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Ah, Chinese food--you just got a love it! It's tasty, it's colorful, it's healthy, it's jam-packed with a variety of aromas, and it heavily incorporates influences of China's longstanding history, culture, and traditions.
And sure, you've probably tried Chinese take-out or dined-in at an establishment or two, but unless you've actually visited China, chances are you've probably never even scratched the surface of all the meals, drinks, cuisines, products, and services spilling out of China's food culture. But don't worry, it wouldn't hurt to take a glance at what you've been missing. Here's the top 20+ things you need to know about China's food culture:
First up, as the world's 3rd largest country, China is home to a number of diverse regions that have produced popular dishes and cuisines specific to the history, terrain, climate, lifestyle, and people of their respective locality. There are 8 regional cuisines in China to be exact: Anhui (healthy and visually stunning), Guandong or Cantonese (seafood, sugars & salts), Jiangsu (snacks), Shandong (salty & garlic), Sichuan (spicy), Zhejiang (seafood & salt), Hunan (spices & colorful), and Fujian (broths, soups & seafood).
Rice, Vegetable & Meat/Fish
The average meal in China consists of rice, vegetables, and a meat or fish. Rice is a staple food of China that is routinely added to most dishes and is eaten as much as everyday. No kidding, EVERYDAY. Popular meats eaten in China include pork, chicken, beef, lamb, and duck.
Multi-Person Table Meals
Chinese food culture heavily relies on communal sharing and social eating rather than individualized ordering, which is why it's very common to find round dining tables equipped with Lazy Susan turntables in restaurants all across the country. Dishes and drinks are ordered for the entire group, and a circular rotating tray is used to pass items around the table. What's more, even amongst a small group of friends—about 3-4 persons—it is still conventional to share. The best part: the more people, the more food you can eat and less you'll have to pay.
Chinese hotpot is a SAVORY traditional meal that requires tossing everything from sliced meats, fish, noodles, and vegetables, to a variety of peppers, spices, and herbs, into a boiling broth. Once ready to eat the items are topped off with a flavorful dipping sauce of your choosing such as sesame and garlic, and the food is to be enjoyed over a long period.
Hotpot is probably the most common social dining experience in Chinese food culture, typically serving as a meal for 3 or more people. Furthermore, hotpots vary by different regions in China. Chongqing, a direct controlled municipality in the southwest, is renown for its spicy, mouth-numbing hotpots, while Beijing, China's northern capital, is infamous for its lamb hotpots.
Every night across China there are millions of "Shao Kao" (barbecue) vendors out on curbs dishing up delicious skewered meats and veggies grilled over charcoal and topped with a variety of spices and seasonings. Popular ingredients include pork, chicken wings, eggplant, fish, tofu, potatoes, mushrooms, beef, and lamb. You can also find vendors cooking up fried rice and noodles, crawfish, and an assortment of tasty meals containing different combinations of vegetables and meats. Prices for skewers typically range between 3-5RMB, and you haven't officially settled into China until you've spent a summer’s night out with friends washing down barbecue with beer.
Street Snacks & Night Markets
In addition to barbecue, China is loaded with all sorts of delectable street snacks sold by street vendors in every city. You'll find that pancakes, steamed buns (baozi), stinky tofu (chou doufu), soup dumplings (xiao long bao), and sugarcoated haws (tanghulu) top the list as the most popular items on the road. In some places like Beijing, you can even choose live scorpions and spiders to munch on at night markets. Street vendors are usually around during most hours of the day, and you'll find that most snacks costs less than 10RMB.
Fruit & Vegetable Shops
Fruit is widely eaten across China by people of all ages. Most cities are riddled with small shops solely dedicated to selling fruit, and you'll occasionally find vendors on the road serving fresh oranges, dragon fruit, cherries, melon, and strawberries. Additionally, most locals tend to take fruit with them for lunch, traveling, and after exercising, unlike in the USA where junk and fast food prevail.
It seems like there's a bakery on just about every block in China. They serve up freshly baked bread, sandwiches, cakes, fruit drinks, milk, and even donuts. Bakeries are popular spots to visit all throughout the day and in any season, which is probably why they're also found in malls, shopping centers, and office buildings.
Though it may not get as much notoriety, seafood plays a major role in Chinese food culture. Fresh fish, for instance, is a common feature of many restaurants. Additionally, you'll find lots of vendors, shops, and supermarkets that sell everything from fresh cod, crab, oysters, and crawfish, to turtles, frogs, clam, and eel. Seafood is served in hotpots, soups, buffets, as stand-alone meals, and in bustling street food markets.
Local Food & Snacks
Every province across China has a number of popular traditional foods and snacks that are sold in restaurants, night markets, and tourist shops. Head to Beijing, for example, to munch on roast duck. Take a trip to Inner Mongolia for its lamb and beef, or visit Sichuan for its spicy hotpot. Furthermore, you'll usually find shops throughout airports or near train/bus stations that sell an assortment of local snacks like candy treats, dried meat, and even chocolate.
