China is a culinary adventure just waiting to happen, and food is so important to the Chinese that "Ni chi bao le ma?" or "Have you eaten yet?" is a standard greeting. As you might expect from a country this large and varied, the food is astoundingly diverse both in the nature of ingredients and their preparation. As you travel through the country, you'll come across all kinds of weird and wonderful dishes, and, armed with a phrasebook and a curious palate, you'll never run short of new things to try. Not only are there hundreds of delicious dishes to sample, exploring the cuisine of the areas you travel through will also afford you some insight into the nature of the region.
Places to eat Chinese food range from opulent banquet halls to hole-in-the-wall canteens and street stalls, but generally the focus is on the food rather than the decor, and strip lighting and Formica tables are the norm. Don't let this deter you; if a place is busy, chances are it's worth pulling up a chair. So rid yourself of preconceptions of what Chinese food tastes like at home and tuck in.
Quick Sticks: A Chopstick Primer -- Kuaizi literally translates as quick (or nimble) sticks, and this way of eating has a history going back thousands of years. Chinese food is so popular throughout the world that chopsticks aren't the novelty they once were in the West. Accepted standard technique is that the bottom stick remains immobile while the upper one is held like a pen to position the food. Sticking your chopsticks vertically into your bowl or passing food with chopsticks should both be avoided, as these actions are associated with funerary rites. When you've finished eating, place both sticks horizontally across the rim of the bowl.
One of the best things about any visit to China is the food, at least for the independent traveler. Tour groups are often treated to a relentless series of cheap, bland dishes designed to cause no complaints (aside from about their blandness), and to keep the costs down for the Chinese operator, so do everything you can to escape and order some of the local specialties.
Any mainstream nonspecialty restaurant can and will make any common Chinese dish, whether it's on the menu or not. But ask for a spicy Sichuan dish in a Cantonese restaurant in Guangzhou, and you'll be sorely disappointed.
Outside Hong Kong, big hotels, and expat cafes, few restaurants have English menus. If, near your five-star hotel, you see restaurants with signs saying ENGLISH MENU, there's a fair chance you are going to be cheated with double prices, and you should eat elsewhere (unless it's an obvious backpacker hangout).
Menus generally open with liang cai (cold dishes). For hygiene reasons in mainland China, except in top-class Sino-foreign joint-venture restaurants, you are strongly advised to avoid these cold dishes, especially if you're on a short trip. The restaurant's specialties also come early in the menu, often easily spotted by their significantly higher prices, and if you dither, the waitress will recommend them, saying, "I hear this one's good." Waitresses always recommend ¥180 dishes, never ¥18 ones. Occasionally, some of these may be made from creatures you would regard as pets or zoo creatures (or best in the wild), may be made from parts you consider inedible, or may contain an odd material like swallow saliva (the main ingredient of bird's nest soup, a rather bland and uninteresting Cantonese delicacy).
Main dishes come next, various meats and fish before vegetables and doufu (tofu), and drinks at the end. Desserts are rare, although Guangdong (Cantonese) food has absorbed the tradition of eating something sweet at the end of the meal from across the border in Hong Kong, where all restaurants have something to offer, if only fruit.
Soup is usually eaten last, although dishes arrive in a rather haphazard order. Outside Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macau, rice usually arrives toward the end, and if you want it with your meal you must ask (point at the characters for rice, below, when the first dish arrives).
There is no tipping. Tea, chopsticks, and napkins should be free, although if a wrapped packet of tissues arrives, there may be a small fee. Service charges do not exist outside of major hotels, and there are no cover charges or taxes. If you are asked what tea you would like, then you are going to receive something above average and will be charged. Some varieties of tea may cost more than the meal itself.
Most Chinese food is not designed to be eaten solo, but if you do find yourself on your own, ask for small portions (xiao pan). These are usually about 70% the size of a full dish and about 70% the price, but they enable you to sample the menu properly without too much waste.
Traditionally, cuisine was defined by the produce available locally and thus the wheat-yielding north of the country made bread and wheat noodles, while rice was the staple in the warmer and wetter south. This division exists to this day, but with improved transport and refrigeration, culinary variety from around the country is available in all of the major cities. In terms of the best food, though, the lower the carbon miles of the ingredients, the better your meal is likely to be.
Southern (guangdongcai) -- Cantonese food is the most widely exported and thus familiar of all the Chinese cuisines. However, Cantonese food in Canton (Guangzhou) or Hong Kong is very different from what you'll find in your local town. Aside from the scary specialty dishes, Cantonese food typically features lots of super fresh seafood cooked in light, fragrant sauces and one-person shabao (rice, vegetable, and meat in sand or clay pots). Dim sum (dian xin in Mandarin) is a Cantonese breakfast or lunch favorite featuring a huge selection of miniature buns, spring rolls, and dumplings served from trolleys that scuttle around the restaurant. Not only is dim sum delicious, it also affords non-Chinese speakers an easy way to have a look at what's on offer before committing.
