Dining Out vs. Home Cooking in China

One of the lifestyle changes that living in China brings for most Westerners is a newfound tendency to eat out all the time or buy prepared food from a shop or stall rather than cook food at home. Even if going out for a meal was a once a week tradition for someone back home, odds are that he or she will be going out for meals much more often in China.

The most obvious explanation for this is purchasing power: because Chinese rents and service sector wages are much lower than in China, a Chinese restaurant meal for four that would cost $50 US Stateside can be had for less than 100 RMB. Street food is even more affordable — literally a dollar per meal. (For those interested, John at Sinosplice has a nice post that covers the costs of dining out in China with more detail.)

Note, however, that if you’re one of those foreigners who “doesn’t trust” Chinese restaurants, eating at McDonald’s and KFC will cost you the same as it does back home. Amusingly or not, I’ve met several Europeans who would rather die than eat fast food in their home countries, yet make it a habit to eat McDonald’s regularly while studying or working here. Similarly, a former colleague of mine only eats meat if she’s eating at McDonald’s; otherwise, she sticks to a vegan diet while in China.

Another explanation for foreigners eating out most of the time is the high barrier to entry to preparing home cooked meals in China. First, foreigners working as English teachers or studying here may be housed in a school dormitory or small apartment that doesn’t lend itself to cooking. Second, as this post from James Fallows suggests, many foreigners have a hard time buying the things they need in China. For instance, I can’t even find deodorant most of the time, so how am I supposed to pick up the right cheese and spices? Third, many foreigners are unable to adapt themselves to the cooking styles in China. We have to be prepared to cook with gas, forgo large ovens (unless one happens to be minted), and make due with local spices.

But one doesn’t have to be Liu Xiang to jump over these home cooking hurdles in China.* The easy way out is to have a Chinese significant other who can do all the cooking for you, but this is cheating. Another way to cheat is by buying frozen dishes and frying or microwaving them, though in the end you may wind up using a lot of sauces to make eating worthwhile.** A better solution is to learn local cooking, either from a Chinese teacher or from the Internet, though most recipes will need to be adjusted for the materials on-hand. (Strangely, many “Chinese” recipes on the Internet use ingredients not found in China.) The most expensive solution would be to buy imported goods from an international supermarket and cook Western food. Unfortunately, most of these products have an import premium that makes them cost 50-200% more than what we pay back home.

Beyond all of this, you will need to make an investment in spices and seasonings, household appliances, dishes, cookware, and cooking utensils. The price of flavorings will vary according to what you want. Asian spices like ground red pepper, five spice, Sichuan peppercorn, and (gulp) MSG cost next to nothing, but imported seasonings like oregano and cinnamon sugar will run 30-50 RMB per bottle. As for appliances, most foreigners will get a gas stove and microwave with their apartment, but a few other things need to be bought. A toaster oven can be bought for 150-200 RMB, and a rice cooker runs for 100-300 RMB (but you can use the microwave if you want). If you’re stuck in a dormitory without a gas stove, this means getting an induction cooker, which is also rather cheap, though you need to make sure your cookware choices are all compatible with an induction cooking surface. Thankfully, the last three items on my list are all very cheap in China, provided that you’re not dropping big bucks for imported cookware and cutlery.

Overall, this investment in a working kitchen can prove challenging to short-term or cash-deprived expats and may deter them from home cooking, though expats in China for the long haul will see benefits to cash flow after a few months. The benefits are especially obvious if one learns to cook Chinese food that uses less exotic ingredients than, say, the cayenne-seasoned jalapeño bacon cheeseburgers I’ve been making for lunch this month.

Finally, I’ll end this post with a couple examples of home cooked dishes most expats could make in China.

Macaroni skillet pizzaThis is a recipe I nicked from a Hunt’s spaghetti sauce can — “macaroni skillet pizza.” Ingredients are canned spaghetti sauce, macaroni, ground beef, pepperoni, and mozzarella. Because it uses so many imported ingredients, this dish is slightly expensive to make, around 20 RMB per serving, with five to six servings per skillet.

Homemade kung paoThe second dish should be more familiar to anyone who eats Chinese food — kung pao chicken. The main ingredients — chicken breasts, scallions, dried red peppers, and peanuts — are pretty cheap but you still need to have some special sauces and rice wine on hand prepare it.

In close, with a little patience, the right tools, and the willingness to experiment, home cooking can become part of an expat’s lifestyle in China. It may even save them money in the long run.

* I swear to God this is the only Liu Xiang joke I’ll make this year.

** One exception I’ll make to frowning on frozen foods is Long Fong brand dumplings. I’m terrible at making dumplings myself, and these are the best-textured, best-tasting frozen dumplings I’ve tried, and if they want to send me money for saying nice things about them, they can contact me by email.