Food in China
Food in China varies greatly from region to region, so the term “Chinese food” is a pretty blanket term, just like “Western food”. When you visit, drop your inhibitions and try a little bit of everything.
Remember that insufficiently cooked food or poor hygiene can lead to bacterial or parasitic infections, especially in warm or hot weather. Therefore, it is advisable to be very careful (and perhaps refrain from eating) seafood and meat on the street in summer. In addition, raw meat and seafood should be avoided. Apart from this, the hygienic conditions in restaurants are usually satisfactory, so that diarrhoeal disease is not a risk for most people.
Chinese foodies value freshness, so your meal will most likely be cooked as soon as you order it. Frying in hot woks over coal or gas fires means that even street food is usually safe to eat. In fact, as many travel writers note, freshly prepared street food is often safer than food on the buffet lines of 5-star hotels. China is no exception.
The two-menu system, where different menus are presented depending on the colour of a guest’s skin, is still largely unknown in China. Most restaurants have only one menu – the Chinese one. Learning a few Chinese characters such as beef (牛), pork (猪), chicken (鸡), fish (鱼), fried (炒), deep-fried (炸), stewed (烧), baked or grilled (烤), soup (汤), rice (饭) or noodles (面) will take you far. Since pork is the most common meat in Chinese cuisine, if a dish simply contains “meat” (肉), you should assume it is pork.
Certain Chinese dishes contain ingredients that some people would prefer to avoid, such as dog, snake or endangered species. However, it is very unlikely that you will order these dishes by mistake. Dog and snake are usually served in speciality restaurants that do not hide their ingredients. Obviously, products made from endangered ingredients have astronomical prices and would not be on the regular menu anyway.
In general, rice is the main food in the south, while wheat, mostly in the form of noodles, is the main food in the north.
Regional cuisines in China
- Beijing (京菜 Jīng Cài): Homemade noodles and baozi (包子 buns), Peking duck (北京烤鸭 Běijīng Kǎoyā), cabbage dishes, great pickles. Not fancy, but can be great and satisfying.
- Imperial (宫廷菜 Gōngtíng Cài): The food of the late Qing court, made famous by Empress Dowager Cixi, can be sampled at specialised high-end restaurants in Beijing. The cuisine combines elements of Manchurian frontier cuisine such as game meat with unique exotica such as camel’s paw, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.
- Cantonese / Guangzhou / Hong Kong (广东菜 Guǎngdōng Cài, 粤菜 Yuè Cài): the style with which most Western visitors are already reasonably familiar. Not too spicy, the emphasis is on freshly cooked ingredients and seafood. A highlight is the dim sum (点心 Diǎnxīn), small snacks usually eaten for breakfast or lunch. Apart from that, authentic Cantonese cuisine is also one of the most adventurous in China in terms of the variety of ingredients, as the Cantonese are famous even among Chinese for their extremely broad definition of what is considered edible.
- Shanghai (沪菜 Hù Cài): Due to its geographical location, Shanghai cuisine is considered a good mix of northern and southern Chinese cooking styles. The most famous dishes are xiaolongbao (小笼包 Xiǎolóngbāo) and chive dumplings (韭菜饺子 Jiǔcài Jiǎozi ). Another speciality is “pulled noodles” (拉面 lāmiàn), from which Japanese ramen and Korean ramyeon are said to be derived. Sugar is often added to fried dishes, giving Shanghainese food a sweet taste.
- Sichuan (川菜 Chuān Cài): Famous-hot and spicy. A popular saying is that it is so hot it makes your mouth numb. However, not all dishes are prepared with live chillies. The numbing sensation actually comes from Sichuan peppercorns (花椒). It is widely available outside Sichuan and is also native to Chongqing. If you want really authentic Sichuan food outside Sichuan or Chongqing, look for small places with the signs of Sichuan cuisine in neighbourhoods with lots of migrant workers. These tend to be much cheaper and often better than the ubiquitous upscale Sichuan restaurants.
- Hunan (湖南菜 Húnán Cài, 湘菜 Xiāng Cài): the cuisine of the Xiangjiang region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan province. It is similar to Sichuan cuisine in some respects, but can be “spicier” in the Western sense.
