So you’ve signed up to come to China on a TEFL internship and have nearly completed all of the necessary preparations including visas, vaccinations and booking your flights. With most of this organisation out of the way you can begin to start thinking about what it might be like. One such reader of our posts contacted us and asked: “What’s the food like? What about daily meal plans?” So here is a selection of typical meals/snacks we eat on a daily basis with a breakdown of prices.
Your evening meal options may depend on your placement as it is possible on the China Internship that your school could provide this in their canteen. If this is the case then dinner options are most likely going to resemble lunch options so check out our lunch post if you haven’t already done so. However, more often (and in our opinion a much better circumstance) you will have to fend for yourself at the end of the day. Don’t panic! There will be lots of options for where you can get food both to eat out and to cook at home. Here’s what we typically eat for our evening meal both during the week and on weekends along with a link to our post on tips for buying and cooking locally:
- Home cooking. Over half of the weekdays we will cook at home (and any time on the weekend when we are not out exploring). Cooking at home is by far the best option as you can eat what you like, when you like. You are not restricted to canteen serving times and can fit eating around your other interests/how you like to spend your evenings (e.g. going for a run, joining a gym or just enjoying the last of the Sun if in a warm province in the second semester!) which is a real bonus if you are particularly independent. You can also vary what you choose to eat, knowing what’s in your food and how it has been prepared which is a bonus if you’re health conscious. There is a lot of choice as to where to buy food ranging from small local markets through to large Western chain-supermarkets. Where you choose to shop depends on what you want to buy and how much you are willing to pay. We opt for going to our local market which is fresh and best of all cheap. Shopping in this way means we get to save a lot of money allowing us to travel every other weekend and based on our current budget will leave us plenty of cash at the end of the internship for onward travel. The choice however is up to you.
On average we spend 30 RMB (£3.00) per week on enough fresh food to cook for two for five meals – that’s right 10 meals costing on average 3 RMB (£0.30) each! (This doesn’t include a few larger bottles, jars and bags of sauces/spices which have lasted the full time we have been here so we’ve only had to buy them once and even then they weren’t expensive). What can we get for this? We eat a lot of fresh vegetables with most meals incorporating four or five different kinds (including onions, mushrooms, peppers, carrots, beans, courgette, potato and many more) as well as pre-cooked or fresh meat (usually pork or chicken) and eggs (chicken or a local salted-duck egg speciality). Meals we cook will be served with rice, noodles, potatoes or bread and there are a number of flavourings we have experimented with including soy sauce, hoi sin sauce, chilli sauces, mixed spices, five spice, curry based sauces and plainer tomato sauces. You can read more about our tips for buying locally and cooking at home in our blog titled: “We can now cook rice” which as the name suggests involved us learning to cook one of the most basic staples here in China.
If this doesn’t suit your taste we have caved in to buying Western items on a few occasions including pasta (12 RMB or £1.20 for 500 g), cheese (28 RMB or £2.80 for a small block of cheddar pre-grated), baked beans (18 RMB or £1.80 for a regular sized can of imported Heinz) and Mexican wraps (18 RMB or £1.80 for 6 moderately sized). However, all these were brought from Metro which is a store containing an imported foods aisle. Do not count on your town having a branch. We have only been twice as it is a 40 minute journey from where we live so not particularly useful for the weekly shop (luckily or we might have a lot less money). They might not sound like particularly high prices (they are similar to UK prices) but it all adds up and compared to the price for Chinese food they’re astronomical!
- School dinner. This will usually resemble lunch in our experience so have a look at our previous post to find out what is typically included. Eating in your canteen for your evening meal might not be such a bad option as it means you don’t have to think about what you will eat nor will you have to take the time to go shopping and cook. Plus there is no washing up to do after! If it’s the main option in your school then it will also be included in your internship so you won’t have to pay. We get a food allowance instead as our school doesn’t guarantee an evening meal from the canteen. However, we were still able to get a free canteen meal card which we topped up in our first week at our placement (80 RMB each has lasted us until our very last week so that worked out pretty well). We usually go to the canteen once per week to save having to cook and worry about food when we have run out. We opt for a noodle dish from a different floor of our dining hall (where the students eat) which costs us 7 RMB (£0.70) each and is completely different to anything offered in the staff canteen at lunchtime. This allows us to have variety even when eating from the canteen twice in one day.
- Eating out. We will treat ourselves and eat out once during the weekdays. For this we are usually stop by our local noodle bar. It serves a different style of noodle dish to that of the canteen, plus it’s great to get out of school but not have to rush straight home. We opt for quite a pricey dish here yet it’s still only 12 RMB (£1.20) each, totalling 27 RMB (£2.70) if we have a drink too. Again it includes meat and a lot of fresh vegetables, and even though it isn’t much to look at, sometimes you have to be brave and give somewhere a shot because if it’s busy with the locals then they must be doing something right.
