Eating in China is a real joy. There are literally countless different dishes, tastes and ingredients. Eating can be very cheap ($0.50 per meal) if you don’t mind eating in restaurants that are small and appear a little dirty, or eat street food. In 2 years, I have never gotten sick from food, and I have eaten in all kinds of places imaginable. It can be fancy and expensive too, of course. The price of a banquet is basically endless (a banquet is usually a business meal or special celebration, where a sum of money is paid to the restaurant, which then cooks a truly huge meal worth of that price.) Nowadays, there are many Western restaurants, but my experience is that these are usually (relatively) expensive and the food never lives up to food in Western countries (eg. a Chinese pizza just isn’t the same as an Italian or American one…)
The staple food in China differs per region. In the Norhtern provinces it is usually steamed bread (mantou) and noodles (mien); whilst in the South people prefer to eat rice. However, all staple foods are widely available throughout China. Here some examples of common ingredients and dishes.
La mien (hand pulled noodles)
In every city I have been to (in total nearly 20) I was able to find a small muslim restaurant that sells the traditional hand pulled noodles. They are usually family owned businesses, and prices are always fizxed at 4-5 Yuan per bowl of noodle soup. After ordering, the noodles are pulled from a big piece of dough, boiled and served in a salty soup with some beef slices. Chili, soy sauce and vinegar to be added after. One bowl is very filling, and enough for breakfast or lunch, although not neccesarily very nutricious. It is a fun and fast way to eat a cheap meal.
Potato is sometimes cut in slices or strokes, and stir fried. Sometimes, potatoes are part of a soup (for example in many Xinjian – a mostly muslim province in the North West of China – dishes). Also in Inner Mongolia I have eaten a lot of potato. Thanks to McDonalds and KFC, everybody now knows French fries, but when I once cooked mashed potatoes for my friends, they were astonished.
chao fan (fried rice)
Arguably the most famous Chinese dish in the world. There are many different styles, such as the Kantonese fried rice which contains more vegetables. Like the hand pulled noodles, fried rice is one of the most filling and cheap and easy dishes to order on the street. Small restaurants or even carts outside will be frying rice from early afternoon until very late at night. In Suzhou and Shanghai, egg and ‘qingcai’ a typical green vegetabe are always added.
zhou (rice porridge)
A popular breakfast. Rice porridge can be very simple or very fancy; depending on how much time and effort is spent. The simple porridge just consists of rice & water, some sugar and is eaten together with steamed bread. Many extras can be added, such as peanuts, pickle, fresh or dried meat or even mushrooms.
fen si (rice noodles)
These noodles are made from a type of bean, and are nearly transparent. They can be stir fried, boiled or served in a hotpot. There are a million different ways to prepare noodles. They come in all shapes and sizes too; from very thin to flat and thick.
baozi (steamed stuffed buns)
Baozi are great for breakfast. (I call them baozi in English, because nobody will say ‘steamed stuffed buns’….) They are small round pieces of white bread, steamed, with either meat (pork) or vergetables inside. They are a nice snack and very cheap too (max. 1.5 Yuan each). For some reason I always eat baozi when I’m walking to work, school or wherever I am going. No need to sit down.
Dumplings also come in many shapes and sizes, and also go by different names in Chinese. Basically, it is a cushion of dough stuffed with pork or vegetables, and boiled or fried. They can be served in a soup, in the most expensive restaurants or as a cheap take-away meal on the street. They are very filling, and make a good staple food. I am told that Beijing people love to eat dumplings.
Hotpot comes from Sichuan province, but is popular all over China. The traditional Sichuan hotpot is firey hot. The red soup inside has large red peppers and ‘hua jiao’ (literally flower pepper), a spice that numbs the mouth. In a hotpot restaurant, one is supposed to order the food that goes in seperately. So a typical order would consist of some meat, maybe some fish, mushrooms, tofu, then finally some vegetables like cabbage or lettuce. The ingredients are cooked one by one as you please. Eating in a hotpot restaurant is a fun way to spend half the evening, as you set the pace.
Hotpot doesn’t always have to be spicy. Many restaurants offer different flavors, such as chicken, fish, chili and half / half (spicy). Sometimes the pot is a large one, places in the middle of the table with a gas fire under it, sometimes each guest has their own, small pot. Some small restaurants offer chicken hotpot, which is a small pot with a fixed set of ingredients.