Chinese Food for Laowai

Laowai Chinese recently hit on a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: What Foreigners Like to Eat in China. It’s true that foreigners in China find many menu items to be a hassle (read: almost any fish), while others are just not usually pleasing to our palates (read: chicken feet). In his post Albert makes a very good list, although mine would be slightly different.

First, I’d list the essentials (excluding rice) for foreigners in China. These are the best dishes for someone who has just arrived, but they also tend to remain in the favorite lists of foreigners that have been here a while.

Essential Chinese Food

1. 宫保鸡丁 – Kung pow chicken. This has got to be the favorite. I still love it.
2. 饺子 – Dumplings. They come in boilded and fried varieties, but they’re all good.
3. 扬州炒饭 Yangzhou fried rice. It’s better than just plain fried rice, because it has ham (oops, I mean “ham”), shrimp, peas, etc. in it.
4. 鱼香肉丝 – Fishilicious Pork Strips. [OK, that’s not the official translation, but that’s the one I’ve been using since my Hangzhou days.] There’s no fish in it; it’s strips of pork and other good stuff in a sweetish, spicyish sauce. Foreigners usually love it with rice.
5. 羊肉串 – Lamb kebabs. This needs no explanation.
6. 番茄炒蛋 – Stir-fried eggs and tomato.

There are obviously a lot of other that could be listed (see Albert’s list), but those would be my essential six. I still enjoy all of them, despite favoring them heavily for over six years.

So basically, if a foreigner showed up in China alone, and was allowed to choose what food he wanted to eat without any outside influence, there’s a good chance he’d end up eating these six and liking them the best.

I feel like there should be ten, though. Ten is a much nicer number. I wish I had time to make a list of the “perfect ten,” but I have a plane to catch to Chongqing.

Bon appétit!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. My favorite on the list has got to be 饺子. I could seriously eat like a million.
    I’m going to have to say 酸辣汤 too. I know it’s readily available in the west, but it’s just not the same!
    I also liked what I have been told are called both 汤包 and 小龙包. (Not sure which one is right, or if they both are.) I think it may be considered dim sum, but that soupy explosion is like none other. (quite hot too…)

  2. Five more that definitely make my list:

    糖醋里脊: Sweet and Sour Pork
    锅巴肉片: Pork and Veggies in Gravy over Crispy Rice Pieces
    回锅肉: Twice Cooked Meat
    青椒玉米: Delicious Battered Corn and Pepper
    干煸土豆丝: Chinese French Fries

    One of the best parts about Peace Corps is they actually give us a 12 page menu of the Chinese foods that foreigners like!! It’s got 汉字, pinyin, and English translations and explanations of each dish. Mostly 川菜 but snacks, drinks, spices, etc. also make the list. With that, we hit the ground running rather than play the “I’m a new foreigner in China and don’t know what to order so I’m going to look around the restaurant and point to what other people are eating that looks good” game.

  3. Speaking of Chongqing, 7. 火锅 – Hotpot.

  4. It depends in large part on where you find yourself in China – in the northeast, you’d have to put 地三鲜 (eggplant, potato, and green pepper) and 锅包肉 (crispy battered pork in sweet sauce) high on the list, and in general, 干煸芸豆 (crispy green beens, Sichuan style) is probably on there somewhere.

  5. Not sure if it’s chinese or Japanese in origin, but 蛋饱饭/danbaofan/omerice is a staple for me.

    Love it.

  6. That’s funny about the Fried Rice – if I go to an everyday style restaurant and ask what I should order, 50% they recommend me the yangzhou fried rice. It’s a pet peeve because I don’t like it, and thought they just choose the most bland thing on the menu and assume that’s all a foreigner can handle!

    For me, in addition to what you mentioned, xiaolongbao is the big Shanghai thing. And baozi. And pulled noodles. And sandwiches.

  7. 水煮鱼, 麻辣汤, 春卷, 烤鸭, some more typical laowai favorites.

