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:
- The stuff might not be available in every part of the country.
- We don’t want Western food, we’re in China.
- There is an infinite way to prepare any given vegetable or meat.
- 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:
- fàn 饭 = rice
- miàn(tiáo) 面(条) = noodles
- tāng 汤 = soup
- cài 菜 = 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 饭 = 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 汤 = soup
Most foreigners don’t order soup when out on their own.
cài 菜 = the “meat and potatoes” dishes
ròu 肉 = 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 (炒)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 饼 =round, flat cake / cookie / generic pastry (there are so many kinds all over China, I just use this generic term)
- 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:
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
- 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)
- You say it differently in your part of China (I know some of these dishes are called different names in various parts)