Food in China varies widely from region to region so the term "Chinese food" is pretty much a blanket term, just like "Western food." While visiting, relax your inhibitions and try a bit of everything.
Do keep in mind that undercooked food or poor hygiene can cause bacterial or parasitic infection, particularly during warm or hot weather. Thus it is advisable to take great care about and perhaps abstain from eating seafood and meat on the street during the summer. In addition, unless you're in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or other large cities, raw meat and seafood should be avoided. That all being said, the hygiene conditions of a restaurant are usually satisfactory which means that diarrhea is usually not a risk to most people.
Chinese gourmands place emphasis on freshness so your meal will most likely be cooked as soon as you order it. Searing hot woks over coal or gas fires make even street food usually safe to eat. Indeed freshly prepared street food, as noted by many travel writers, is often safer than food sitting on the buffet lines of 5-star hotels. China is no exception.
The two-menu system where different menus are presented according to the skin color of a guest remains largely unheard of in China. Most restaurants only have one menu - the Chinese one. Learning some Chinese characters such as beef ç, pork çª, chicken é¸¡, fish é±¼, stir-fried ç, deep-fried ç¸, braised ç§, baked or grilled ç¤, soup æ±¤, rice é¥, or noodles é¢ will take you a long way. As pork is the most common meat in Chinese cuisine, where a dish simply lists "meat" è, assume it is pork.
Certain Chinese dishes contain ingredients some people may prefer to avoid, such as dog, snake or endangered species. However, it is very unlikely that you will order these dishes by a mistake. Dog and snake are usually served in specialty restaurants which do not hide their ingredients. Obviously, products made from endangered ingredients will have astronomical prices and would not be listed on the regular menu anyway.
Generally speaking, rice is the main staple in the south, while wheat, mostly in the form of noodles, is the main staple in the north.
Various types of Chinese food provide quick, cheap, tasty, light meals. Street food and snacks sold from portable vendors can be found throughout China's cities. Wangfujing district's Snack Street in Beijing is a notable, if touristy, area for street food. In Cantonese-speaking areas, street food vendors are called gai bin dong; such ventures can grow into a substantial business with the stalls only barely 'mobile' in the traditional street food sense. Various quick eats available nationwide include:
Various, usually sweet, items from the ubiquitous bakeries é¢å æ¿, é¢å åº. A great variety of sweets and sweet food found in China are often sold as snacks, rather then as a post-meal dessert course in restaurants as in the West.
Barbecued sticks of meat from street vendors. Yang rou chuan ç¾èä¸², or fiery Xinjiang-style lamb kebabs, are particularly renowned.
Jiaozi é¥ºå, which Chinese translate as "dumplings", boiled, steamed or fried ravioli-like items with a variety of fillings. These are found throughout Asia; momos, mandu, gyoza, and jiaozi are all basically variations of the same thing.
Baozi å å, steamed buns stuffed with salty, sweet or vegetable fillings.
Mantou é¦å¤´, steamed bread available on the roadside - great for a very cheap and filling snack.
Lanzhou-style lamian æé¢, fresh hand-pulled noodles. This industry is heavily dominated by members of the Hui åæ ethnic group - look for a tiny restaurant with staff in Muslim dress, white fez-like hats on the men and head scarves on the women.
In Guangdong and sometimes elsewhere, dim sum ç¹å¿. At any major tourist destination in China, you may well find someone serving dim sum for Hong Kong customers.
The Western notion of fast food is arguably as popular as the domestic variety. KFC è¯å¾·åº, McDonald's éº¦å½å³, Subway èµç¾å³ and Pizza Hut å¿ èå®¢ are ubiquitous, at least in mid-sized cities and above. There are a few Burger Kings æ±å ¡ç, Domino's and Papa John's æ£çº¦ç¿° as well but only in major cities. Chinese chains are also widespread. These include Dicos å¾·å å£« - chicken burgers, fries etc., cheaper than KFC and some say better - and Kung Fu çåå¤« - which has a more Chinese menu.
