The Expat’s Guide to Cooking in China

You may have concerns about living and teaching in China. When it comes to cooking, many of the ingredients look unfamiliar and often, it is tough to decipher the characters on the packaging. This post is my guide to cooking in China as an expat. I will cover, ingredients, tools of the trade, and the survival phrases that you will need. By the time you’ve read the whole post, you’ll be ready to jump into the kitchen!


Do You Need To Be Good At Cooking?

I have never been a person who loves cooking. I cook generally because I am hungry, and I need to eat.  My staple was often pasta and sardines. If I was feeling adventurous, I might do my favourite dish: Spaghetti Bolognese. However, even a reluctant cook can find their mojo!


How To Get The Cooking Bug

About two months ago, I decided that even if I do not love cooking, I would like to be able to cook decent food quickly. This would primarily benefit me after teaching a late class because that is when the temptation to get take away creeps up on me. I chose to focus on cooking Chinese food because of the easy access to the ingredients, and it is cheaper to buy than western food.


Expat Cooking in China


I browsed the cookbook section of a bookshop and chose a cookbook with the brightest pictures and the easiest looking steps to follow. Fortunately, I can read a good deal of Chinese, so I was not fazed by the characters. If you are studying Chinese, it is a great way to widen your Chinese culinary vocabulary. However, there were plenty of cooking verbs and expressions I still had to learn. I also worked out most of the basic ingredients used in Chinese cooking and hot-footed it down to my local supermarket.



I decided to work with ingredients which were mentioned the most in the cookbook, and I whittled it down to the following:

Expat Cooking in China Ingredients for Cooking Chinese Food


Salt Yan
Sugar Bai sha tang 白砂糖
Cinamon Guipi 桂皮
Eggs Ji dan 鸡蛋
Chives Jiu cai 韭菜
Dark Soy Sauce Lao chou 老抽
Light Soy Sauce Sheng chou 生抽
Sesame Oil Zhi ma you 芝麻油
Garlic Suan
Tofu Dou fu 豆腐
Balsamic Vinegar Xiang cu 香醋
Cooking Wine Liao jiu 料酒
Chicken Stock Ji jing 鸡精
Minced Pork Meat Zhu ro mo 猪肉末



One thing I have learnt about Chinese cooking is that once you add soy sauce, there is no need to add any more salt. Otherwise, it ends up being too salty. Garlic fried with ginger gives meat that distinct Chinese flavour. Some recipes include seafood, but at the moment I am trying out most of the meat and egg dishes. The pictures in this blog show some of my favourite dishes I have made, they take about 30 to 40-minutes to cook.


Chinese Cooking with Soy Sauce


Learning to cook from a Chinese cookbook required some amount of time deciphering the cooking verbs! Some I did on my own, and others I had to confer with Chinese friends. Once I got the hang of the actual cooking, it was easy and the cookbook is obviously very visual. I am not a vegetarian, however, I have been having tofu meals more often than I used to. The Chinese seem to have a plethora of ways on how to cook tofu, so having a vegetarian meal is a little more appetising for me.


Expat Cooking in China


There is a super easy tofu dish that I learnt how to make from a fantastic account that you can add on your WeChat上班族的便当(shangbanzu de biandang) If you are not up for deciphering a Chinese cookbook, this account has very simple and short recipes for the busy office worker. Do not worry if you do not understand the Chinese it has videos to go with every recipe and step by step visual pictures to guide you as well.


Cooking Tofu in China



As with most Chinese cooking, you need a sturdy wok and a rice cooker. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of my rice cooker, it is so handy. You can get a decent wok from your local supermarket, I think it is best to go for a good quality Wok, you will probably pay about 150 – 200 RMB and you can get a decent rice cooker from Taobao for around 100RMB maybe even cheaper. I also decided to buy a steamer, but this is not, in my opinion, an essential tool of the trade. I would only suggest buying the steamer if you really want the extra expense. It is just great for steaming pork ribs.


Chinese cooking Wok




If you think you want to make an attempt at reading a Chinese cookbook, the one I’m using is called 像营养师一样(xiang yingyangshi yiyang)the steps, in my opinion, are really clear. As with the basic ingredients, there are some basic verbs that appear in the book connected to cooking.


Slice Qie
Put In Fang ru 放入
Stir Fry Fan chao 翻炒
Clean Xi jing 洗净
Aprroximimately Zou you 左右
Peel Qu pi 去皮
Quick boil Cuan tang 汆烫
Solidify Ning gu 凝固




Who knows, I might cook for others one day. Since attempting to cook more, it has changed the way I feel about my own cooking, and that was my main focus of this mini cooking adventure.




Would you like to cook authentic Chinese dishes?

Teach English, travel and work abroad with EF English First




Post by Yolande Deane, EF English First Harbin

I arrived in China from London in 2012 and I have been working at EF Harbin for more than two years. Harbin is in the most north-eastern province in China, and despite the long cold winters I enjoy living in this part of China. I love learning Chinese, doing yoga, going to the gym, eating out, playing the guitar and blogging about my observations and experiences.
Click here to learn more about Yolande