In China you can find every type of alcohol under sun, but perhaps the most consumed alcoholic beverages in the PRC are beer, wine, and liquor. Popular local beer brands in China such as Tsingtao, Harbin Beer, and Snow Beer, can be bought for just 2-5RMB at convenience stores. Furthermore, red and yellow wine top the list of most consumed wines on China. In fact, China has grown to become the world's largest market for red wine as of 2013. And lastly, Baijiu, China's homegrown distilled spirit, is the most consumed alcohol in the world. It's incredibly potent, and is often brought out during wedding receptions, business parties, and holidays.
Southeast Asian Cuisine
Korean. Thai. Japanese. Malaysian. Vietnamese. China is riddled with restaurants cooking up popular cuisine from most of its neighbors in the Southeast Asian region.
Western Food & Restaurants
I don't think there's any country on God's green Earth that hasn't succumb to the powerful takeover of Western fast food. In China, KFC has staked its place as the most dominant Western fast food chain, while McDonald's grabs the number 2 spot. There's at least one or the other, or both, every few miles around. Other major fast food chains across the country include Subway, Pizza Hut, Dominoe's Pizza, and Burger King. To stay relevant in the Chinese marketplace, you can bet that nearly all of the Western fast food chains have incorporated local flavors to appeal to their Chinese customers.
What's more, unlike in America, western fast food chains in China are more so structured like restaurants; they are places to sit down, dine and socialize rather than being just a quick stop to grab food and get out as quickly as possible.
Coffee & Cafes
Chinese people love their coffee, and so much so that China has become one of the fastest growing countries in the coffee industry. Like bakeries, cafes and coffee shops are widespread across China, with popular Western brands such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and even McDonald's dominating the coffee shop chain market over the years, while Nestle has maintained a strong hold on the instant coffee market.
It goes without saying that tea is one of China's most longstanding traditional beverages. It's typically used in ceremonies, given as gifts, offered as a drink for guests, and is consumed almost daily by locals for its amazing health benefits and to keep the body warm. Additionally, China's equipped with lots of teashops that offer a serene setting for tea lovers to drink and socialize, and they're usually outfitted with bamboo and traditional Chinese music.
Freshly-made, on-the-go drinks are beloved all across China. Popular beverage chains like Coco and Happy Lemon have staked their claim in the industry by providing a variety of milk tea, fruit tea, smoothie, milk and chocolate, and fresh fruit combinations.
Local Fast Food
China has its fair share of local fast food chains, though Western chains seemingly remain most popular choices across the industry. Local chain menus serve everything from soups, dumplings, steamed buns, and rice, meat, and vegetable meals, to fried chicken, burgers, pizza, and more. Popular locally branded fast food chains in China include Zhengong Fu (uses Bruce Lee as its brand image), Wu Da Niang Dumpling, and Dico's.
Tea, Soup & Hot Water
Chinese people RARELY drink cold water. Most liquids put into the body are either lukewarm or hot. It's long believed in China that drinking hot water is healthy because it not only warms the body but better aids in the digestive process by helping to break down fatty foods. Cold water, on the other hand, keeps food solidified longer in the digestive tract and this could lead to harmful effects in the body such as cancer. Thus, drinking hot water, in addition to drinking other health benefiting liquids like tea and soup, can have a positive impact on your health, and that's an idea deeply rooted into China's culture.
Raw Meat & Vegetables Markets
You may never see one during your stay in China, but they're definitely there. Tucked away inside small shops, back alleys, and warehouses lies China's raw foods markets, which specialize in the selling of raw meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables, at cheap prices. The markets are notoriously filthy, typically clustered with vendors, and tend to receive a lot of business from China's elderly.
Whether at a restaurant, bar, reception, or party, you're almost guaranteed to find chicken feet on the menu. You heard right, CHICKEN FEET. Common appetizers in China include dumplings, Youtiao (fried dough sticks), egg tarts, steamed bread, and chicken wings, just to name a few. And contrary to popular belief, egg rolls are NOT typically eaten in China.
The most popular holidays in China are New Years, Spring Festival, Tombsweeping Day, Labour Day, Dragonboat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, and National Holiday. It’s very common to eat specific snacks associated with each holiday. During Spring Festival, for instance, Chinese typically eat fish and dumplings, which symbolize prosperity and wealth. For Tombsweeping Day, green rice balls, porridge, and crispy cakes. Mid-Autumn Festival? Moon cake, duck, and hairy crab.
Food delivery has completely taken over China. Popular food delivery apps like Ele.Me, Meituan Waimai, Baidu Waimai, and Sherpas make it easy to order meals from your phone and have it delivered by carrier to where ever you may be, and usually within 30-45 minutes. You may have to pay a service fee for the delivery, but the best part is that you won't need to tip!
Well there you have it; the most popular things you should know about China’s food culture. Did I forget anything? If so, let me know down below. Safe & happy travels!
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