fried rice with scrambled eggs

miàntiáo 面条 = noodles

  • niúròu lāmiàn 牛肉拉面 = beef pulled noodles*
  • niúròu chǎomiàn 牛肉炒面 = beef stir-fried noodles (“chow mein”)

*NOTE: usually, this kind of noodles is sold in Muslim-owned eateries, so pork is out of the question.

tāng = soup

Most foreigners don’t order soup when out on their own.

cài = the “meat and potatoes” dishes

ròu = meat

  • xīhóngshì chǎodàn 西红柿炒蛋 = scrambled egg with fresh tomatoes (southern China)
  • fānqié chǎodàn 番茄炒蛋 = scrambled egg with fresh tomatoes (northern China)
  • gōngbào jīdīng 宫爆鸡丁 = Kung Pao chicken
  • dàsuàn/suànmiáo chǎo ròupiàn 大蒜/蒜苗 炒肉片 = garlic seasoned greens and pork slices
  • tángcù lǐ jǐ 糖醋里脊 = Sweet and sour pork
  • tiěbǎn niúròu 铁板牛肉 = sizzle-plate beef

shūcài 蔬菜 = veggies

  • qīngcài 青菜 = a green vegetable probably from the cabbage family
  • sān xiān dòufu 三鲜豆腐 = tofu with veggies
  • tiěbǎn qiézi 铁板茄子 = sizzle-plate eggplant
  • hóngshāo qiézi 红烧茄子 = eggplant in gravy
  • (chǎo) bōcài ()菠菜 = (stir-fried) spinach
  • gān biān tǔdòu sī 干煸土豆丝 = Chinese French fries

xiǎocài 小菜 = snacks

(although they can be, these are usually not ordered in restaurants with the above dishes)

  • jiǎozi 饺子 = dumplings
  • bāozi 包子 = steamed white stuffed bun
  • bǐng =round, flat cake / cookie / generic pastry (there are so many kinds all over China, I just use this generic term)

Extras

  • làjiāo 辣椒 = hot peppers (most Westerners seem to go without)*

*NOTE: The way to make sure your food doesn’t have spicy peppers added is to order the dish and then immediately say:

  • bú yào (fàng) làjiāo 不要()辣椒 = I don’t want (you to put in) peppers

Conspicuous in their absence from the list

  • All kinds of fish (too much work picking out the bones–if I’m burning more calories eating it than I’m taking in, it’s just not worth it)
  • Other dishes with a lot of bones (such as what Kelly Fitzpatrick calls “chainsaw chicken”–you know, where it looks like they just took a chicken and cut up the whole thing with a chainsaw and threw it in the pot)
  • Soups (I don’t know why, I guess we foreigners are looking for something more filling)

Call for help

I’d love some feedback on this list. Please leave a comment if

  1. You feel I’ve left off an essential dish that most foreigners like to order (like those super popular potato dishes or sweet and sour pork. I know they’re out there, I just didn’t know what they’re called)
  2. You say it differently in your part of China (I know some of these dishes are called different names in various parts)

Special thanks to John Pasden at Sinosplice for the his parallel post and for all the comments from hungry laowai from which I added a few additional items to this article.

Comments

  1. I don’t believe Albert might have put some emphasis on combinations of Chinese food; for instance, mifan, hong shao qiezi, and san xian doufu, with bocai (spinich) makes a meal fit for kings as well as laowai. That meal can be obtained for less than twenty rmb at a ling-star restaurant. However, the bottom line on this piece is that it is hen bang (great), as all of Albert’s writings are.

  2. One of the favorite foods I love to order from street vendors is something called “jian bing”. At least that is what it is called in the village where we were living about an hour south of Beijing. In October I bought them for 1 yuan. Very good and filling.

  3. Yuxiang qiezi (鱼香茄子)”fish-flavored” eggplant
    also Yuxiang Rousi (鱼香肉四)”fish-flavored” pork strips
    (neither actually tastes like fish)

    Tangsu Liji (or Pigu) (糖酥里脊/糖酥屁股)
    Sweet and Sour Pork (Pigu has bones in it)

    Mapo doufu (麻婆豆腐)

    西红柿炒鸡蛋 is also called 番茄炒鸡蛋 (fanqie chao jidan)

    Huoguo (火锅) Hot Pot is also always good.