- Teochew / Chaozhou (潮州菜 Cháozhōu Cài): originates from the Shantou region of northern Guangdong, a unique style that may nevertheless be familiar to most Southeast Asian and Hong Kong Chinese. Famous dishes include braised duck (卤鸭 Lǔyā), sweet potato paste for dessert (芋泥 Yùní) and fish balls (鱼丸 Yúwán).
- Fujian (福建菜 Fújiàn Cài, 闽菜 Mǐn Cài): uses ingredients mostly from coastal and estuarine waters. “Buddha jumps over a wall” (佛跳墙 Fó Tiào Qiáng) is particularly famous. Legend has it that the smell was so good that a monk forgot his vegetarian vow and jumped over the wall to eat some. Fujian cuisine can be divided into at least two different cuisines: Minnan cuisine from the Xiamen area and Mindong cuisine from the Fuzhou area.
- Guizhou (贵州菜 Guìzhōu Cài, 黔菜 Qián Cài): combines elements of Sichuan and Xiang cuisine and makes generous use of spicy, peppery and sour flavours. The special zhergen (折耳根 Zhē’ěrgēn), a regional root vegetable, gives many dishes a distinctive sour-peppery flavour. Minority dishes such as Sour Fish Hot Pot (酸汤鱼 Suān Tāng Yú) are very popular.
- Zhejiang (浙菜 Zhè Cài): includes the dishes of Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing. A finely spiced, light-tasting mixture of seafood and vegetables, often served in a soup. Sometimes lightly sweetened or sometimes sweet and sour, Zhejiang dishes often include cooked meat and vegetables in combination.
- Hainan (琼菜 Qióng Cài): famous among the Chinese, but still relatively unknown to foreigners, characterised by the relatively heavy use of coconuts. The most famous specialities are the “Four Famous Dishes of Hainan” (海南四大名菜 Hǎi Nán Sì Dà Míng Cài): Wenchang chicken (文昌鸡 Wénchāng jī), Dongshan goat (东山羊 Dōngshān yáng), Jiaji duck (加积鸭 Jiājī yā) and Hele crab (和乐蟹 Hélè xiè).
Fast food in China
Different types of Chinese food offer quick, cheap, tasty, light meals. Street food and snacks sold by portable vendors can be found all over China’s cities. Snack Street in Beijing’s Wangfujing district 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 considerable business, though the stalls are hardly “mobile” in the sense of traditional street food. The various fast food outlets available nationwide include:
- Various, mostly sweet items from the ubiquitous bakeries (面包房, 面包店). A wide variety of sweets and sweet foods found in China are often sold as snacks, rather than as an after-dinner dessert course in restaurants as in the West.
- Grilled meat skewers from street vendors. Yang rou chuan (羊肉串), the fiery Xinjiang-style lamb skewers, are particularly famous.
- Jiaozi (饺子), which translates to “dumplings” in Chinese, are boiled, steamed or deep-fried ravioli-like items with a variety of fillings. These are found all over Asia; momos, mandu, gyoza and jiaozi are all basically variations of the same thing.
- Baozi (包子), steamed buns filled with savoury, sweet or vegetable fillings.
- Mantou (馒头), steamed bread available by the roadside – great for a very cheap and filling snack.
- Lamian (拉面), fresh Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles. This industry is heavily dominated by members of the Hui (回族) ethnic group – look out for a tiny restaurant with staff in Muslim dress, white fez-like hats on the men and headscarves on the women.
- In Guangdong and sometimes elsewhere, dim sum (点心). At any major tourist destination in China, you may well find someone serving dim sum to customers from Hong Kong.
- Jianbing (煎饼), an egg pancake wrapped around a cracker with sauce and optional chilli sauce.
The western idea of fast food is probably just as popular as the domestic version. KFC (肯德基), McDonald’s (麦当劳), Subway (赛百味) and Pizza Hut (必胜客) are ubiquitous, at least in medium-sized cities and above. There are also a few Burger Kings (汉堡王), Domino’s and Papa John’s (棒约翰), but only in larger cities. Chinese chains are also widespread. These include Dicos (德克士) – chicken burgers, fries etc., cheaper than KFC and some say better – and Kung Fu (真功夫) – which has a more Chinese menu.
