Do I like Chinese food? It’s a question I’ve been asked by Chinese people many times over the six years I’ve been living here, and the answer is always a resounding “yes!”. Chinese food is great. I like it a lot. So why is it, my husband often wonders, that I still spend hundreds of RMB on trips to the Western grocery store and occasionally feel the need for a sandwich rather than a bowl of noodles?
The answer is simple. I was spoiled by the vast variety of food I grew up around and now get bored easily. On any given day back home in the US, I can choose between Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, and more or less any other cuisine on the planet. I can go to the grocery store and buy everything I need to make international delicacies at home, or I can go out to eat in a restaurant. If I choose to go out, I can swing by the cheap taco stand on the corner, or I hit up a classy and authentic Mexican-style eatery in town. When it comes to food, I’ve always been spoiled for choice, probably more spoiled than anyone realistically needs to be.
Most Chinese cities lack the same kind variety of high quality cuisine. That’s not to say that there isn’t a huge variety of flavors and styles within Chinese food (regional dishes serve up a large range of tastes), but it’s not the same as having multiple varied cuisines at your fingertips at all times.
While flavors change depending on where you are in China, the basic premise of most regional cuisine is fairly consistent. You get stir fried meat or vegetables, you get dumplings or noodles, always rice, sometimes tofu, and usually a soup. Your flavor profiles are sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. There’s more to it than that, of course, and there are exotic sides to Chinese cuisine – Xinjiang food, with its middle-eastern flavors, or Dai food, with its nods to Thailand – but the pattern usually remains pretty similar.
What’s more, the “homestyle dishes” that most Chinese people eat day-in, day-out, do not offer a huge amount of variety. When my Chinese husband cooks at home we have about a 90% chance of eating some combination of either chicken or rib soup, fried potatoes, fried egg and tomato, fried pork with ginger, fried cabbage, and/or cold cucumber salad. While I know that many Chinese housewives and husbands are veritable gourmets, when my husband cooks at home, we eat like the majority of simple people living simple lives.
My husband seems incapable of understanding my need for culinary variety. He doesn’t get why I don’t want to eat pork ribs two nights on the trot, or why I’d rather whip up some pasta for lunch than have last night’s leftover soup. He complains most of all about the money I spend on Western food. And on this point, at least, I can’t argue.
Whether you’re buying ingredients or dining out, Western food costs around twice what a similar Chinese meal or product would. Imported snacks at the grocery store come at imported prices: 50RMB for a box of cereal, 30RMB for a bar of chocolate. Much to my husband’s disgrace, these are prices I find myself willing to pay for a taste of home.
Part of this is simply a difference in economy. American snacks in America cost more than Chinese snacks in China. As food in the US is in general more expensive than food in China, it doesn’t seem too jarring to pay more for Western goods here. When eating Western food in restaurants in China, you must of course factor in the cost of importing ingredients, training staff, and, on top of that, the exotic factor, which sees prices hiked up simply because they can be.
So is it worth it, the extra effort, the added cost, just to eat something familiar? It all depends. During my first six months in China I rarely ate Western food. For a start, I was a poor student and therefore couldn’t afford it, but at this point I was also still enjoying the novelty of Chinese food.
I often run into foreigners in China who shun Western food entirely. “Why would I eat an expensive bowl of pasta when there are so many delicious and cheap noodle dishes available?” There are many food purist foreigners in China who, in my opinion, take their quest for authenticity to the extreme.
For the record, I don’t think my China experience is any less authentic just because I hit up McDonald’s every now and then or because I made tacos instead of jiaozi last night. For me, eating Western food in China is the same as watching Western films, or buying imported English-language books. At some point, expats crave a bit of home, and luckily for us, these days most big cities in China can serve something up to help quell these cravings.
So don’t feel bad if sometimes you’d rather pass up the fried rice for some french fries, or if you just couldn’t resist popping into Starbucks for a croissant and a coffee on your way into work. While dining on purely Western fare will leave a large dent in your wallet and a gap in your experience, your China credentials will not suffer because of the occasional foreign indulgence.
These days, when my husband frowns at my food choices, I simply ask what he’d be eating if the tables were turned and we were living in the US. No doubt he’d be on first name terms with all the staff at Golden Panda and Szechwan Palace, and our fridge would be packed with cabbage, tofu, and pork ribs.
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Keywords: Western food in China
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I know exactly where you're coming from. I love Chinese food, especially Sichuan cuisine, but the taste of home is always somewhat comforting. My wife never understands why I buy terribly pricey western style sausages and things every so often either!
Oct 08, 2020 03:19 Report Abuse
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Jul 24, 2020 20:12 Report Abuse
There are stores on taobao that sell imported products for half the price or even bigger discounted prices than home on taobao. Its usually overstock from supermarkets that have a shorter expiry date. Personally that not an issue for me since I go through the stuff pretty quickly but these stores are a lifesaver. Save so much money on imported products
Jul 20, 2020 11:58 Report Abuse
I would only go to Metro or similar places if i was really craving something at the moment, the way to get western food of all kinds like dairy, meats, pastas basically anything at all is on taobao and have it delivered. The prices are cheaper too compared to a local store. Another thing when buying on taobao is try to find a shop in or close to city your in if you are buying frozen things like french fries or hamburger patties or something like that, if you do the ice packs they ship it will will still usually be frozen.
Jul 17, 2020 10:10 Report Abuse
Pretty accurate, the best part of it. You can get almost everything you need at quite average prices from the likes of METRO super centers for good western meals of your craving. Even with cooking Chinese meals, it’s become a hybrid in taste from using available spices of foreign and local. You can’t help the Burger or sandwich sometimes, mostly when pressed for time. Looking for a decent treat without much dent to the budget, try lkea meals too. Nice writeup
Jul 17, 2020 06:31 Report Abuse
I totally understand her point of view. I think after the initial new country culture honeymoon phase is over, its common to crave familiar foods from ones home country. My family eats at home mostly and we mix it up depending on our moods. Dining in western eateries will leave a big dent in your finances.
Jul 17, 2020 04:50 Report Abuse