What is your staple food?

A while ago I was asked this question by Sinosplice reader Efraim Klamph:

I am teaching English in a somewhat rural location in Hunan. Sometimes students ask me, “What do Americans have as their main food?” I assume by “main food” they mean 主食, which Wenlin translates as “staple/principal food”. The concept of 主食 seems very clear in Chinese cuisine; particularly at the cafeteria where I eat, you get your veggies and meat all on top of a large serving of white rice. When I think of American or Western cuisine in general, I have a hard time thinking of what could serve as the 主食. Many of the students who ask me seem to be inclined that Westerners eat bread as their 主食. But think about the meals you eat when you’re back home; at least for me, it’s not always a bunch of vegetables and tofu served on a block of rice. So I say to the students that Westerners don’t really have a 主食, we sometimes eat bread, noodles and rice, but the concept of 主食 is rather different in Western cuisine. I mean, where’s the 主食 in the classic salad, hamburger and fries? Any thoughts on this?

I think when the Chinese think “主食,” they normally think “one kind of food,” whereas westerners often think of this as “a class of foods,” AKA what society in the States currently refers to as “carbs.” So our 主食 can be pasta, or bread, or mashed potatoes, or rice, or any of a number of things. Maybe even the hamburger bun and the fries. It depends on the meal.

It sounds a little ethnocentric to say that Western food has a rich smorgasbord of “主食” (carbs), whereas China has only rice. In reality, China does have quite a bit more variety than just rice.

Typical Chinese Carbs (主食):

  • rice: 米饭
  • wheat noodles: 面条
  • mantou (steamed buns): 馒头
  • glass noodles: 米线
  • various “cakes”:
  • various dumplings: 饺子

Photo by rprata

Typical Western Carbs (主食):

  • bread: 面包
  • pasta: 意大利面
  • rice: 米饭
  • corn: 玉米
  • potatoes: 土豆

Neither of these lists are exhaustive, but clearly there’s variation in the carbs consumed in both regions. The difference lies in the fact that certain regions of China stick much more closely to one type (e.g. rice every day in the south, noodles every day in the north), whereas more of a variety is typical in “the west.” More than once, I’ve had Chinese friends from the south tell me that they “just don’t feel right” if they don’t have at least some rice every day. It’s a seriously ingrained (ha!) eating habit.

Obviously, it feels kind of ridiculous to try to sum up the eating habits of “the west” so simply, even though your Chinese friends may very well expect you to do just that. So you may have to explain that in Mexico more corn tortilla and rice is eaten as the 主食, in Poland it’s more potatoes, in Turkey it’s various types of bread, etc.

But if you’re in China for very long studying Chinese and communicating with locals, sooner or later you’re going to have the 主食 discussion. Most Chinese have heard their whole lives that western food is very uniform and boring compared to the rich culinary tapestry that is Chinese food, so you can have a little go at shattering 主食 preconceptions with this one. (Good luck!)


John Pasden

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


  1. bread is a big one, definitely.. but it’s not an ‘essential’ part of every meal in the same way that ‘rice’ (or noodles depending on the region) is. In some countries bread is an essential part of the meal, like France I think… but here in Australia.. I honestly can’t think of an ‘essential’ thing that, if not included with every meal, would be weird or cause the person to feel that the meal was not complete.

    Potato does spring to mind as a ‘common’ food in many of the dishes that could be classed as Australian/British… but still.. it’s not an ‘essential’ or even an ‘expected’ food to include.

    Wind the clock back 50 or 60 years though and I’d say that every meal in Australia would have included beef, potatoes and peas. Now.. is that because of a cultural ‘requirement’? Not at all.. it’s simply due to the abundance of those things..

    So I wonder if ‘rice’, being an abundant resource, is the staple because of this and due to China being a truly ancient culture it has become cultural over millenia.