China is the birthplace of chopsticks and it is not surprising that many important etiquettes relate to the use of chopsticks. While the Chinese are generally tolerant when it comes to table manners, you will most likely be considered rude, annoying or offensive if you use chopsticks in an inappropriate way. Adhere to the following rules:
- Never use your chopsticks to examine a dish piece by piece so that everyone tastes your saliva. Implicitly use your eye to target what you want and then choose it.
- Once you have selected a piece, you are obliged to take it. Do not put it back. Confucius says: “Never leave someone with what you don’t want.
- If someone is picking from a bowl, do not try to cross arms or reach under arms to pick from a bowl further away. Wait until the person has finished picking.
- In most cases, a dish should not be chosen by several people at the same time. Do not try to compete with someone to choose a piece from the same dish.
- Do not put your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl, as this is reminiscent of incense burning in the temple and has the connotation of wishing death on those around you. Instead, place them across your bowl or on the chopstick tray if available.
- Do not drum your bowl with chopsticks. Only beggars do that. People don’t find it funny even if you satirically call yourself a beggar.
Other, less important eating rules are:
- Many travel books suggest that clearing your plate indicates that your host has not fed you well and will feel pressured to order more food. In general, finishing a meal is a delicate balance. Clearing your plate usually invites you to serve more, while leaving too much can be a sign that you didn’t like it. When you are full, please your host by giving a thumbs up, telling them how much you enjoyed it and rubbing your stomach theatrically to show you are full.
- Especially for a family meal, you should only start eating when the oldest person at the table has started.
- Shared chopsticks (公筷) are not always provided. Guests usually use their own chopsticks to put food in their bowl. While many foreigners think this is unhygienic, it is usually safe. It is acceptable to ask for shared chopsticks at the restaurant, although you may offend your host if you are invited.
- Making slurping noises while eating is common, but might be seen as inappropriate, especially in well-behaved families. However, slurping, like “cupping” when tasting tea, is seen by some foodies as a way to enhance the taste.
- Spoons are used when drinking soups or eating thin or watery foods like porridge. In China, the dish should be ladled towards you and not away from you, as is common in the West, as the Chinese believe this brings wealth.
- If a piece is too slippery to pick, do it with the help of a spoon; do not impale it with the sharp end of the chopstick(s).
- All dishes are shared, similar to the “family style” meals in North America. When you order something, it is not just for you, but for everyone. You are expected to consult others before ordering a dish. You are usually asked if there is something you are not eating, although it is considered a nuisance to be too picky.
- It is normal for your host or hostess to put food on your plate. It is a gesture of kindness and hospitality. If you want to refuse, do it in a way that does not offend you. For example, you should insist that they eat and you serve yourself.
- Fish heads are considered a delicacy and may be offered to you as a guest of honour. In truth, the cheek meat is particularly tasty in some fish species.
Who pays the bill
In China, restaurants and pubs are very common places of entertainment and treatment plays an important role in socialising.
While sharing the bill is gradually being accepted by young people, treating is still the norm, especially when the parties are in obviously different social classes. Men are expected to treat women, older to younger, rich to poor, hosts to guests, working class to non-income class (students). Friends of the same class usually prefer to share the opportunity to pay rather than split the bill, i.e. “It’s my turn now and you treat next time.”
It is common to see Chinese people fiercely competing to pay the bill. You are expected to fight back and say, “My turn, next time treat me.” The smiling loser will accuse the winner of being too polite. All these dramas, while still common among all generations and usually played out wholeheartedly, are less and less practised among younger, urban Chinese. Whenever you go out to eat with Chinese people, you have a fair chance of being treated. For budget travellers, the good news is that Chinese tend to treat foreigners eagerly, although you shouldn’t expect much from students and the ordinary working class.
Apart from that, Chinese tend to be very tolerant of foreigners. If you feel like going Dutch, try it. They tend to think that “all foreigners prefer to go Dutch”. If they try to argue, it usually means that they insist on paying your bill too, not the opposite.
Eating at a restaurant in China
Chinese restaurants often offer an overwhelming variety of dishes. Fortunately, all but the cheapest restaurants have picture menus with photos of each dish, saving you from despair in the face of a sea of characters. Mid-priced restaurants and above are also likely to have a more or less helpful English menu. Even with the pictures, the sheer volume of dishes can be overwhelming and their nature difficult to discern, so it is often useful to ask the waiter to recommend something (推荐 tuijian). He will often do this on his own if he sees you looking for a few minutes. The waiter will usually stop next to your table while you look through the menu, so don’t let that discourage you.
