How to: Avail of Western Food without Going Bankrupt

How to: Avail of Western Food without Going Bankrupt
By Mark Turner ,

Hankering for home comforts is part and parcel of being an expat. Many are disheartened by the paltry and overpriced offerings at the imports section of their local supermarket and gob-smacked when they see some of the prices on the labels in the ‘international’ supermarkets. We bring you some tips on how to try to take the sting out of grocery shopping and how, in turn, to cook and eat western style at home.   

Now We’re Cooking
Unless you are some kind of alimentary anomaly that subsides entirely on chips and dip, readymade meals and pop tarts, you are likely to have to wield a chopping board or spatula from time to time if you plan on eating at home. Given China’s eating out culture, which is reflected in the massive array of restaurants both Chinese and foreign, it is very easy to lose those kitchen skills or be tempted to never learn them should we not have had them in the first place. A lot of this is kitchen common sense, but you will find that you spend much less on food wasting it if you use or develop your kitchen skills.

With a repertoire of good dishes at your finger tips you will be more inclined to cook at home often, be able to do shopping more effectively and buy exactly what you need without waste. Luckily the kind people at The Hutong ( provide cookery classes and get-togethers for Beijing people interested in all things culinary; both traditional Chinese and foreign. Although classes may seem expensive in the short term, they will offer useful cooking tips that could save you money and time in the long run.

The ‘where and when’
For western dining at home and indeed, just healthy eating in general, you need a balanced diet. Similarly eating in China requires good balance. Much of the fresh produce in Chinese supermarkets is great. The fruit and vegetable stands in supermarkets and street markets are a dream for foreign gourmands, especially since they’re cheap, plentiful and fresh most of the time. Many ingredients for western dishes can be found in Chinese supermarkets and street markets at cheaper prices. Popular with those looking for veggies and fruits which are less commonly used in Chinese dishes is Sanyuanli market, where fresh delicacies such as avocadoes, limes, lemon grass and fresh herbs can be found at prices lower than those at supermarkets.

The concept of organic is a very new thing in China and as always Chinese marketers are happy to latch on to western buzz words in spite of authenticity. However, Beijing has an increasing number of genuine organic farms, some of which even do door to door delivery. Organic Farm is one such company which delivers a few times a week. Products range from fruit and vegetables to cereals, pasta and baby food. Often teaming up with friends and ordering in bulk is a good way of saving money. Check out their website for more info and order lists (

The (not so) rare and exotic
As fruit and vegetables are plentiful in Chinese style markets, anything else you might wish for in terms of foreign ingredients is similarly available in abundance at the international ones; though there is one catch: they’re available, but at a price. Baking ingredients, ingredients for eastern and far eastern, American, European foods, it’s all there. The most specialist stockists of western style products and ingredients are Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet. Other larger supermarkets that stock foreign products in Beijing include: French supermarket Auchan, Japanese chain Ito Yokado, Latin food specialists Goya and Olé with its Financial Street and Dongzhimen locations.

If you have the time and are that way inclined, then you can remember which stores carry your favourite items most cheaply and stock up when you find yourself in the area. Rather strangely, prices of some items carried by international supermarkets can sometimes vary from branch to branch within one supermarket chain.

It is also worth mentioning that even though the imported food sections in Chinese supermarkets is often lackluster and overpriced, some good staples are available at these stores. Markets will often stock reasonably priced pasta, and decent bread can also be found in many. In regards to Beijing grocery shopping, bread is a form of culinary Russian roulette due to Chinese people’s love of sweet breads. Chomping down on a finely constructed sandwich cannot be spoiled more than when you chow down and find yourself mistakenly munching on fluffy, synthetically textured and –shock horror- sugary bread. Decent breads some even containing whole grains can be found at much lower prices than in the international supermarkets; it just requires a bit of trial and error until you find a bread that you like. Carrefour, which has several branches in Beijing, have a fairly decent selection of freshly baked breads at very reasonable supermarket prices.

Get Loose
Rather than buying pre-packed cheese, cold cuts, sundried tomatoes, olives etc when you are in the western supermarket, have a look at what’s on offer at the deli counter. Sure there are the pricey epicurean delights such as the finest quality French brie going for a whopping 80 RMB for a smudge on a cheese board, lurking behind that sneeze guard, scheming on liberating the hard earned Yuan from your purse; there are also money stretching god sends under them yards of glass.

One such example is the ‘no thrills’ cheese selection, hidden in amongst the more pricey option. Given the unappetizing plethora of unnaturally coloured, plastic looking cheese slices packed in their own little, equally plastic envelopes on sale in most average Chinese supermarkets, the ‘no thrills’ cheeses on offer in international supermarkets are by no means without thrills for the average cheese hunting foreigner. Smaller international style supermarkets Jenny Lou and April Gourmet have a selection of cheeses including gruyere, edam, and ementhal available 10 RMB per 100g. Similarly Auchan’s Wangjing store has a deli counter. Meats and other deli treats are also on offer to those that do not expect recognizable or fancy looking labels. Asking the deli counter guy to cut meats and cheeses thinly makes them last surprisingly longer and this is will probably do favours for your waistline all at the same time.

Supermarket Bonanza
Like in supermarkets back home, international supermarkets often offer good deals; however these must be sniffed out, like they say ‘all that glitters is not gold.’ When buying a ‘mai yi song yi’ (buy one, gift one) it’s worth checking whether the produce is past its sell by date, as well as checking the price of the ‘one’ thing you are buying. Both Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet supermarkets regularly have food items on sale. Next time you go to April Gourmet make sure to check out the special discount section, where often you can pick up a bottle of wine or chocolate for half the original price.

Allowing a little leeway in product date (remember foods in China are commonly labeled with a ‘production’ date as opposed to a ‘sell by’) is ok for some dry foods, however its worth being careful when buying products containing dairy that are marked down or on promotion. As a side note, it is worth remembering that a lot of dairy products are still relatively new to China and for this reason people are not completely up on the ways in which they should be stored and transported.

If you are confused about price labeling ask a store clerk, if something seems too good to be true, then it most likely is. Also, do not forget that all the pricing/labelling in western style supermarkets is in Chinese even if the food is foreign.

Sanyuanli Market三源里菜市场 View In Map
Add:Shunyuan Jie, Dongsanhuan, Chaoyang District, Beijing

Jenny Lou’s (Sanlitun branch)View In Map
Add: 6 Sanlitun Beixiaojie, Chaoyang District, Beijing
Tel: 010 6461 6928
Opening hours: 08:00-22:00, daily

April Gourmet (Lido branch)View In Map
Add: 102 The Richmond Park Leisure Center, Fangyuan Nanlu, Chaoyang District, Beijing地址:北京市朝阳区芳园南路丽都水岸会所102号
Tel: 021 8457 8116
Opening times: 08:00 - 22:00, daily 

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Keywords: western food shopping Beijing Cheap food beijing Western cheap food


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