A student’s experience of eating food in China

As a company trying to help students in their pursuit of a higher education, we feel it’s important to share stories from actual students about their experiences of studying and living in China and how they dealt with things, as a kind of way to help you reduce any concerns or worries that you may have.

This student’s story is from a Chinese language student called Ryan, he was in China for a year to study Mandarin in one of their many long-term study classes. We thought it would be a good idea for him to share his own stories on how he ordered food in China, even with his little or no Chinese.

Here it goes:

“Ordering food in China can be extremely easy even if you don’t speak any of the language. The people here are so accommodating to foreigners that they’ll make it extremely easy for you to order food with them, they’ll help you a lot and will be extremely patient if you don’t understand what they say. I’d say it’s pretty hard to be hungry in China, there is so much to choose from, even if you’ve only just arrived, you’ll spend most of the time just trying to choose where to go!

Being in any new country, I found it pretty daunting and scary at first, but that’s just how I am, I was nervous about going to these places by myself just in case I ordered the completely wrong thing and made a fool of myself! Coming from the UK I was really really jetlagged, but even with this I still ate like a king for my whole time in China. And to be completely honest, you shouldn’t worry at all, you’ll be eating like a king too, and without having to break a sweat, or the bank. Just try to follow the advice of people, and copy what the local Chinese do, and you’ll realise it’s extremely easy!

As I was at university studying, the university campus and also the immediate surrounding area had a huge variety of restaurants, cafes, supermarkets,a mall, and also ordering online to choose from, no matter what you wanted you could get. It took a little bit of experimentation and trial and error but myself and my roommate and I eventually found a handful of restaurants that catered for our every need。

Before learning any Chinese, one of my best hints or tips would be to choose a restaurant that has a picture menu, because if not, the English translation is often wrong so you may not get what you think you actually ordered. So choosing a menu that has pictures showing exactly what you’re getting is a good place to start.

I’d also recommend learning a few basic phrases for if you want to venture out further once you’ve settled down, such as:

Numbers:

Note: “_” = The best way a beginner speaker of Chinese can pronounce the words correctly and accurately. Literally how it sounds.

1 一 “E” yī

2 二”R” ér / 两”Lee-ang” Liǎng (people & quantities)

3 三”San” sān

4 四”ser” sì

5 五”woo” wǔ

6 六”Leo” liù

7 七”chee” qì

8 八”baa” bā

9 九”jee eww” jiǔ

10 十”sher” shì

11 十一shi yi

12 十二shi er

20 二十er shi

21 二十一er Shi yi

22 二十二er Shi er

100 一百”e-buy” yi bai

101 一百一yi bai yi

Paying the Bill

To pay 买单”myy(3rd tone) dan” mǎidān

If you’ve left food and want to take it home.

Pack left overs 打包”da bao” dǎ bāo

If you want to buy the food from the restaurant and take it home as a takeaway:

Takeaway — 带走 “Die Zoww”

Menu:

菜单 “Tie Dan”

Full Meal: For example if you’re in McDonald’s and you want a whole meal, not just a burger.

套餐 “Tao Tan”

Other:

米饭 — mifan — “Me Fan” = Rice

水 — shui — “Shwey” = Water

筷子 — Kuazi — “Kwu -eye -zer” = Chopsticks

勺子 — Shaozi — “Shao zer” = Spoon

This list should help you when making your first visit to a restaurant and first week in China much easier.

When I first arrived in China, I didn’t do the typical foreigner thing in a new country trick and I actually didn’t go to KFC, McDonald’s, or Burger King for at least the first month. But as soon as I did go, I went quite often… These fast food joints over here are extremely cheap, for example a whole meal you can pay just 3 GBP, and that’s for extras too! McDonalds is the foreigner stop as you can ask for the 菜单, or simply make a rectangle shape with your hands, and they’ll hand you the menu easily, I used this quite a lot in restaurants around China before I started to learn Chinese. And oh, you need to try the Peking chicken wrap from KFC, it’s awesome.

Unfortunately when I arrived in China, my student card wasn’t ready, which meant I couldn’t buy food from the school’s canteen just yet, so I made do by going to the local restaurants nearby to my dormitory. There was a general Chinese restaurant downstairs, which sold a huge variety of delicious food, it wasn’t a chain, but it was just a typical Chinese restaurant which had a huge amount to choose from, definitely a great place to start.