Dishes ordered at a restaurant are meant to be shared among the whole group. When one person indulges the rest, they usually take the initiative and order for everyone. In other cases, everyone in the group may recommend a dish. If you are with Chinese, it is fine to let them choose, but it is also fine to let them know your preferences.
When you are picking out the dishes, the first question you should ask is if you want rice. Usually you do this because it helps keep your bill manageable. However, the real luxury is in leaving out the rice, and it can also be nice if you want to try a lot of dishes. Rice usually has to be ordered separately and will not be served if you don’t order it. It is not free, but it is very cheap, only a few yuan per bowl.
For dishes, the rule of thumb is to order at least as many dishes as there are people when you eat rice. Portion sizes vary from restaurant to restaurant. You can never go wrong with an extra plate of green vegetables; after that, use your judgment, see what other people are getting, or ask the waiter how big the portions are. If you don’t eat rice, add dishes accordingly. If you are unsure, you can ask the waiter if he thinks you ordered enough (你觉得够吗? ni juede gou ma?).
You order dishes simply by pointing to them on the menu and saying “this” (这个 zhe ge). To order rice, you say how many bowls of rice you want (usually one per person): X碗米饭 (X wan mifan), where X stands for yi, liang, san, si, etc. The waiter will repeat your order to confirm.
When you want to leave, call the waiter by shouting 服务员 (fuwuyuan) and ask for the bill (买单 maidan).
Eating alone in China
Traditional Chinese food is made for groups, with lots of shared dishes on the table. This can become a lonely experience and some restaurants may not know how to serve a single customer. However, finding other people (locals or fellow travelers) to eat with could be the right motivation! However, if you are hungry and on your own, here are some tips:
Chinese fast food chains are a great way for the solo traveler to get full and still eat Chinese food instead of Western burgers. They usually have picture menus or picture displays above the counter and offer set deals (套餐 taocan) meant for eating alone. You will usually be given a number to call out (in Chinese) when your dish is ready. Just wait at the place where the food is served – there will be a receipt or something similar on your tray with your number on it. The price you pay for this convenience is that the ingredients are not particularly fresh. It’s impossible to list all the chains, and there are some regional differences, but you can usually identify a store by a colorful, branded sign. If you can’t find one, look near major train stations or in shopping centers. Department stores and shopping malls usually have chain restaurants.
A tastier and cheaper way to eat on your own is street food, but be careful about hygiene and be aware that the quality of ingredients (especially meat) can be suspect. Ask around and check the local wiki page to find out where to get street food in your city; there are often snack streets or night markets full of stalls. Another dish that can be eaten on its own is noodle soups such as beef noodles (牛肉面 niuroumian), a dish that is ubiquitous in China and can also be found in many chain stores.
Keep in mind that although it may be unusual to eat alone in a restaurant, you will not be thrown out and the staff will certainly try to suggest something.
Drinks In China
The Chinese love a drink and the all-purpose word jiǔ (酒) covers a whole range of alcoholic beverages.
Chinese toast with the word gānbēi (干杯, literally “dry glass”). Traditionally, one is expected to empty the glass in one gulp. During a meal, one is usually expected to drink at least one glass with everyone present; sometimes there can be considerable pressure to do so. To be polite, you should also toast with many of those present. It may be considered rude, at least at the beginning of the meal, if you do not make a toast with each sip.
Be careful. Fortunately, the glasses are usually small – even beer is often drunk from an oversized shot glass. The Chinese liquor, baijiu, is definitely strong (up to 65% alcohol). Baijiu is often drunk in small shot glasses for good reason. US President Nixon practised drinking it before his first trip to China, to be ready for the toast with Mao Zedong. If you are not used to drinking a lot, you should be very careful when drinking with Chinese people.
If you want to take it easy and still be sociable, say suíbiàn (随便) before you make the toast and then drink only part of the glass. It may also be possible to make three toasts (traditionally as a sign of friendship) with the whole company, rather than a separate toast for each individual present.