Most weekends we go exploring which is one of the best things about doing the China Internship. Being out and about means we have to buy food out of our living allowance. We were initially sceptical as to whether the small living allowance would cover transport, food and sightseeing but we have been amazed that it can easily stretch to allow us to travel most weekends and even allows us to pay for accommodation in hostels to make the most of our trip. Remember this is only possible by keeping to budget during the week. When exploring we always eat out and here are some of our favourite choices:
- A reminder of home
You might have to do a bit of research and it is definitely going to cost you more but China certainly has a range of food to remind you of home, especially in the larger cities. We’ve had:
- Burgers – we found a fantastic place in Downtown Wuxi called Blue Frog which has an awesome BOGOF deal on a Monday night. This also happens to correspond with their 4pm to 8pm happy hour promotion. ‘Burgers and Beers’ night was the obvious choice when I discovered my birthday fell on a Monday!
- Indian – a chain of Indian restaurants in our province of Jiangsu was Ganesh. Offering authentic Indian cuisine in beautifully decorated surroundings, they’ll even give you discounted rice if you’re willing to eat as the Indians do with hands only. We didn’t manage this as the chance to eat with cutlery instead of chopsticks was too tempting! We’ll get another shot in our three month stay in India later this year I’m sure.
- Texas BBQ – the last meal we had before we left the UK and embarked on the first stage of our RTW trip was a rack of ribs, smothered in BBQ sauce with all the trimmings. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before we began to miss the taste of the deep south. Luckily Bubba’s Grill and Bar in Nanjing came to our rescue offering not only spicy BBQ ribs but with a set of sides to make our mouths’ water – mustard creamy potato, salty fries, onion rings and creamy coleslaw.
- Italian – although neither of us are Italian this was our staple when we lived in the UK. We would frequently eat pasta dishes, experimenting with a range of ingredients. A weekend treat would often involve pizza and family would usually opt for an Italian restaurant gift card for birthday and Christmas presents. Therefore the vast quantity of rice and noodles we ate during those first weeks in China meant we were soon missing something a little more European. One of the best Italian restaurants we discovered was on a different trip to Nanjing and was called Pisa Pizza. Using a stone-baked oven for the traditional thin pizza with accompanying fries and Italian side salad provided the perfect meal for two.
- Mexican – this would usually be one of the first restaurants we would seek out whilst staying in a place for a long time. We love our fajitas and burritos. Therefore it may seem a little surprising that although we have found more than one place to eat Mexican that we haven’t actually been there. Why is this? Well, we’re super lucky to work with an American with Central American roots. His secret homemade burrito recipe is by far the greatest Mexican food we have ever tasted. He tends to make these for all the foreign teachers every other week and it’s so worth the wait!
- Thai – going to a Thai restaurant has started to become a theme in our relationship. It’s one of the first places we ate when we first got together and since then every trip has involved us having a special Thai meal. Before leaving the UK we would regularly opt for Thai green and red curries as an alternative to pasta in the working week. Like most countries in and around South East Asia, it is pretty easy to find Thai and fusion restaurants incorporating these flavours. We had a great meal at the Royal Thai restaurant in the neighbouring town of Suzhou.
- Chinese restaurants
Usually if we only go away for one night then we won’t choose to eat in a Chinese restaurant opting to treat ourselves with a reminder of home as outlined above. For us this is all part of the experience of going away for the weekend, treating ourselves and making the most of our weekend budget. However, if we are going for an extended period of time then eating Western is not cost-effective. Also different areas of China will be known for different styles of cooking and speciality so it is important to us to try these as part of the full cultural experience. One of our firm favourites (we went back for a second time recently) was the Shanghai Grandmother restaurant. It was recommended in our Lonely Planet guide and we stumbled upon it later on in an evening when we couldn’t find anywhere else (either didn’t suit what we were after, were too expensive or were full). This restaurant was simply divine and even had a picture menu, with English labels at a price we could afford – surprising considering its close proximity to The Bund.
- Korean restaurants
- Japanese restaurants
We have also been fortunate to try traditional Chinese hot-pot on a work meal out where the Chinese staff encouraged us to sample a full range of courses including chicken feet, frog, duck feet and even pig brain!! On a training trip to Changsha we had the chance to sample the more spicy food commonly associated with the Sichuan region as well as some delicious seafood dishes – a type of food we have never been particularly confident in knowing what to order (especially with the language barrier).
We had never eaten Korean food before coming to China. However, its close proximity to Korea, particularly on the eastern coast means that this is a popular alternative to Chinese restaurants especially for locals. Our first experience came as a work meal where all of the foreign teachers were treated by our employer. One of our co-workers had spent some time working in Korea and was a huge fan of their cuisine so we let him order us some dishes to try. Our return to this restaurant on a further three occasions shows that this is a new cuisine we have happily added to our favourites.
Finally we have Japanese – where the proximity of the country means that restaurants are common in China. We have only begun to explore the Japanese cuisine by trying their ramen dishes at Ajisen Ramen but as we plan to visit Japan at some point in the future we will be looking to try more food from this country.
Top tip: Don’t be afraid to try something new. Although there are plenty of Western fast food restaurants this is not going to be the best way to explore the diverse culture of China. Also be prepared to be flexible. Sometimes a dish you have had before is cooked differently in China and may contain alternative ingredients. We can’t comment on being vegetarian, vegan or having any dietary requirements but don’t let this put you off exploring the food in this country – you just might need to learn the required phrases.
Keep reading to find out what we typically eat for snacks too. If you have any additional comments or questions then we would love to hear from you. If you’re not already signed up on an i-to-i TEFL internship then why not request a TEFL Brochure?
- A reminder of home