  8. The food that Jason is refering to is a large array of products which fall under the umbrella of 包子 (bao1zi3). The great thing about baozi is that they can be found just about everywhere in China, and they differ in different regions. The 汤包 (tang1bao1) you mention are common around Shanghai and Hangzhou. The first time I ate one, I had no idea there was soup inside (the baozi here in Fujian are just filled with meat) and it splattered all over my shirt. Another good variety is the 叉烧包(cha1shao1bao1) which in common in Cantonese restaurants. The little mini-baozi are also a nice snack, and are clled 小笼包 (xiao3long2bao1). I give them all the proverbial thumbs up.

  9. I miss ZUCC Smokehouse and street food. Alas, the days we ate like Kings for a pittance are far behind us. I could really go for a piece of slightly warm fried chicken, a pocket sandwich (easy on the pickled stuff), and one of those bizarro pancake/egg/crispy thingies RIGHT NOW!

  10. hey guys,

    I’m Chongqing,and I am Chinese.I would like to recommend you some really nice food in CQ!By the way,I love all the food you’ve mentioned above!

  11. When I need a fixing of greens and I can’t stand another course of qingcai, suanni xilanhua (broccoli w/ garlic) is awfully tasty (even if the broccoli is completely anemic, as it tends to be in these lean winter months).

    Also, in the north, the basi can really sate any sweet-tooth cravings. Hongdoubao are a yummy substitute.

  12. Second Matt’s suggestion of 糖醋里脊: Sweet and Sour Pork. How many times did we eat that for lunch and dinner? Lots and not enough! That is a must, even here in the States where steak and chicken reign supreme and Spam is about as tasteful as Internet Spam, the Chinese restaurants state side sell lots of lemon chicken and sweet and sour pork. Top it on rice and you got a meal.

  13. Also, thought since the Chinese Live to Eat, the list would be too hard to constrain to a single top 10. Rather, since demographically and regionally, Chinese eat everywhere, all the time, I thought categories would do more for the subject:


    • Stir-Fried Tomato & Egg
    • Sweet & Sour Pork
    • Kung Pao Chicken
    • Eggplant
    • Garlic Spinach
    • Salt & Pepper Fried Taro Root (seasonal)

    Street Vendors:

    • Morning Pan-Fried Dumplings
    • Sweet Soy Milk & Chinese Doughnut
    • Boiled Egg
    • Banana Leaf wrapped Sticky Rice Braised Pork Inside
    • Hand-Pulled Noodle Soup


    • Pineapple on a Stick (seasonal)
    • Sticky Yellow Fried Sticks
  14. If you like yang rou chuan(r) (羊肉串) enough to recommend it, then you will also love cumin flavored spicy lamb bits – zi ran yang rou (孜然羊肉) , ..

    And who can taste ma po dou fu ( 麻婆豆腐 ) and not love it? (but don’t order the Ma La kind).

  15. In a futur post could you speak about “Western food for chinese”.
    I already have a short history of multiple faux-pas and vomit consequences.

  16. bobinsantafe Says: February 24, 2007 at 6:36 am

    There’s a dish I had last year in both Hangzhou and Shanghai that featured a mound of red chile peppers in which pieces of roasted pork (I think) were buried. Absolutely delicious. But what’s it called? Chinese and Taiwanese friends here don’t know what I’m talking about.

  17. I live in Shenzhen. Ganbian sijidou is staple among my friends. In addition to the eggs and tomatoes, eggs and hot peppers are a favorite.

  18. I’m of the Sichuan and Xinjiang culinary persuasion:

    丁丁炒面 “Ding ding fried noodles”

    口水鸡 “Saliva chicken”

    大盘鸡 “Big plate o’chicken”

    水煮牛肉 “boiled beef strips”
    and of course, perhaps China’s most famous dish: (curiously nobody mentioned it yet!?) Peking roast duck 北京烤鸭!

    I hate translating names of chinese foods into english, especially Cantonese dishes here in HK as the artsy names don’t do the dishes justice! Take a look at my website for photos of some of the dishes noted above.

  19. Personally, I like the “red cooked” meats and fishes of Jiang-Zhe (but then, I’m not a true Westerner). I find it somewhat surprising tomatoes stirfried with eggs hasn’t become a staple of Chinese restaurants in the US. It’s easy to make, virtually impossible to screw up, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have taste buds.