Beijing äº¬è JÄ«ng CÃ i : home-style noodles and baozi å å bread buns, Peking Duck åäº¬ç¤é¸ BÄijÄ«ng KÇoyÄ, cabbage dishes, great pickles. Not fancy but can be great and satisfying.
Imperial å®«å»·è GÅngtÃng CÃ i: the food of the late Qing court, made famous by the Empress Dowager Cixi, can be sampled at high-end specialized restaurants in Beijing. The cuisine combines elements of Manchu frontier food such as venison with unique exotica such as camel's paw, shark's fin and bird's nest.
Cantonese / Guangzhou / Hong Kong å¹¿ä¸è GuÇngdÅng CÃ i, ç²¤è YuÃ¨ CÃ i: the style most Western visitors are already familiar with to some extent. Not too spicy, the emphasis is on freshly cooked ingredients and seafood. Dim Sum ç¹å¿ DiÇnxÄ«n, small snacks usually eaten for breakfast or lunch, are a highlight. That being said, authentic Cantonese cuisine is also among the most adventurous in China in terms of variety of ingredients as the Cantonese are famous, even among the Chinese, for their extremely wide definition of what is considered edible.
Shanghai æ²ªè HÃ¹ CÃ i: because of its geographical location, Shanghai cuisine is considered to be a good mix of northern and southern Chinese cooking styles. The most famous dishes are xiaolongbao å°ç¬¼å XiÇolÃ³ngbÄo and chives dumplings éèé¥ºå JiÇcÃ i JiÇozi . Another specialty is "pulled noodles" æé¢ lÄmiÃ n, from which Japanese ramen and Korean ramyeon are believed to be derived. Sugar is often added to fried dishes giving Shanghainese food a sweet flavor.
Sichuan å·è ChuÄn CÃ i: Famously hot and spicy. A popular saying is that it is so spicy your mouth will go numb. However, not all dishes are made with live chilis. The numbing sensation actually comes from the Sichuan peppercorn è±æ¤. It is widely available outside Sichuan and also native to Chongqing. If you want really authentic Sichuanese food outside Sichuan or Chongqing, look for small eateries sporting the characters for Sichuan cuisine in neighborhoods with lots of migrant workers. These tend to be much cheaper and often better than the ubiquitous up-market Sichuan restaurants.
Hunan æ¹åè HÃºnÃ¡n CÃ i, æ¹è XiÄng CÃ i: the cuisine of the Xiangjiang region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan Province. Similar, in some ways, to Sichuanese cuisine, it can actually be "spicier" in the Western sense.
Teochew / Chaozhou æ½®å·è ChÃ¡ozhÅu CÃ i: originating from the Shantou area in northern Guangdong, a unique style which nonetheless will be familiar to most Southeast Asian and Hong Kong Chinese. Famous dishes include braised duck å¤é¸ LÇyÄ, yam paste dessert èæ³¥ YÃ¹nÃ and fishballs é±¼ä¸¸ YÃºwÃ¡n.
Fujian ç¦å»ºè FÃºjiÃ n CÃ i, é½è MÇn CÃ i: uses ingredients mostly from coastal and estuarial waterways. "Buddha Jumps over a Wall" ä½è·³å¢ FÃ³ TiÃ o QiÃ¡ng is particularly famous. According to legend, the smell was so good a monk forgot his vegetarian vows and leaped over the wall to have some. Fujian cuisine can be split into at least two distinct cuisines: Minnan cuisine from the area around Xiamen and Mindong cuisine from the area around Fuzhou.
Guizhou è´µå·è GuÃ¬zhÅu CÃ i, é»è QiÃ¡n CÃ i: combines elements of Sichuan and Xiang cuisine, making liberal use of spicy, peppery and sour flavors. The peculiar zhergen æè³æ ¹ ZhÄ'ÄrgÄn, a regional root vegetable, adds an unmistakable sour-peppery flavor to many dishes. Minority dishes such as Sour Fish Hot Pot é ¸æ±¤é±¼ SuÄn TÄng YÃº are widely enjoyed.