    There are some (sorry that there are no tone marks). If it think of more, I’ll add as I remember them.

  4. Doufu gan – smoked toufu – almost has a ham taste to it. Really delicious and a must among at expat dinners in Shenzhen.

  5. Another great post.

    I find the dishes in my short repertoire most popular with foreigners, particularly newbies, to be:
    青椒牛柳 / qīng jiāo niú liǔ / beef and green peppers
    酸辣土豆丝 / suān là tǔ dòu sī / spicy potato slices

    I live in Hangzhou but I’ve found potato slices elsewhere, not sure about the beef.

  6. I’m real overwhelmed to find out those bunch of caiming. You know, a lot of people who have passed TOFEL cannot translate Chinese caiming into English.
    Thanks so much!!!!

  7. You should also consider that soups are usually made with tapwater. A good reason to stay away from them, although hotpot won’t kill you once in a while.

  8. What about “主食” (literally “main food”, a blanket term for dishes made soley or primarily with grains). Rice and noodles both fall under this category, and some restaurants don’t offer anything else, but often there are other things worth trying such as 金银馒头 (mini mantou, some white and some deep-fried to a golden colour, with a sweet, creamy dipping sauce), 南瓜并 (pumpkin cakes), or 黄金大饼 (a kind of steamed bread). These three are all favourites of mine.

  9. I’m a big fan of chā shāo bāo (叉燒包) and yóu tiáo (油条). You can get yóu tiáo from street vendors. It’s great with Dòu jiāng (豆漿) in the morning for breakfast.

    I also like fried rice noodles (chǎo mí fěn or 炒米粉), it’s a great balanced dish. I’m not sure how “available” it is.

    A good desserty thing is Dòuhuā (豆花), which can be obtained from vendors. One of my Chinese friends calls it “ghost flesh”.

  10. Love the “chainsaw chicken”. We always said it looked like the chicken had been sent through a wood chipper. And just what exactly are you supposed to do with all that fat and bones once you’ve managed to get it to your mouth with chopsticks??!?!?!

  11. Great list!

    At the 兰州拉面 Lánzhōu lāmiàn restaurants, my favorites are:

    1) 凉面 liángmiàn (cold noodles) I usually like to have tomatoes and beef on top.

    2) 新疆面 Xīnjiāng miàn (Xinjiang noodles) Pretty basic noodles, not served in a soup and different thickness than the cold noodles.

    But for the record, my favorite dishes in China are the 盖浇饭 gàijiāofàn variety (dishes served with rice).

  12. Yup, most of the obvious ones have been named already. Surprised suan la tang didn’t pop up. I was in a Chinese restaurant by myself one night eating ma pu doufu when I overhead two guys talking about me:

    1st guy: “Oh that lao wai has good taste; Ma pu doufu.”
    2nd guy (unimpressed): “Yeah, foreigners always eat that, and yu xiang rou si”

    Screw you! I thought. I’m not that predictable am I?

    Beyond what’s already been listed, this is what I like to eat. Keep in mind that dishes of the same name vary a lot from place to place, chef to chef. What may be spectacular in one shop may be markedly unspectacular in another. But take my word for it, this stuff is GOOD:

    牛肉芹菜 – niu rou qin cai – Beef and celery. Simple. Common. Cheap. Totally delicious. I like it with a hint of ginger.

    柠檬鸡 – ning meng ji – Lemon chicken. Classic lao wai Chinese food.

    春卷 – chun juan – ah yes, what is this weird lao wai obsession with spring rolls? The Chinese I’ve met seldom eat it. I still gobble them up at every opportunity.

    排条 – pai tiao – strips of pork or chicken crumbed and deep-fried. Not traditional Chinese food but findable and delicious. I buy it from my local late night stall for 8 yuan.

    土豆饼 – tudou bing – potato (pie?) – Coarsely shredded potato fried up crispy like and shaped like a pancake. A favorite when I lived in Sichuan. Common in the west and just like french fries except stuck together.

    脆皮豆腐 – cui pi dou fu – crispy skin toufu – just like it sounds, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, served in a sweet and sour sauce. Familiar and exotic.

