What can I eat in China?
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
One of the first concerns I hear when talking to people about travelling to China is the food! Many people are scared of the weird foods China has to offer and I don't blame them. When I first arrived in Shanghai back in 2018 after my first nights sleep with an empty stomach. I woke up hungry and nervous about what my next breakfast could be.
The first few days in China were tough and mostly because I made it so in my mind. I worried about everything and especially what I could eat. I would always find a reason not to eat somewhere or try something but soon I realised that I just had to get stuck in. I now know that with a few simple rules and a little help you can be eating in China in no time!
So let's get back to breakfast, I hadn't eaten in a long time and had only had some terrible breakfast on the plane the day before. Some scrambled egg, with beans and a sausage that tasted like cardboard melting in my mouth. I was staying at the Captain Hostel my favourite place to stay to this day in Shanghai but it had no restaurant of it's own. I gathered up some courage and attempted some pigeon Chinese to the lady on the front desk. I said "wǒ è le" (sounds like wer-er-la) which means 'I'm hungry.' The woman saw straight through my awful Chinese and began speaking in perfect English.
She directed me to her favourite local place and promised me that it was all safe. I headed out with a new enthusiasm straight to a little food place nearby, I took one look at the menu, panicked saying in my head 'Yeah... maybe not' and headed for McDonalds for some breakfast. As I sat there looking out the window with a black coffee I scolded my self. I didn't come all the way to the other side of the world to sit and eat here! I scrolled on my phone, what to do, what to do? I looked around for places to eat before stumbling upon my savoir (although I didn't know it yet.) I had found UnTour Food Tours on safari. They had a selection of different tours available that promised to help discover local food and know what to eat. This sounded perfect, I booked it for that night and felt please with myself. Out I headed to explore Shanghai. I'm such an authentic traveler I said to myself...
The night came quickly and I decided to have a nap before I headed out to curb my jetlag. If you have ever had a nap before which I presume you have, you may know what happened next. I woke up feeling worse than ever and with one unconscious arm movement turned my alarm off and went back to sleep. As my heavy eyes opened unwillingly I could hear my phone vibrating along the wooden shelf beside my bed. Who on earth would be calling me? With a sigh I answered. 'Hello? Josh are you coming? We are sitting down waiting to eat would you like us to save you some food?' I blurted out something like 'yes! I'm almost there' knowing only too well that I was sitting in my boxers like a zombie with no humans left to eat. I flew out of bed and grabbed whatever I could, threw on some clothes and ran out the door. The people in my room must of thought I had lost the plot. I aggressively pushed the lift button before giving up and running down the stairs and out into Shanghai's nightlife. It was raining, and not just that drizzle you sometimes get. This was the real deal, it felt like the clouds all intended on being empty by the end of the night. In my t-shirt and jeans I ran along the streets using maps to find my way to the restaurant. I burst in apologising and sat down next to my fellow tourists.
I had chosen a night tour and hadn't missed anything! We all sat around the large round table at the first restaurant on the list. A thin circle of glass was on the table allowing you to spin in round and pass on your unwanted scorpion desert to someone else or so I imagined. I introduced myself nervously to the other people around the table, a wide spread group from all different parts of the world. A slightly awkward silence fell over us and just before I tried to speak again I head the two silver doors behind us swing open. The food was coming!
I'm not going to go into detail of the whole night but all you need to know is that all of us started off worried, we only wanted to try a few things but by the end of the night we ate EVERYTHING. This was the weirdest night of feasting of my life, by the end I had eaten bamboo, jellyfish, tried rice wine for the first time, eaten a large helping of the classic Chinese dishes and even had Szechuan rabbit head! To this day I will never forget those rabbit heads...
But let's talk about the most important things I learned and some new favourite foods that I learned to love:
- Favourite foods -
I soon found my favourite foods. A lot of which I tried on my food tour, although being a year since this happened it will be hard to confirm this. Only my favourite and least favourite dishes I remember from the tour.
Dumplings - Dumplings in Shanghai and the whole of China are incredible and can become a go to staple. They are made differently wherever you go in China and have every possible filling you could imagine. They are also cheap and easy to find anywhere.
