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Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, and its dishes frequently make the list of the world’s most famous. From spicy to sour and sweet to zesty, food in China is diverse and exotic, using a variety of ingredients, spices and sauces. Once you move to China, your taste buds will have a whole another world to discover but before indulging in a feast, learn a few interesting facts about Chinese food, restaurants and eating habits.

Food and eating are considered very important rituals in China. You may often be asked “chi fan le ma” (“have you eaten”) as a common greeting and food is a favourite topic for conversations and a great way to break the ice.

Chinese cuisines

Due to its vast territory, China has several distinct regional cuisines. The eight main cuisines of China are: Cantonese, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu (famous for their lightness and an abundance of fresh seafood), Sichuan, Hunan (praised for hot spices), Anhui and Shandong.

Cantonese is the most widespread of Chinese cuisines internationally. Popular in southern China and Hong Kong, Cantonese food is rich in seafood and light in flavour. It is also famous for a variety of ingredients and the popular Chinese saying “Cantonese people eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies except aeroplanes.”

Sichuan dishes are notorious for their numbingly spicy flavour due to an abundant use of Sichuan peppercorn, and Hunan cuisine is generously adorned with chillies.

Jiangsu province and its capital Shanghai offer a lot of desserts and sweet flavours, as well as the famous sweet and sour spare ribs, while Zhejiang is known for a variety of cooking methods and dishes from freshwater fish.

Food in Fujian is surprisingly mild compared to other Chinese cuisines. It’s known for its unique “wild” flavours, using ingredients from the sea and mountains in the region. Anhui province offers a hearty farmer’s type of cuisine, with a lot of ingredients coming from the lush neighbouring forests. Shandong (or northern cuisine) uses a lot of wheat (especially noodles) and seafood in their cuisine and braising and pickling are popular cooking methods.

 Good to know:

Spicy food is very popular in China so be careful when ordering food, especially if you don’t handle heat well. You will usually be asked whether you want your food served spicy or not. Say “bu la” if you don’t want it spicy.

Restaurants and eating habits

Wherever you are in China, you are sure to find restaurants serving any of the eight cuisines as well as a variety of international restaurants, fast food chains and coffee shops. Most menus are in Chinese (although you are sure to find English translations in bigger cities and tourist areas) but they come with pictures which makes ordering food much easier.

Traditional restaurants have round revolving tables, you will need to spin the table to get closer to the dish you want to try. It is customary in China to order many different dishes, which all diners share. At the beginning of the meal, you will be served a sealed set of eating utensils: usually, a small bowl, a small plate, a tea cup, chopsticks and a soup spoon. A teapot of hot water and a large bowl will also be placed on the table (these are for rinsing your utensils before eating). Dishes will then appear on the table one by one and each diner typically gets a small bowl of rice to pair them with. A serving of fruit or sweet pancakes is a traditional ending to a meal — desserts like cake or ice cream are not popular in the country.

Eating habits in China are different from what’s common in the west. It is acceptable to spit out small bones and place them next to your plate, speak while eating and eat from one dish. Some of the local dishes may also seem a bit unusual to a western diner. For example, chicken feet are a popular snack, especially in the southern China.

If you need a break from Chinese food, big cities offer a variety of international dining options, while even smaller cities would have a McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks.

 Good to know:

If you don’t yet feel comfortable eating with chopsticks, you can ask your waiter for a fork and spoon; most restaurants would have these in store.

Ordering online

If you plan to settle in China for a long time, you will be happy to discover how easy it is to order food to be delivered. In fact, almost any restaurant, from big to small, delivers. What’s more, you can even order drinks like tea and coffee delivered to your home or office, including international chains. You can order from the restaurants directly, but most residents prefer to use special food delivery applications. The most popular applications are Ele Me (“are you hungry?”) and Meituan Waimai. Simply download the app onto your phone and allow it to access your location. You will then see all the available restaurants in the area, menus, pricing and estimated delivery time.

Food safety

The country has been rocked by several food scandals in the last few years, raising concerns over general food safety. Some of the recently uncovered incidents include the use of “gutter oil” (re-used cooking oil), high concentrations of heavy metals in rice, bleach-soaked meat and even the use of opium in sauces. Using MSG (monosodium glutamate) to enhance the taste of food is also common practice in restaurants and street food stalls.

Avoid buying food from unknown sources such as small shops and street markets. Large supermarket chains generally have stricter quality control. Dine at restaurants that are popular with the locals and, when buying food on the street, pay attention to the way it’s cooked.

 Useful links:

Best restaurants in Beijing

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