Alcohol in China
Beer (啤酒 píjiǔ) is very common in China and is served in almost every restaurant and sold in many grocery shops. The typical price is about ¥2.5-4 in a grocery shop, ¥4-18 in a restaurant, about ¥10 in a regular bar and ¥20-40 in an upscale bar. In most places outside the big cities, beer is served at room temperature regardless of the season; in places aimed at tourists or expatriates, it is cold.
The best-known brand is Tsingtao (青島) from Qingdao, which was once a German concession. Other brands abound and are usually light pilsner or lager style beers with 3-4 % alcohol. This is comparable to many American beers, but weaker than the 5-6% beers found almost everywhere else. In addition to the national brands, most cities have one or more cheap local beers. Some companies (Tsingtao, Yanjing) also produce a dark beer (黑啤酒 hēipíjiǔ). In some regions, beers from other parts of Asia are quite common and popular with travellers – Filipino San Miguel in Guangdong, Singaporean Tiger in Hainan and Lao Beer Lao in Yunnan.
Locally made grape wine (葡萄酒 pútaojiǔ) is widely available and much of it is cheap, from ¥15 in a grocery shop to ¥100-150 in a fancy bar. However, most of the stuff bears only the slightest resemblance to Western wines. The Chinese like their wines red and very, very sweet, and they are typically served on ice or mixed with Sprite.
Great Wall and Dynasty are big brands with a range of wines at different prices; their cheaper offerings (under ¥40) generally do not impress Western wine drinkers. Chang Yu is another big brand; some of their low-end wines are slightly better. If you are looking for a Western-style wine made in China, try to find these brands:
- Suntime, with a passable Cabernet Sauvignon
- Yizhu, which is located in Yili and specialises in ice wine
- Les Champs D’or, French owned and probably the overall best winery in China.
- Imperial Horse and Xixia, from Ningxia
- Mogao Ice Wine, Gansu
- Castle settlements, Shandong
- Shangrila Estates, from Zhongdian, Yunnan
There are also several brands and types of rice wine. Most of them resemble a watery rice pudding, they are usually very sweet and have only a very small amount of alcohol for taste. Travellers’ reactions to them are very different. They do not bear much resemblance to Japanese sake, the only rice wine known in the West.
Báijiǔ (白酒) is a distilled liquor, usually 80 to 120 proof, made from sorghum and sometimes other grains depending on the region. Since the word “jiǔ” is often loosely translated as “wine” by Chinese beverage makers and English speakers, baijiu is often referred to as “white wine” in conversation, but “white lightning” would be a better translation. Most foreigners think baijiu tastes like diesel fuel, while a spirits connoisseur may find high-quality, expensive baijiu quite good.
Baijiu is typically served in small shot glasses at banquets and celebrations. Toasts are ubiquitous at banquets or special occasion dinners. It is definitely an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it is quite fun to “ganbei” a glass or two at a banquet.
The cheapest baijiu is èrguōtóu (二锅头) brewed in Beijing (¥4.5 per 100-mL bottle). It comes in two variants: 53% and 56% alcohol by volume. Ordering “xiǎo èr” (Erguotou’s little nickname) is likely to raise a few eyebrows and make working-class Chinese laugh.
Máotái (茅台), made in Guizhou province, is China’s most famous baijiu brand and China’s national liqueur. Made from sorghum millet, Maotai and its expensive cousins (such as Kaoliang from Kinmen in Taiwan) are known for their strong fragrance and are actually sweeter than Western clear liqueurs as the sorghum millet flavour is retained – in a way.
Chinese brandy (白兰地) is very cheap; like grape wines or baijiu, prices start below ¥20 for 750 ml, but many Westerners find the brandies much tastier. A ¥18-30 local brandy is not a ¥200+ imported brand cognac, but it is close enough that you should only buy the cognac if money is no object. Expatriates discuss the relative merits of brandies from the French brand LouisWann, the Chinese brand Changyu and a few others. All are drinkable.
The Chinese are also big fans of various supposedly medicinal liquors, mostly containing exotic herbs and/or animal parts. Some of these have prices in the normal range and contain ingredients such as ginseng. These can be quite tasty, though they tend to be sweet. Others, with unusual ingredients (snakes, turtles, bees, etc.) and steep price tags, are probably best left to those who enjoy them.