    炒粉丝 – chao fen si – Fried vercemilli noodles. Maybe it’s Korean, but can be found in quite a few Chinese places. I can get it from my local late night stall for 3 yuan.

    醉鸡 – zui ji (drunken chicken) – This is a little special I think. Mostly served in expensive places. Swimming in rice wine (and other stuff I’m sure). Could be classified as chainsaw chicken but after getting my chopsticks around a nice bit of meat and dropping it into my mouth I instantly became a believer.

    干煸四季豆 – gan bian si ji dou – same as the one above but with green beans.

    糟溜黄鱼 – zao liu huang yu – Maybe not so common, but a good boneless fish dish.

    狮子头 – shizi tou (lion’s head) – pork meatballs – just proof that being able to read Chinese characters doesn’t entitle you to know what you’re ordering. wtf?

    肉夹馍 – rou jia mo – a Xian snack that’s something of a chinese hamburger. The best ones come from street stalls, with cumin and coriander. Yum!

    宝贝汤 – bao bei tang – just try your luck if you’re in Guangdong and see what happens.

    茄子塞肉 – qiezi sai rou – meat stuffed eggplant – Another favorite when I was in Sichuan. Oily, unhealthy, divine!

    黄瓜 – huang gua – cucumber – apparently just being able to name a vegetable can get you a dish in a Chinese restaurant. Sliced raw cucumber soaking in…what? Vinegar? Soy sauce? With crushed garlic. Zesty and nice on the side.

    口水鸡 – kou shui ji – that’s right, saliva chicken. Another chainsaw chicken dish. No, the chef didn’t spit in it. The name means it’s supposed to make your mouth water. And how!

    烧烤 – shao kao – Barbeque. Surprised this didn’t pop up already. How can you be a foreigner in China and not have the shaokao experience? Make sure to wash it down with plenty of booze to kill the germs.

    Anyone else come to China looking for chop suey? I wasted a lot of breath asking around. “Chop suey? Chop suey? Anyone? Ok then… chow mein? How about hoi sin sauce? No? Ok ok. I’m not crazy. Stop mumbling about me in your local dialect.”

    I eventually figured out that “chow mein” is “chao mian” (fried noodles ((duh!))). Of which there are infinite styles. None remotely resembling what I used to eat back home. “Hoi sin sauce” is “Hai xian jiang” and pretty easy to find.

    After some internet scouring (god bless the internet!) I found something:

    “Chop suey is an American-Chinese dish which literally means mixed pieces.”

    Notice: Americanized Chinese food.

    “Simplified Chinese: 杂碎
    “Hanyu Pinyin: zá suì”

    I showed this to my friend and she said that here they use weird, ugly meat (pig ears, chicken hearts, etc) to make it. Well, one word: disappointing. I guess I have to fly back home just to get some of the Chinese food I miss.

  13. I really like 炒面片 (chao mian pian) from xinjiang restaurants. I haven’t found many good cheap xinjiang restaurants since my move to shanghai (in beijing they are everywhere), so I have to settle for the chao mian pian at 兰州拉面 (lan zhou la mian) restaurants about everywhere in shanghai. It is basically fried pasta with tomato, mutton (although in shanghai they seem to use beef in shanghai), celery, and peppers, and onions. I have some pictures of that dish in my flickr pictures on a trip to xinjiang in 2005.

    I am also a really big fan of 重庆鸡公褒 (chong qing ji gong bao). The 18/28/38 rmb sweet and spicy hot pot (they don’t have this in beijing)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/18823924@N00/

  14. Hm,
    of all the things you can eat in China, don’t you fancy what Chinese eat?
    I mean of course real deal Chinese to the like of:
    * Sea tortoise soup.
    * bat
    * dog
    * jelly fish.
    * snake soup

    Anyone care to help with a translation please?

    Put it another way, if you are over in Japan, would you be happy to eat sashimi off ordinary slab?
    I wouldn’t! I would demand for real deal, that is a cut off a live fish, ike zukuri.

  15. Heru have you ever been to China?

    Those listed above are just normal Chinese people eat everyday.

    Maybe if you go to Korea you will find they eat dog on a daily basis.

