There are so many questions about food and eating in China. First, we have the issue of "Chinese" food abroad and what we think Chinese food is. Then, there are the questions surrounding what Chinese people actually eat in China and how good or bad that is. There are lots of opinions out there, but here's our take on some of these points in hopes of bringing some clarity and reality to the topic.
Dog and Cat Will Be on the Menu
Yes, compared to what you're used to, you will be able to seek out and find a lot of what you might think of as weird, bizarre, and/or downright disgusting on a menu in China. This doesn't mean that domesticated animals will appear on every menu. It does mean that you can find restaurants specializing in bullfrog, rabbit head, and duck tongue. In some parts of China, you may actually find restaurants that serve dog or cat.
Activists in China are protesting the consumption of dog meat, and so it's definitely got a bad reputation, even among locals. That doesn't mean that the neighbor's fluffy poodle will end up on the table, though.
Yes, you shouldn't drink tap water anywhere in China, but this doesn't mean that what you'll see coming out of the pipes is brown or has chunks of garbage floating in it.
Shanghai's problem lies in the pipes that deliver the water. Many are frightfully old or damaged so groundwater seeps in or nasties from the pipes themselves get involved in the water, so by the time it reaches your mouth from the tap, it's best not to drink it.
The water can be boiled or filtered and should be okay. The safest bet is to drink bottled water wherever you go.
Where's the P.F. Chang's?
There is no P.F. Chang's in China. Why is that? Well, P.F. Chang's is the modernization of Chinese food that has entered the West and became mainstream.
Chinese food in mainland China is quite varied and a wonderful topic to get locals to chat about. Sichuan food is spicy and numbing, or "ma la"; Hunan food is "xiang la" or fragrant and spicy. Shanghai food is known to be rather sweet; Shanxi food is known for its use of vinegar. In the US, at least, there might be some differentiation between Cantonese food and Sichuan dishes.
The Chinese diaspora brought Chinese food all over the world but when local ingredients aren't available, then substitutions are made. When the local clientele can't handle the spice, things are toned down. Over the years, the food takes on the flavors and nuances of the place it's being made and loses some of that hometown authenticity. It's bound to happen. Therefore, Chinese food as you know it outside of China is radically different in flavor and types of dishes.
Where's My Fortune Cookie?
Fortune cookies are an American invention. Supposedly they were introduced by a Japanese family in San Francisco. There's a great article by Jennifer Lee that explains the origin of the fortune cookie and how it became a mainstay of the Chinese restaurants in the US. She quotes a Mr. Wong as saying:
The Japanese may have invented the fortune cookie. But the Chinese people really explored the potential of the fortune cookie. It's Chinese-American culture. It only happens here, not in China.
There are plenty of sweets available in China, but typically, dessert is a platter of fruit served at the end of a meal, perhaps with some tea. Chinese sweets tend to be glutinous and soupy: think glutinous rice balls with sweet red bean paste inside, served in a syrup.
Stay Away from Street Food
Food scares abound in China, from tainted milk to the use of swill-oil in cooking. You can certainly enjoy a trip to China without going near the street vendors, but when you see folks standing in line for dumplings, doesn't that make you a little curious?
You don't have to face street food alone - outfits like Untour have street food tours that will take by the hand and help you enjoy the gorgeous snacks that China has to offer.