Bars, discos and karaoke in China
Western-style pubs are becoming increasingly popular across the country. Especially in the more affluent urban centres like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Hangzhou, you can find meticulously recreated replicas of traditional Irish or English pubs. Like their Western counterparts, most have a selection of foreign beers on tap, offer pub food (of varying quality) and often have live cover bands. Most of these pubs are frequented by expatriates, so you should not expect to find many Chinese in these establishments. Be aware that imported beer can be very expensive compared to local beer.
If you just want to go out for a drink with friends, choose a local restaurant and have beer for about ¥5 for a 600 ml bottle. It will be Chinese lager with about 3% alcohol, with a limited selection of brands and can be served warm. Most mid- to high-end restaurants have small private rooms for gatherings (usually offered free of charge if there are more than 5 people), and staff will not usually try to push you out, even if you decide to stay until closing time. Many residents visit outdoor restaurants or roadside stalls and barbecues (shāokǎo – 烧烤) for a nice and inexpensive evening.
In discos and fancy bars with entertainment, you usually buy beer ¥100 at a time; for that you get somewhere between 4 import brand beers (Heineken, Bud, Corona, Sol, … ) and 10 local beers. A few places offer cocktails; even fewer have good cocktails.
Other drinks are only sold by the bottle, not by the glass. Red wine is in the ¥80-200 range (served with ice and Sprite) and medium-bodied imported whiskeys (Chivas, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels; extremely rare single malts) and cognacs, ¥300-800. Both are often mixed with sweet green or red tea from the bottle. Vodka, tequila and rum are less common but sometimes available. Fake “brand name” products are quite common and can ruin your next day.
At these places there are often bar girls, young women who drink a lot and want to play drinking games to get you to consume more. They get a commission for everything you buy. Generally, these girls will not leave the bar with you; they are professional flirts, not prostitutes.
Karaoke (卡拉OK) is huge in China and can be roughly divided into two categories. More common is the no-frills karaoke box or KTV, where you rent a room, bring your friends and the house gives you a microphone and sells alcohol. They are popular with students as they are cheap and fun with the right crowd, although you need at least a couple of people for a memorable night. Bringing your own alcohol can keep the price down, but it has to be done secretly – many places have windows in the door so the staff can make sure you are only drinking alcohol they have sold you.
Quite different are the distinctly dodgier specialty KTV lounges, which cater more to businessmen who want to entertain clients or let off steam, and where the house offers all sorts of things for a price. In these often opulent establishments – over-the-top Roman and Egyptian themes are standard – you will be accompanied by professional karaoke girls in short skirts who charge by the hour for the pleasure of their company and whose services are not limited to singing badly and pouring your drinks. It is highly advisable not to venture into these venues unless you are absolutely sure that someone else is footing the bill, which can easily run into the hundreds of dollars even if you keep your trousers on.
As elsewhere, never accept an invitation to a restaurant or bar from an available-looking woman who has just picked you up on the street sometime after sunset. At best, suggest another place. If she refuses, drop her on the spot. Most likely she will direct you to a quiet little place with too many bouncers and you will have to settle for a modest meal and a beer that will cost you ¥1,000 or more. And the bouncers won’t let you leave until you’ve paid. It’s quite rare. But it does happen.
Tea in China
China is the birthplace of tea, and at the risk of stating the obvious, there is a lot of tea (茶 chá) in China. Green tea (绿茶 lǜchá) is served in some restaurants (depending on the region) for free or for a small fee. The most common types served are:
- Gunpowder tea (珠茶 zhūchá): a green tea named not for the taste but for the appearance of the bundled leaves used for brewing (the Chinese name “pearl tea” is somewhat more poetic).
- Jasmine tea (茉莉花茶 mòlihuachá): green tea scented with jasmine flowers.
- Oolong (烏龍 wūlóng): a semi-fermented mountain tea.
However, specialised tea houses serve a wide variety of infusions, ranging from light, delicate white tea (白茶 báichá) to strong fermented and aged pu’er tea (普洱茶 pǔ’ěrchá).