  20. Dezza,

    I took your advice and had some Ding Ding Noodles for lunch today. Oh man, that’s gettin added to my list of regulars. Thanks for the reco!

  21. A lot of good ideas here. I can’t wait to go bloat myself ordering all these at once and then steal them and add them to my list! Thanks everyone.

  22. Oh the memories! Looks like the list hasn’t changed since I was last in China (1992)…

  23. I don’t particularly want to be told what I, as a “foreigner”, like to eat. Everyone’s tastes are different. I have my favourite dishes, many of which neither Albert nor John have listed, but at the same time I’m always keen to try something new.

    Actually, a lot of the foods mentioned here are popular with Chinese too, so if you prefer them to eating MacDonald’s and KFC every day then I guess you’re on your way to appreciating Chinese food. But if after years in China you are still ordering the same dishes at every meal, then there is something very very wrong.

    As for fish, sure, tiny bones can be a hassle, but it’s worth it. Just like shrimp are worth peeling, and crab is worth breaking apart with your fingers and sucking the meat out of.

  24. 大盘鸡 and 丁丁炒面 are on my list of top ten foods full stop. Someone seriously needs to open up a Xinjiang style restaurant in the states.

    I’m a big fan of the Sour-hot vegetable dishes, particulary in the lotus root and potato shred forms. I prefer the family style tofu to mopo. It has a more pleasing texture.

    Let’s not forget Roujiamo, either.

  25. This is good stuff. If someone would just put a little vocabulary list together for ‘how to understand a Chinese menu” I’d be set for my trip to Beijing. I don’t think anyone’s really put something together yet, though.

  26. Aijin: Lonely Planet guides have a section like that. So do a lot of those little Chinese-English phrasebooks.

  27. Oh, and I also tried 丁丁炒面. They were OK but I admit I was unpleasantly reminded of Spaghetti-Os 🙂

  28. While I love dumplings, my new favorite is hotpot cobra. I have had that 3 times in the past 10 days. Though, I can pass on the snake bile baiju that my friends insist on having with it.

  29. You’re forgetting of course the best dessert dish – 小馒头, sometimes called 金银馒头 (although in my opinion you’re better asking them to replace all the 银馒头 with 金馒头). Small bits of bread fried golden brown, with a plate of sweetened condensed milk to dip them in. Just remember to tell the waitress to bring it out last 🙂

  30. Jeff: sounds like you went to a bad Xinjiang restaurant!

    There should be lamb, vegetables, tomato and lots of cumin in there..nothing like the canned spaghetti-o’s!

  31. hi guys .do you have listened or tasted the dessert dish- 天津狗不理包子。it’s very delicious….

  32. This might be a nice spot to self promote my own site It contains many suggestions for Chinese dishes for foreigners, all including Chinese characters, pinyin, English, and pictures, as well as vocabulary lists for Chinese food words. Check it out.

  33. My personal top ten dishes from the few years I lived in Dalian, Liaoning:

    1. 鱼香鸡丝 – Fishilicious shredded chicken strips
    2. 宫保鸡丁 – Kung pow chicken
    3. 素三鲜饺子 – Dumplings with shrimp, eggs, and chives
    4. 口水鸡 – Mouth-watering chicken
    5. 羊肉串 – Grilled lamb kebabs
    6. 馕 – Xinjiang-style naan
    7. 皮蛋豆腐 – Century eggs with tofu
    8. 鸡肉炒面 – Fried noodles with chicken
    9. 小馒头 – Steamed buns served with sweetened condensed milk
    10. 锅包肉 – Fried pork in a thick sweet and sour sauce

    My favorite snack foods were definitely 鱿鱼丝 (dried and shredded squid strips) and 麻辣花生 (spicy peanuts with peppercorns). I always ate my 鱿鱼丝 with soy sauce and wasabi, at least that’s how the clubs in Dalian always served it. The 麻辣花生 could be found in practically any convenience store or supermarket in Dalian and were usually only about 6 RMB for a 70g bag.

    Making this list made me realize how much I miss real Chinese food!

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