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Lunch in China presents you with many options if you want to eat like a local: rice, noodles, dishes, dumplings, pancakes, hotpot... Read on to find out more about the 10 most popular meals people eat throughout China at lunch time.
Gaifan (pronounced "guy-fan" not "gay-fan"), which translates as covered rice, is a collective name for a one-person meal consisting of a portion of rice (generally quite a large portion to fill you up throughout the day), and a serving of a meat or vegetable dish of your choice.
These tend to cost from 10 yuan upwards in the bigger cities and a little less in smaller cities, but the price will depend on whether you're having a meal that consists predominantly of vegetables or tofu, which are cheaper, or a more expensive meat dish.
Then there are variations on the classic egg fried rice — like the above, but the ingredients are stir fried.
Noodles are eaten for lunch throughout the country. Because of the different methods of preparation, differing geography and variety of ingredients, they come in different types throughout the country. In the north, people tend to eat wheat noodles, whereas southerners generally eat rice noodles.
Noodles are often chosen as a lunch meal because they are quick, but especially in winter, they are warm and filling. Popular noodles are beef noodles, or Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles. You can read more about these types of noodles here. A bowl can cost anywhere from 10 to 25 yuan depending on if you've picked a big restaurant, a chain restaurant, or a little stall.
Office workers can get them either at places like 7/11, where they're inexpensive and probably the quickest lunch you can get, but the better renditions come from stalls where they're being freshly prepared and steamed outside. You'll recognize these by the dumpling steamers made of bamboo. One of those should set you back a maximum of 7–8 yuan and usually has about 9–12 dumplings inside them.
Malatang (/maa-laa-tung/), literally translatable as hot spicy soup, is a popular lunch for people who like to eat spicy food (and doubles as a drunken street snack for those living in China). You pick your food on skewers (vegetables, meats such as little sausages or meatballs, noodles, and tofu in all different shapes and sizes), and everything is boiled in a hot broth (this is where the soup comes in), then served with a serving of sesame sauce and chili (if you want more spice!).
This food is great to take away in one-person portions, but can also be eaten at the restaurant as a shared meal. A portion will set you back around 20–30 yuan depending on what you pick.
For those on the move, jianbing (/jyen-bing/) is not only a breakfast food but also a solid and fast lunch (albeit carb-heavy, definitely not diet friendly). This traditional Northern dish is most certainly one of Beijing's top foods, costing approximately only 6 yuan.
The jianbing is a pancake made of both egg and mung bean batter, folded with a spicy sauce, scallions, and a crispy sheet of dough, and cooked on a hot plate in front of you on a cart. You'll find the carts selling them around subway stations. If you opt to include sausage or other additions you might have to pay a little more. Make sure you specify whether you want it spicy or not.
Originating in the center of the country and mostly known for being a Xi'an dish, roujiamo (/roh-jyaa-mor/) are a type of burger often eaten alongside soup or noodles at lunch time. They come in lamb and pork varieties depending on where you get them, as China has a few regions where Muslims are predominant.
In Xi'an's Muslim quarter, for example, you'd get them stuffed with lamb meat, but in the rest of Shaanxi they are commonly filled with pork. Click here to read more about things to eat while you're in Xi'an.
If you are out with friends or guests, lunch will generally consist of ordering many dishes from a menu (often with a lazy susan), with everyone getting their own bowl of rice and sharing the dishes.
These type of restaurants are a little nicer for lunch and not usually the go-to for office workers, but frequented when guests are in town or on special occasions. Prices range widely depending on the restaurant.
Many Chinese offices will have a canteen, which is like in a school. Pick a dish or three to go onto your stainless steel tray, choose between rice, pancakes, or buns (or all, if you want), and pay at the counter. This is most office workers' fastest option for lunch, and the Chinese word for this translates as fast food. Meals come in at around 10–20 yuan, depending on what you choose from the buffet.
It's also possible to order this style of food for take-away, in which case it is often presented in a cardboard/plastic box or tray. The idea is the same, though.
Originating in Taiwan, the hand-held pancake may remind you of a rolled crepe in a bag, albeit savory, and is similar to the jianbing, Beijing's favorite pancake listed under number 5. Best for on the go, the shouzhuabing (/show-jwaa-bing/) pancake won't set you back more than 15 yuan unless you're getting ripped off.
Hot pot can be eaten for lunch or dinner, but is such a big part of China's food culture (especially in China's colder provinces during the winter months) that it's worth a mention here too. Colleagues often spend lunch times huddled around a pot of spicy boiling broth (with the option to have it non-spicy, of course).
Hot pot is also perfect for vegetarians as you can choose exactly what to put it in. Just order your ingredients, put them in the boiling broth, and wait for them to be cooked. These meals can cost a little more than some of the other options (upwards of 50 yuan per person) but are totally worth every yuan.
"Food is half of the journey", and nowhere is this more true than in China. But traveling can be tough as you're not always sure where to go. That's why we have a Chinese food tour set up especially.
Even if you're not on a food-focused tour, we can arrange for you authentic Chinese lunches rather than taking you to the restaurants all other tour companies take their people (at the same time!). Just let us know what you want to try or sample when we're tailoring your tour, and we can make it happen.