Northern (beifangcai) -- Northern cuisine is typified by the use of salt, garlic, ginger, and onion, and hearty staples of mantou (steamed buns), noodles (mian), pancakes (bing), and numerous varieties of jiaozi (dumplings usually filled with pork and leek or cabbage), for which Xi'an is particularly famous. The highest form of Northern cuisine is the opulent Mandarin style, the food of emperors, and Beijing Duck is deservedly its most famous dish.
Eastern (huaiyangcai) -- Eastern dishes are often considered the least appealing to foreigners as they feature lots of oil, but if you can get beyond this, you'll find a host of fresh flavors and dishes that feature bamboo, mushrooms, seafood, and river fish. Shanghainese (shanghaicai) cuisine is at the refined end of the eastern scale and offers lightly cooked minuscule treats akin to dim sum, including delicious xiaolongbao (steamed pork dumplings).
Sichuan (chuancai) -- Spicy Sichuan dishes typify western cuisine and pack a punch to rival any Indian or Mexican meal. In both Sichuan and Hunan cooking, the meat, fish, or tofu is merely a vehicle to carry the flavor of the sauce to your palate. At the heart of Sichuan cuisine is the concept of manifold flavoring, and the aim is to detect the subtler tastes that emerge from beneath the initial chili hit, though this can be near impossible when your mouth feels like it's on fire. Use of fragrant Sichuan flower peppers (huajiao) is also common, especially if you're dining in the province itself, and sends a disarming numbness racing around your mouth. Some of the best known and tastiest Sichuan dishes are gongbao jiding (chicken with chili and peanuts), yuxiang rousi (fish-flavored pork, though there's no fish in the dish), mapo doufu (spicy tofu), and the ubiquitous spicy hotpot (huoguo).
Western & Vegetarian Food
If you tire of Chinese food, Western-style burger joints and coffee shops serve sandwiches in most towns of any size, and in the culinary capitals of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong you can take your pick of almost any cuisine in the world. For vegetarians, while there are seemingly countless dishes on many menus, you may well find that your egg fried rice has the odd shrimp or pieces of pork in it, and many dishes are cooked in animal-based fats. The bigger cities have vegetarian restaurants, but in smaller places your best bet will be to head to the local Buddhist temple restaurant, where vegetarian food is guaranteed, or failing that, specify, "Wo shi fojiao tu" (I'm a Buddhist) when you order. A Buddhist meal will be prepared without using any meat or meat products, and also strong flavors (such as garlic) that allegedly "excite the senses." In some restaurants, this will just mean not using these ingredients in the specified dishes, while in others, traditional Buddhist dishes will be offered.
The flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) is commonly used in Chinese cooking, and some people can have an adverse reaction to this. It's best to say, "Wo bu yao weijing" (I don't want MSG) when you order.
There are almost as many sayings about what the southern Chinese will eat as there are Cantonese dishes, but my favorite is, "Cantonese people will eat anything on land that isn't a car, anything on water that isn't a boat, and anything in the air that isn't an airplane." A trip to any local southern market will confirm this, but fortunately, it's highly unlikely that specialty dishes such as bat, cat, dog, frog, rat, scorpion, or snake will appear before you, unless you order them, as they tend to be far more expensive than regular dishes. This diversity is due to past famines when people ate whatever they could (and then discovered they had a taste for it), and traditional Chinese medicinal beliefs that state that certain foods are beneficial for particular parts of the body. Cat is reputed to keep you cool in summer and dog will keep you warm in the winter. Eating snake is supposed to increase virility.
Summers are long and hot in most of China, especially in the arid northwest, and it's vital that you keep hydrated. Fortunately China has plenty of refreshing drinks to quench your thirst. As well as the generic bottled water and soft drink brands, Jianlibao, an energy drink, and Hello C, a tangy lemon drink, are both worth a try. Fresh fruit juices are also widely available, especially in the south.
Green tea (lu cha) has 2,000 years of history in China and is still the drink of choice for the Chinese. Almost every traveler and office worker has their own personal thermos they regularly refill and clutch for warmth in the winter months. Hundreds of different varieties of tea are found across the country, some of the most famous being longjing cha (Dragon's Well Tea), oolong from Taiwan, and guanyin from Fujian. Flower teas, such as jasmine (molihua), are also common and particularly refreshing.
Beer (pijiu) is also very popular, and thanks to the German annexation of Qingdao, the pilsner varieties produced by local breweries are pretty decent, and better still, cheap. In Western-style bars you may find the full range of international liquors, but in smaller towns you may have to suffice with baijiu, a toxic sorghum-based spirit that furnishes drinkers with horrific hangovers. Rice wine (mijiu) is a little better, particularly if you invest in a more expensive bottle, and is usually preferable to the Chinese red and white wines on offer.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.