Eating in China is a culinary adventure. Whether you’re traveling to major tourist destinations or off the beaten path, there will always be something new for your palate. Unfortunately, most tourists stick to high-end restaurants that are recommended by tour operators and hotel concierges. Most of these restaurants are watered-down versions of authentic Chinese cuisine, geared toward foreigners whom, they assume, are not accustomed to the flavors of the Middle Kingdom.
When visiting China, it’s important to try a variety of regional delicacies. Fortunately, with millions of migrants on the move since the 1980s, there are restaurants from every region of China in any major city. This means that tourists can sample foods from every province in one city. The problem is that most tourists have little to no knowledge of the Chinese language, making it difficult to read restaurant signs and menus to determine their regional roots. However, many restaurants around the country have menus with photos, so newcomers can point to a dish and hope they like it. In Shanghai and Beijing, many restaurants, especially in more tourist-friendly neighborhoods, will have menus in English (though quality of the translations and intelligibility may vary).
The majority of Chinese restaurants serve cuisine from Sichuan (四川), Chongqing (重庆), Hunan (湖南) and Guangdong (广东). There are a growing number of restaurants from northern China migrating to other regions. Most of these are not connected to a specific province, but just northeastern cuisine (东北). Other northern restaurants that have migrated across the country include Lanzhou (兰州) and Xinjiang (新疆), the former specializing in hand-pulled noodles and the latter a cuisine that is more closely associated with central Asia and is similar to Turkish food.
The benefit of eating at smaller, local restaurants is that you’ll save money. An average full meal for a group (generally four or five dishes to share) will cost about 20 RMB per person. Many hotel restaurants and tour-approved meals will cost 50 RMB or more per person. The atmosphere of these restaurants will also provide you with an authentic Chinese experience as you dine with the locals.
The downside to eating at such restaurants is that they may not be as sanitary as the recommended eateries, thus increasing the risk of potential illness while on vacation. The best way to avoid such illnesses while eating out (and this can be applied to travel to other countries) is to take activated charcoal pills and Pepto-Bismol (or a similar over-the-counter medication) regularly-don’t wait until you feel ill to take these medications.
Of course, there are times when tourists should eat at the more expensive restaurants. When visiting Beijing, tourists need to eat at Quanjude (全聚德) for Beijing roast duck. But, you must arrive early as the restaurant gets very crowded. It is also advisable to try one of the restaurants in the hutong neighborhoods that surround the Forbidden City. These restaurants can be expensive, but provide a dining experience that can’t be found anywhere else in China. It’s also important to try Sichuan hot pot (particularly if you travel when the weather is cold), and it isn’t a good idea to try it at a smaller restaurant.