Noodles - Noodles will become the large majority of what you eat and are the cheapest to live off. While in Xi an later in my trip my friend took me to a local place that would serve me a huge portion of beef noodles every day for 60 pence. You can't go wrong with noodles! Me being quite chubby at the time would often order a side portion of 10 dumplings to go with it.
Street Food - Although street food takes more care when selecting who to buy from (which I will discuss further down in the blog.) China has a fantastic variety of things to try, my all time favourite is Chinese pork burgers known as 'rou jia mo' which consist of slow cooked pork chopped up and put inside a pastry like bun. I ate these almost everyday while on the move and you can find them all over in China. Even in places like Xi an with a large Muslim community they have them, they just replace the pork with beef. If you feeling peckish this will bring you joy.
There's also heaps of interesting other street foods like different types of ice cream, and unique things to certain areas like extra long fries the length of a ruler and the Instagram snap famous rainbow toast!
Hot Pot - Hot pot is something you will experience a lot in China especially if your lucky enough to make some friends! I do apologise if you have no social skills but the Chinese are the friendliest people to interact with so you just need to try! Once you have got yourself your first authentic Chinese friends they will probably take you for hot pot. This is one scary experience if you have never eaten in China before. You all sit on a table with a sunken in square metal tray in the centre of the table. It is often divided into two sections. Within it a boiling hot liquid bubbles away like a witches cauldron. On one side is spicy and one is less spicy. A cart will come along with a variety of foods, none of which you will know (most likely) and ultimately it reminds me of the cart from Harry Potter with lots of strange and wonderful delights on it.
If your with your new friends they will probably choose some things for you. When your ready you get your chopsticks and throw some of the food into either the spicy or not so spicy sections and allow it to cook. A lot of the foods are thinly sliced meats or vegetables so they cook quickly. After a short amount of time you can grab them (if you know how to use chopsticks) and dig in! The food in these places is really great but can be scary for the first time because you have no idea what anything is. My first night at hot pot got me trying all sorts of things like weird looking mushrooms and congealed ducks blood.
The best thing to do is just dig in and try everything! You will soon fall in love with hot pot.
Breakfast - Breakfast can be difficult if your used to your daily porridge or full English! You do have a few options however. Most of the time the Chinese eat foods that they eat the rest of the day too. Such as dumplings, noodles, rice etc. My favourite breakfast dish by far is Zongzi which consists of meat and rice cooked inside a bamboo leaf. These are a very traditional Chinese breakfast dish, folded into triangles. Just delicious.
One food I could never get my head round is tea eggs. A big pot of water has a number of tea bags floating around it like dead fish. In they drop the eggs to cook, tea flavoured. Now this dish does confuse me, but must be good as I've seen it a lot!
If all these foods horrify you and you want something a little more breakfasty. Then I suggest going to a local shop to buy something. I often would buy cakes or pastries such as a mango flavoured cake bun for breakfast.
The weirder foods - Okay so there's no denying it. China has some weird foods. But the truth is they only seem weird because their not part of our culture, I'm sure some of our foods would terrify the Chinese. Right now I'm picturing a little Chinese man screaming and running away from my beans on toast. So there's some foods that you think are gross but your here to learn about their culture so time to dig in!
There's going to be a lot of foods you will try and find it hard not to gag but often there will be just as many dishes you will try that you will actually find very tasty. I promise you that you don't know your own taste buds as well as you think. Common street foods may include chicken feet, insects on a stick or well pretty much anything. As long as your being safe and following some simple rules there's no reason why you can't expand your taste.
- What I've learned through the tour & my own experiences -
- as well as my top tips for eating in China -
I've learned a few things along the way when it comes to eating in China so I'm going to give you some tips to help you find some great food and what to be careful of. Please do your own research when visiting somewhere knew but these tips have worked well for me:
1. Locals know best - The locals are your guide to the culinary world. The local Chinese people know what's good and the majority of the time what's safe. There's two ways to go about this. If you have made some new friends in China ask them to recommend somewhere or take you out for your first few meals so you can find some go to places. If you don't know somewhere don't be afraid to ask the locals. Ask at the reception of where your staying, have some conversation with some people about it (not shop owners) and most of the time you can find someone that speaks enough English to figure out what you want.