Tea in China is priced like wine in Western culture; a product that has one of the well-known, high-quality or rare characteristics can be quite expensive, and one that has two or three of those characteristics can be surprisingly expensive. As with wines, you should generally avoid the cheapest stuff and leave the high-priced products to buyers who are either experts themselves or have expert advice, but there are many good choices in the mid-price ranges.
Tea shops typically sell per jing (500g, a little over a pound); prices start at around ¥50 per jing and there are many very nice teas in the ¥100-300 range. Most shops also stock more expensive teas; prices up to ¥2,000 per jing are quite common. The record price for premium tea sold at auction was ¥9,000 per gram; this was for a rare da hong bao from Mount Wuyi, which comes from a few bushes on a cliff, is difficult to harvest and was once reserved for the emperor.
Different areas of China have famous teas, but the same type of tea comes in many different varieties, just as there are many different Burgundies at different prices. Hangzhou, near Shanghai, is famous for its “Dragon Well” (龙井 lóngjǐng) green tea. Fujian has the most famous oolong teas, “Dark Red Robe” (大红袍 dàhóngpáo) from Wuyi Mountain and “Iron Goddess of Mercy” (铁观音 tiěguānyīn) from Anxi. Pu’er in Yunnan has the most famous fully fermented tea, pǔ’ěrchá (普洱茶). This is pressed into hard cakes, originally a packaging method for transport by horse caravans to Burma and Tibet. The cakes are embossed with patterns; some people hang them as wall decorations.
In most tea shops you are welcome to sit down and try different kinds of tea. “Ten Fu Tea” is a national chain and in Beijing “Wu Yu Tai” is the one some locals say they prefer.
Black tea, the most common type of tea in the West, is known as “red tea” (紅茶 hóngchá) in China. While almost all Western teas are black teas, the opposite is not true. Many Chinese teas, including the famous Pǔ’ěr, also fall into the “black tea” category.
Normal Chinese teas are always drunk pure, and the use of sugar or milk is unknown. However, in some areas you will find Hong Kong-style “milk tea” (奶茶 nǎichá) or Tibetan “butter tea”. Taiwanese “bubble tea” (珍珠奶茶 Zhēnzhū Nǎichá) is also popular and widespread; the “bubbles” are balls of tapioca and often milk or fruit are added.
Coffee in China
Coffee (咖啡 kāfēi) is becoming increasingly popular in urban China, although it can be quite difficult to find in smaller towns.
Several chains of coffee shops have branches in many cities, including Starbucks (星巴克), UBC Coffee (上岛咖啡), Ming Tien Coffee Language and SPR, which most Westerners consider the best of the bunch. All offer coffee, tea and both Chinese and Western food, usually with good air conditioning, wireless internet and nice decor. In most places, prices are ¥15-40 per cup, but beware of the places at the airport, where they sometimes charge around ¥70.
There are also many smaller independent coffee shops or local chains. These can also be high-priced, but are often slightly cheaper than the big chains. The quality varies from excellent to miserable.
For cheap coffee, just to combat the withdrawal symptoms, there are several options. Go to a western fast food chain (KFC, McD, etc.) for a ¥8 coffee. Also, almost any supermarket or convenience store has both canned cold coffee and instant nescafe (usually pre-mixed with whitener and sugar) – just add hot water. It is common for travellers to carry a few packets to use in hotel rooms or on trains, for example, where there may be no coffee but hot water is almost always available.
Cold drinks in China
Many drinks that are usually served chilled or with ice in the West are served at room temperature in China. If you ask for beer or soda in a restaurant, it may be served at room temperature, although beer tends to be served cold, at least in summer. Water is usually served hot. This is actually good, because only boiled (or bottled) water is safe to drink, but non-Chinese people generally do not find it pleasant to drink hot water in summer.
You can get cold drinks in small grocery shops and restaurants, just look for the cooler (even though it may not be really cool). You can try bringing a cold drink to a restaurant. Most small restaurants won’t mind – if they even notice – and there is no such thing as a “corkage” fee in China. Remember that most people will drink tea, which is free anyway, so the restaurant probably won’t expect to profit from your drink consumption.
Asking for ice is best avoided. Many, maybe even most, places simply don’t have it. The ice they do have may well be made from unfiltered tap water and is probably not safe for travellers sweating due to diarrhoea.