Zhejiang æµè ZhÃ¨ CÃ i: includes the foods of Hangzhou, Ningbo, and Shaoxing. A delicately seasoned, light-tasting mix of seafood and vegetables often served in soup. Sometimes lightly sweetened or sometimes sweet and sour, Zhejiang dishes frequently involve cooked meats and vegetables in combination.
Hainan ç¼è QiÃ³ng CÃ i: famous among the Chinese, but still relatively unknown to foreigners, characterized by the relatively heavy use of coconuts. The signature specialties are the "Four Famous Dishes of Hainan" æµ·ååå¤§åè HÇi NÃ¡n SÃ¬ DÃ MÃng CÃ i: Wenchang chicken ææé¸¡ WÃ©nchÄng jÄ«, Dongshan goat ä¸å±±ç¾ DÅngshÄn yÃ¡ng, Jiaji duck å ç§¯é¸ JiÄjÄ« yÄ and Hele crab åä¹è¹ HÃ©lÃ¨ xiÃ¨.
China is the birthplace of chopsticks and unsurprisingly, much important etiquette relates to the use of chopsticks. While the Chinese are generally tolerant about table manners, you will most likely be seen as ill-mannered, annoying or offensive when using chopsticks in improper ways. Be stick to the following rules:
Never use your chopsticks to examine a dish piece by piece, making everyone taste your saliva. Implicitly use your eye to target what you want, and pick it.
Once you pick a piece, you are obliged to take it. Don't put it back. Confucius says never leave someone what you don't want.
When someone is picking from a dish, don't try to cross over or go underneath his arms to pick from a dish further away. Wait until they finish picking.
In most cases, a dish is not supposed to be picked simultaneously by more than one person. Don't try to compete with anyone to pick a piece from the same dish.
Don't put your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice as it is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and carries the connotation of wishing death for those around you. Instead, place it across your bowl or on the chopstick rest, if provided.
Don't drum your bowl with chopsticks. Only beggars do it. People don't find it funny even if you're willing to satirically call yourself a beggar.
Other lesser important dining rules include:
Many travel books suggest that cleaning your plate suggests that your host did not to feed you well and will feel pressured to order more food. In general, finishing a meal involves a delicate balance. Cleaning your plate will typically invite more to be served, while leaving too much may be a sign that you didn't like it. When you're stuffed, you will please your host by lifting up a thumb, telling your host how much you enjoy it, and theatrically rubbing your belly to show that you're stuffed.
Communal chopsticks å ¬ç· are not always provided. Diners typically use their own chopsticks to transfer food to their bowl. While many Westerners consider this unhygienic, it is usually safe. However, if desired, it is acceptable to request communal utensils.
Making slurping noises when eating is common but could be considered inappropriate, especially among well educated families. However, slurping, like "cupping" when tasting tea, is seen by some gourmets as a way to enhance flavor.
Spoons are used when drinking soups or eating watery dishes such as porridge. In China, the dish should be scooped towards you, and not away from you as done in the West, as the Chinese believe that this rakes in wealth.
If a piece is too slippery to pick, do it with the aid of a spoon; do not spear it with the sharp end of the chopstick.
All dishes are shared, similar to "family style" dining in North America. When you order anything, it's not just for you, it's for everyone. You're expected to consult others before you order a dish. When you're asked about your opinion, being overly picky is usually seen as annoying.
It is normal for your host or hostess to put food on your plate. It is a gesture of kindness and hospitality. If you wish to decline, do it in a way so that it does not offend. For example, you should insist that they eat and that you serve yourself.
Fish heads are considered a delicacy and may be offered to you as an honored guest. In truth, the cheek meat is particularly savory.