Western Food in China — a Bit Different!

Western food has caught on in China. It is popular. But it is often a bit different!! What people find in China is a mixed bag. Chinese have their own idea of good taste and what makes for a good meal. To sell in China, unless the food is meant for foreigners, retailers have had to adapt and change their "Western" products.

  • Western food in Chinese: 西餐 xīcān  /sshee-tsan/ 'west meal'

In China Popular Western Food is Fast Food

McDonald's at ZhangjiajieMcDonald's has reached Tianzi Mountain in Zhangjiajie!

There are now more KFCs in China than even in the US where it started (4,563 by 2014 according to statistics compared 4,491 in the US), and more get built every week. McDonalds are found almost everywhere now too. 

Western Food Substitutes and Original Concoctions

Sometimes the ingredients, such as good quality cheese, certain vegetables, steak, or fresh milk isn't available or is too expensive. So people improvise. 

Sometimes, aiming to please their customers, people will concoct something never before seen on the planet, and the Chinese like it. Few Chinese have ever been to a Western country. While having dinner at a "Western restaurant", they might happily eat something no Westerner has ever seen. At these places Chinese imitations or adaptations sometimes don't come out badly, sometimes are bizarre, and sometimes taste quite good.

Examples at McDonald's

McDonald's is a big chain in China. They've had about 25 years to experiment with their food. Younger people especially like their hamburgers. It is said to be made with real beef patties, and it tastes authentic. They also sell good examples of metamorphosized Western Food:

  • Instead of apple pie, taro pie or banana pie: Interesting experiments have been carried out. For some reason, though fresh apples are popular and grown in China, what gets sold in its place in the paper box packets is purple taro pie or banana pie.
  • Green tea ice cream: They do sell vanilla ice cream, but this experimental flavor is a hit. In some areas of China, the people routinely drink green tea with a meal. They don't sell hot green tea, but this concoction works for people. Maybe they want the green tea flavor with their meal.
  • Rice and congee instead of the little mashed potato cup: Many Chinese feel rice is a necessary part of a meal, so along with a hamburger (hànbǎobāo, 汉堡包), people can order rice or congee that is a kind of rice soup.

Pizza Hut ISN'T Fast Food in China

There are also Pizza Huts scattered around in the big cities and more than 1,600 across the country. They are generally upscale, a lot more expensive than McDonalds, and don't have a "fast food" image like in the US. They are considered fine dining Western restaurants by the Chinese. 

More Original "Western Food"

Pizza is an Italian invention, and in the US, pizza is Pizza Hut's main offering. But in China, there are dishes probably not found anywhere in the US or Italy ...or France. The Chinese like shrimp, and know that French cuisine is ranked higher internationally, so this is what happened:

  • 法式鲜美虾芝士千层面: 'French tasty shrimp cheese lasagna' — Maybe they were confused about the origin of lasagna.
  • 法式南瓜鲜美虾汤: French pumpkin tasty shrimp soup — This is actually a real French recipe, but not something you'd find in a US Pizza Hut. 
  • 法式芳香黄油肋眼牛排: French Fragrant Butter Rib Eye Steak — The French moniker does the trick again to appeal to Chinese. It is a meal of vegetables, corn on the cob, broccoli, and steak, but spaghetti as the side dish should make the meal "Italian". In China good steak cuts are very expensive, so expect to pay a bit more for, despite the lower wages.

Other Interesting Substitutes

Ice cream with the appropriate cherry tomato: In places where ice cream is served, what might surprise you is finding a cherry tomato (or parsley) on top. A Chinese chef seeing a picture of a bowl of ice cream with a cherry on top might have mistaken it for a cherry tomato!

Poor Imitations

Gritty insipid hot chocolate will be a shock to the system to a Westerner. The "milk chocolate" candy might not have milk or chocolate in it and taste waxy. Beware cheap imitations. Real chocolate costs at least twice the Western price.

Real fresh milk is mainly found in Western supermarkets in the cities, such as Walmart. The Chinese substitute that is generally available is ultra-pasteurized boxed milk that can sit for a year or two on a shelf.

Hard-to-Get/Expensive Western Foods

Getting standard Western foods in China depends on the area. The biggest cities have the best selection and imported foods, but small towns in remote areas might have little available to buy. It is difficult to generalize because prices vary greatly all across China. But here are some typical prices for common US foods.

Bread is at least twice the Western price in Chinese bakery chains, and for that the "bread" is often light and sweet like cake, in small packets of up to eight slices, designed for the Chinese market. In more exclusive, costlier shops, something more similar to Western bread can be found.

Milk: Fresh milk is hard to get. There have been problems with milk quality and cleanliness with locally produced milk, even prepackaged UHT milk, so many expats distrust it, and won't drink anything except imported milk. If it's available it can be as much as 7 USD for a liter of fresh foreign milk. There are places where it is 3 dollars per liter.

Cheese: Imported common cheese from the US costs about three or four times more.

Packaged Imports

Imported chips, cookies, canned goods, cereals, etc. can be three or four times dearer than in the US, or Australia, or wherever. And in most places, this type of food isn't available. This means it is about 10 times more expensive than similar popular equivalent local foods.

  • Bag of Doritos medium size chips cost 70 RMB or 11 USD. US price is 2.50 or 3 USD.
  • Breyers ice cream costs 50 USD in China compared to 5 USD in US. It is available in few cities in China.
  • V8 Juice costs 68 RMB or almost 11 USD.
  • Tomato sauce jarred in glass that costs over 10 USD in the China costs about 2.50 in the US.
  • Medium Kellogg's boxed cereal costs 14 USD in China.
  • A can of Campbells soup costs 4.70 USD in China!

China Highlights Chinese Food Tours

DinningOur customers (and Kim) at a Guilin restaurant

To taste delicious Chinese foods when traveling in China, have a look at our Chinese Food tours, for example:

But if you'd prefer Western restaurants, or want a break from Chinese food, we can take you to the best foreign restaurants available (see below for recommendations in top tourist cities). For your choice of restaurants and sights tailor-make a China tour.

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