  16. Its all about Todau Gali! Potatoe curry is amazing! And i love Rou Bing, and Umi Qua, POP CORN!

    As to the Soups, practically all of the chinese soups i have had have been either extremeley watery, far too salty or containing fish heads.

    But each to their own

  17. Last year, when I lived in Jintan, near Changzhou and Nanjing in Jiangsu province, some of my favorite were:

    Hairy lake crabs (don’t know what they’re officially called, but they had lots of hair on their pinchers and went down really well with Tianmuhu pijiu).

    Daniang (sp?) dumplings (a HUGE chain of dumpling restaurants all over Jiangsu and Shanghai with an old granny-face mascot). Dumplings of all caliburs, reasonably priced. So sad that this chain doesn’t seem to be in Guangdong province.

    Date-flavored yogurt (Probably available outside of China, haven’t seen it in the states though). The best yogurt I ever had, and you can get it in just about every large Chinese supermarket.

  18. Oh, forgot to mention Egg Tarts. Originally from Macau I believe, but I could often find them throughout Jiangsu province (especially in Zhenjiang, a city on the Yangtze). Sweet little egg-flavored pies, the size of an average hand palm, they were always a welcome treat.

    Speaking of Zhenjiang, that city’s famous for its trademark vinegar “Zhenjiang vinegar”. The vinegary smell is heavy throughout, and can be found in many, many supermarkets and Chinese markets overseas (I have friends that have found it in St. Louis). Goes really well with Daniang Dumplings!

  19. ManTou with condensed milk -yummy The Chinese equivalent to a doughnut.
    I used to order sizzle plate eggplant in my feats as it always tasted nice no matter where I got it.
    I also liked duck tongues but I can understand people not wanting to try them. Goose is also lovely. I am in my 50’s and we used to eat it when I was a child (in Australia) and until I went to China I hadn’t had it for a long time.
    You guys are making me hungry -I must book a restaurant for a weekend feast.
    I must say I liked eating snake too but I had eaten it here in Australia so it wasn’t anything new but I diliked the smell of pots of dog meat cooking by the roadside in Pingsha Zhuhai where I lived.

  20. I happened to come across this article randomly browsing the internet for chinese food suggestions and find it very useful for foreigner friends’ information and I am a Chinese. Having lived in the US for a while and tried the chinese food here, I’d just say if anyone likes sweet and sour flavour dishes as the orange chk or sesame chk from westernized chinese restaurants, he/she can order the similar dish 古老肉/gulao rou in China…At least for me I find them taste pretty similar.

  21. I just say one thing, because all my favorite food was mentioned before.

    皮蛋 hundred-year egg … I love it. Eat it everywhere I go. I witnessed that to my European taste the Xinjiang cuisine is way closer than the typical Chinese foods. I like beef and lamb more than pork and prefer roasted meat than boiled one.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Century_egg

  22. 回锅肉 (huiguorou) twice cooked pork
    水煮鱼 (shuizhuyu) famous Sichuan fish I think?
    孜然羊肉 (ziran yangrou) by far my favorite, cumin lamb stir fry
    红烧日本豆腐 (hongshao riben doufu) braised Japanese doufu
    大盘鸡 (da panr ji) Xingjiang dish with noodles, tomato based sauce, chicken, order it with naan if it doesn’t come with it (this feeds multiple people)
    炒面片 (chao mian pian) Xingjiang dish that has small pieces of fat noodles, tomato based sauce, usually strips of lamb, fantastic
    羊肉串 (yangrou cuanr) no list complete w/o the ubiquitous lamb kabobs
    拍黄瓜 (paihuanggua) spanked cucumber
    小白菜 (xiaobaicai) little bokchoi (pakchoi???)
    辣子鸡 or 四川辣子鸡 (laziji/Sichuan laziji) dry, stir fried spicy chicken
    嘿,想回中国了!

  23. Great article!! In order to answer your first question, Albert, I think you are talking about 锅包肉. It’s a dish from China’s North-east, I personally love it. There are many 东北菜饭馆 in Beijing at least, but it tastes way better in the real 东北! 好吃极了!
    If you would like to taste the real Chinese cuisine and also try other cultural acticitivities, you can join us in NextChina Study. We organize trips with foreigners who want to discover China’s rich culture! Cheers!

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