2. Busy is better - You may end up being on the go and asking the locals just isn't an option. However you can still get their advice without asking! The locals know where is good to eat so they will all go there when it's time to eat. Walk up and down a food street and see who has lots of customers and who doesn't. If lots of locals are eating there it's probably safe. This is the same for street stalls, stick to the places with long lines just to be safe,
3. Think about the cooking process - When ordering from somewhere use your common sense to think through the food. Do your best to see the kitchen whether it be through a window in a restaurant or on the street. Look to see how clean it is, look to see if the oil they cook the food in has been changed recently etc. Also think about how the food is likely to be cooked. Cooking methods such as oil or places that ensure the food is cooked fresh to the right temperature rather than having the food sat out somewhere for you to choose will always be safer. Also remember the water is not good in China so watch what may be sitting in water if it's not brought to boil!
4. I'm so thirsty - You may find yourself walking around looking at sights all day in the sun and go into the nearest place to get a nice glass of cool water. Now luckily there's not many places that will offer you this but take it seriously. Never drink the water, not from your taps or out somewhere, never drink it. Please. The water is almost never safe and usually heavily polluted so most locals will drink tea. This is always your best bet, drink lots of cups of tea or hot water and you will start to feel hydrated again. If you really need some cold water or your heading out somewhere then stick to bottled water. Make sure it has an unbroken seal as some people fill them up from the tap to sell to tourists.
5. Not that pesky water again! - Remember me going on and on about the water? Well it's not just drinking you have to worry about. Every process using the water will put you at risk. When you go past some local stalls selling fruit and vegetables they are usually washed in the water so can make you very sick. Seafood is also a major problem as it is usually taken from polluted water sources.
6. A nice juicy apple - Don't be too tempted for fresh fruit and vegetables when you go past local street sellers. If they look really ripe and juicy they are probably too good to be true. Many street sellers add chemicals to make them look fresher than they are and many fruit and veg contain nasty pesticides. Again ask some locals for advice.
7. Wow that's so cheap! - It's important not to get carried away when buying food. To a westerner you can eat in China for very little money but be careful it's not too cheap. If something is too cheap to be true then you have to think where they make their money. A meat dish that only cost pennies will use terrible quality produce, which can be dangerous. You never know where it could of come from.
8. Lizards, snakes and turtles - Okay so we spoke a little it about weird foods in China. I think it's great to try new foods but don't go too mental. Don't get into the realm of things you would find at your local zoo. China has a habit of eating lots of animals from all over the planet including many endangered species. Don't try something like some snake from a street seller as they can harbour extremely dangerous zoological diseases. Also a lot of the animals brought in can be eaten to near extinction. If your worried about dog then don't be. People always seem to think this about China but the majority of the Chinese are against it. The truth is that in one province they still eat dog to this day but you won't experience it almost anywhere in China.
- Feeling unwell, food experiences & being vegan or vegetarian in China -
Whatever happens when your traveling, eventually you get ill. It happens to all of us at some point in our trip but don't worry. You learn from your mistakes and usually you will be more careful next time. To this day I have never been sick in China. I've travelled all around the country and following this rule haven't got sick once. This may seem lucky but I hope that it's due to these simple rules I always follow when I head out for some delicious food. I hope you found this blog helpful and don't be afraid because the food in China is wonderful! The flavours you find in Asia are really like no where else in the planet. Remember that if your vegetarian or vegan life can become a little harder but it's just as hard when figuring it our in Engladn1! The key is to remain patient and learn what you can and can't eat. In Asia you get a lot of different religions that don't eat meat so you can often find some great alternatives. If I was you I would learn the Chinese word for what diet your sticking to and you can tell them at the restaurants. BE more careful with street sellers as they will either not know what your talking about or will serve you meat anyway.
If your traveling in China feel free to drop me a message on my Instagram I would love to hear some travel stories! Stay safe and keep these rules in mind but never stop trying new things. I promise you that you won't regret it!
Until next time,