Another great choice in my opinion is the Muslim diners that are scattered around the cities of China, the food in these places is sublime. These restaurants will also 99% of the time have picture menus, and we always chose these type of restaurants because of their BBQ variety, trust me, you’ve never experienced BBQ until you have tried these places. Not only BBQ but we also often ordered some of the local delicacy which had been brought from other provinces around China with the influence of Muslim flavours. Definitely one of my, if not my favourite type of restaurant in China, especially during the hot evenings where you can sit outside with BBQ and some of my favourite dishes like eggs, mushrooms and soy sauce and a drink and just sit back and watch the world go by.,

I’d also like to point out that eating at these restaurants, especially the locally ran ones is extremely easy, you simply walk into the restaurant, they’ll ask you how many people, so you can just stick up how many people’s worth of fingers you have, they’ll tell you to go and sit down, and they’ll give you a menu, but just a word of warning, when you’re ordering the food, the waiter will give you the menu, but won’t leave, they’ll wait until you have chosen exactly what you want and have finished looking through the whole menu and decided,but don’t worry about this, they don’t mind if you take a little while looking through the menu, it was something that I found a little strange as a foreigner at first. And when you’ve decided you can simply just point at what they want, they’ll type it down via their electronic device and you’ll soon (within 10–15 minutes) have your dishes.

One thing that I found whilst I have been living in China is that dishes will literally come out of the kitchen to your table when they’re ready, it doesn’t matter if it’s a dessert dish or a side dish, you may find that your friend has already got all of their food whilst you’re still waiting for your first. Don’t worry about this as it’s completely normal, it’s a good sign that it’s coming out straight away rather than sitting on the side, you can just share each other’s dish until all of the food comes out.

A go to for lunch would be again some of the Chinese restaurants, or if you’re lucky you may have a large supermarket nearby. These supermarkets are brilliant as they sell a huge range of bread, foreign snacks, and also ready-made food that you can take back to your dormitory or warm up in the store like in the 7Eleven stores. We often came here and bought the likes of sandwiches, chicken burgers, instant noodles or any variety of snacks inbetween classes, I really recommend trying the Orion Chocolate Pies, they’re out of this world, they’re fairly similar to the chocolate tea cakes we have in the UK, but they’re bigger and cheaper!

There were times in China where even though I could speak the Chinese I needed, we still often ordered something that we had no idea what it was, either through miscommunication or just because we thought we’d be daring. And to be honest 99% of the time it’s worked out really well. But you’ll definitely have to get used to the food when you’re in China, because you’ll need a little time to adjust your body to the food here, I mean this in terms of potentially greasy/oily food or even the spicy food here, which even though you can take it in your home country, it’s a completely different kind over here, and it could upset your stomach if you don’t take it easy and gradually get into it. Because there is nothing worse than finding yourself with an upset stomach and all you have at your disposal is a squat toilet!

China is an amazing place for snacks, whether it be street food or just simply small snacks at restaurants. I often found myself going to the various rickshaw wagon in the morning to purchase breakfast from these guys. They usually sell items such as 煎饼, or 鸡蛋灌饼, which are basically pancakes of sort. There were a few times when I first went to order these, and the guys bombarded me with a huge variety of questions, but because at that time my Chinese was poor I became so nervous, and the simple task of buying a pancake felt like an exam. But after a few attempts I quickly learnt what they were asking me, for example if I wanted onions, or if I wanted it hot, and every time, and I mean every time I said ‘BU LA’ which means not spicy, and honestly I’d recommend it too, I thought I could handle a bit of spice, when I came to China I was definitively proved wrong!

During my study in China I often ordered food like pizza or other dishes online to be delivered to my room. I liked this especially if the weather was bad outside, or I didn’t have enough time to go to the restaurant due to study, and it’s extremely easy to do. All you need to do is know your address in Chinese and we often used apps like eleme or even ordered straight from the company’s website such as Pizza Hut, all of which is in English and is extremely easy to use. One thing that we always did, especially when our Chinese was in dire need of improvement, we often left notes on the delivery page in Chinese along the lines of ‘Our Chinese isn’t good, please don’t call, please come straight to our door’. And without a lie 99% of the time they came to the door without a problem. As long as they could get through the security gate they were fine to come inside.