    • Another thing I’d like to add is that Australia is an extremely multi-cultural society.. there is no national food as such.. we eat whatever is available and whatever we like etc. This was different 50 to 60 years ago before the migration of non-British people exploded.. but I think this plays into this arguement quite well. My wife’s family are very accepting of me for the most part but, for example, one of her aunties can not understand why I would marry a non-Australian person. I tried to explain that in Australia we have a population of mixed races by default and that Chinese people were one of those.. but it just wasn’t understood. There’s a distinction between Chinese and Chinese people who live overseas.. and I think too there is a distinction between “staple food” and “daily food” in this same way… It’s a traditional/cultural thing and unless you are part of that specific culture, there is nothing you can compare it with.

  2. Ah the 主食 conversation…

    In Tianjin (north) the schools I’ve been to also serve stir fried vegetables a top a heap of white rice, not noodles.

    Yes, noodle shops are prevalent in Tianjin, however, more than say “noodles every day/every meal in the North” at least in Tianjin it may be better expressed as “wheat at every meal in the north”.

    Basically it seems a lot of wheat related foods are eaten in Tianjin, i.e. buns, flat breads, noodles. Predominately all are white flour based, no sign of whole wheat at the moment.

    Breakfast in Tianjin: 煎饼果子 is by far the most common.
    Lunch in Tianjin: 米饭/面条 you find the noodles coming more into play around lunch time, especially as it relates to street vendors or little restaurants, yet at the schools and with other box lunch type offerings, you will find white rice being served en mass.

    Dinner in Tianjin: Hmmm, personally it seems this meal is the most open to a variety of items, however still no standard must have “noodles” at every meal.

    Oh yeah! Another big wheat based product eaten often in Tianjin is dumplings a.k.a. 饺子/水饺。

    Summary, “wheat in the north”.

    Suggestion/hope, more whole grains! Whole wheat and brown rice would be a great and healthy change!

  3. Im the U.S., at least, the variety of food available and widely enjoyed has exploded over the past 50 years. For example, raw fish has gone from the ultimate bizarre food to being on sale at gas stations.

    In terms of psychology, we still say “Man does not live by bread alone”, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Compare the Chinese version use of 饭 to mean food in general.

  4. I’ve noticed that misuse of the term ‘staple food’ before. We just don’t use the word that way. You could say that the staple food of parts of Italy is rice, or in Ireland it used to be potatoes, but you would not say ‘My staple food is…’, not even if you always ate rice or bread with your meals. It seems to have crept into books teaching Chinese to English speakers or English to Chinese speakers.
    I got enough of online lessons when a teacher insisted that we call black tea ‘yellow tea’ in English. This was proved by the brand Liptons Yellow Label. He was not open to discussion on the point.

  5. My staple food through college was oats. My roommate’s was potatoes, and our other roommate’s was ramen. The fourth…well, his was probably Taco Bell.

  6. Like light says, back a generation or two in the US, eating was much less diverse, and I think you could argue that bread (of various kinds) was the staple food in the midwest, with potatoes probably coming in a close second. I don’t think my grandparents ever ate noodles or rice as children, and from what I can remember of my great-grandma, we had potatoes at least daily when we visited. My grandma still serves some kind of bread with almost every meal, and I’m pretty sure I ate bread almost every day when I was a child–and if I didn’t think I needed more variety and maybe a few less carbs for the sake of health, I could cheerfully eat it with every meal. Whereas after a year of living in China, I went from liking rice fine to thinking I never wanted to see it again as long as I lived …

  7. The United States really does have quite the mix for their “staple food”. I’ve never really thought into how some cultures it makes sense to have a staple food as opposed to consistently switching up your meals.

  8. I agree with nommoc. ‘主食’ in Chinese refers to the crops that is harvested than the food that is made from the crops. So it should be ‘rice’, ‘wheat’, ‘potato’, ‘corn’ or ‘taro’ etc. Pasta, pancakes, noodles are just various foods that are all made from ‘wheat’, and mashed potatoes and French fries are all from ‘wheat’. So you could say that in southern China, rice is the ‘主食’, and in the north, it’s ‘wheat’. In Western (Europe and America), it’s mainly ‘wheat’ and ‘potato’, and in Mexico, probably ‘corn’.

  9. Actually, when I first saw “主食” I thought it meant “main course”. For example, if you were eating at an italian restaurant, the salad or soup would come first, the pasta dish comes next as your main course, and then you get dessert. If you are at a steak restaurant, the steak would be your main course.

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