However there were the occasions before we put this note on the delivery page, that when they arrived they would call you to tell you where they are so you can come and collect it, which when your Chinese isn’t great, is definitely a larger task than it should be. But I soon realized that the delivery drivers went to 1 of 4 places: 1) directly to my room, 2) downstairs outside my building, 3) outside the campus gate where the security check is, or 4) to the most busiest part of the campus where the majority of the dormitories are. But don’t worry because I soon realized that the drivers don’t mind if you’re lost trying to get the food, they understand that maybe your Chinese isn’t good, so they’re extremely patient. There was nothing better than coming in from a cold day and having a pizza delivered straight to your door.

In China you have a good range of food to choose from, they mainly have rice or noodles alongside dishes, but these dishes are extremely healthy, both for you and for your bank. They don’t have any SMG like the Chinese places in our home countries, and a whole meal for example at the restaurant I talked about, it cost me around 3 GBP, it’s incredibly cheap and the food is incredible. I often tried to experiment and try as much food as possible, even things that I necessarily wouldn’t have ever thought I would have like fermented tofu or even sea slugs, but that’s the best thing about China, you can experience a huge amount, you can try things that none of your friends have ever tried, and best of all, all of these things both normal and strange are incredibly easy to get your hands on, no matter what you want or where you want to get it from. Whether it’s a simple beef and pepper dish, an egg dish, some fried rice, breakfast food, street food, anything is there.

Some of the best food that I had during China was everything, literally, I ordered the breakfast wraps from the street stalls most mornings, I got beef dishes from the restaurants that were to die for, I often went to the Peking Duck restaurants and had the best duck I’ve ever had in my life, and also tried my fair share of BBQ and local delicacies at the various festivals or stalls around Beijing.

I’d recommend trying hot pot too, that’s somewhere that I often went, it’s extremely easy to order, and it tastes sublime, you can get a variety of sauces, meats, vegetables, anything you want and put it in. There are a few different varieties such as ones that they cook for you for your own individual dish, or ones that are cooked for the whole table, or you could even have your own pot and boil all of the ingredients yourself, this is something that we really really loved in China. There were a few funny times when we went to a Chinese only hot pot and we had no clue what we were doing, we ordered what we thought was plain curry, but it was in fact the spiciest one they had, it was definitely an experience.

We often also headed to the big pizza place, which in Beijing sells the biggest pizza in Beijing, this monster is only around 10 GBP but it’s 26 inch worth pizza goodness, and whatever’s left over we used to take back and have for lunch the next day! The food in China is about convenience, it comes as quick as you’ll eat it, I found that I could no longer eat Chinese food back in the UK because of how good actual Chinese food in China was, it’s completely different and you’ll love it straight away.

Other places I went to include my university’s canteen, often cheaper than the other restaurants outside of the campus, but the price doesn’t reflect the taste. It’s fairly easy to order food here, simply get your student card, point to what you want and scan your card for the price to be taken away. My favourite dish out of my canteen was in fact the sesame bread you can buy alongside dumpling soup, I had searched for at least a year now for any dumplings that can compare, and unfortunately none have!

Another thing that I didn’t do myself, but my roommate did was cook himself. In China this is extremely affordable, you can buy good quality meats, vegetables and fruits from stalls, little stores or supermarkets and simply make whatever you like. I wouldn’t say it was cooking but I often got the instant noodles that you get, similar to pot noodle, and (make sure that you buy a kettle) simply just warmed up the noodles for lunch or inbetween classes, which is a great way to grab a quick snack, especially if you’re busy. I’d also recommend trying things called ‘youtiao’ 油条 which are basically deep fried doughnuts, but they have them with soy sauce, or any sauce for that matter. You can also have them with dishes like pork and rice, they go down a treat. If you’re a fan of pies, you can also try their meat pie, which is available at most restaurants. And if you love fried chicken, then you must try the taiwanese chicken joints that are scattered around the main cities, lots of which are at tourist sites. You can point to what you want, choose what flavour you want, and you’ll receive your devine fried chicken which I often enjoyed walking back to my university, or in fact strolling through some of the tourist sights in Beijing such as Nanluoguxiang.

I do honestly believe that you’ll never be hungry in China, there is so much to choose from, and the majority of time that you live in China you’ll spend it thinking about where you’re going to go for dinner. You’ll have a huge amount of experiences and be able to try delicacies from around the whole country, no matter which town or city you’re in. For all palates, for all diets, for all people, China is the best place for food! And you won’t have any problems getting it in the first place!”

We hope that this can give you some insight to what it’s like to be an actual student in China and where the best places are to order food. If you require any more information regarding how to get by in China, please see our other Beginner Guide pages and also our FAQS!