What the bao? Ultimate guide to eating safely in China

If you haven’t grown up eating Chinese food, looking at a menu for the first time can be daunting. If you go off the beaten track, sometimes they’re not in English and you’re trying to work out the difference between a pot sticker dumpling and a pan fried dumpling…

Well never fear. If you’re careful and smart about where you eat, you have no reason to worry about getting sick.

The most important thing to understand, which a Chinese friend actually told me, is that you do not have the same tolerance as locals. Chinese people have grown up drinking the water and eating local street food. Street food is amazing if it’s cooked safely, which is really easy to work out. But just remember, seeking out the truly local hole-in-the-wall restaurants is done at your own risk!

However, you can eat cheaply and with the locals while being safe. Keep reading for my top tips to not getting sick in China – and this also applies across the world.

Avoid food that grows in water

You know how we avoid tap water while overseas? That also applies to the food you eat. Fruits such as watermelon should be avoided – they grow in that same water that you’re avoiding, and they carry it through to when you eat it. I generally will avoid watermelon, cucumber and other ‘water-heavy’ fruits and vegetables where I can.

Try not to eat salads

Seems counterintuitive, right? But it’s true. Lettuce is more often than not washed before you eat it – in that same water that you’ve been carefully boiling or avoiding the entire trip. Same with tomatoes, cucumber and many other common ingredients in salads.

Say no to Western food in restaurants

Much like we don’t know the intricacies of preparing Chinese food, because we didn’t grow up cooking it, sometimes people overseas aren’t as familiar with food hygiene when preparing foods that are common in Western countries. There’s a reason that the local food in China is spectacular – they have experts that have spent a lifetime learning how to prepare amazing local food. Don’t risk eating something that may not have been as thoroughly prepared.

Having said that, generally Western food at hotels and famous chains (such as Hard Rock Cafe or Starbucks) is quite safe, as these are recipes used worldwide.

Street food

Street food in China is incredible. It’s some of the simplest, yet most delicious food you will ever eat. It’s perfectly safe to eat – if you watch it being prepared. I always watch them cook a few dishes before I order, and I use my judgement as to whether it’s safe. High heat is usually a good sign, so stir fries are safe. I will generally avoid meat at street stalls because it might not have been stored safely, but desserts and fried rice type dishes are amazing and perfectly safe. Actually, I would recommend street food above almost anything else because it’s authentic, fresh and absolutely delicious.


Alcohol is sometimes a safer drink than water (wow!). But seriously – think about what you’re paying. If $1 seems insanely low for tequila, there’s probably a reason it’s that low.

I’ve always found beer to be pretty safe. Especially in South East Asia, many countries have cheap locally produced beers that are pretty good. They’re also reliable to drink and (probably) won’t make you sick. The other option is to stick to recognised brand soft drinks – Coca Cola, Sprite etc are usually commonly available. Don’t drink tea or coffee at restaurants – you just don’t know if the water has come from a tap or from a bottle, and *alert* boiling water does not kill all the germs.

So, now you should be able to eat pretty safely wherever you are.

This guide is not comprehensive by any means. These are just some tips I picked up while living in China, and travelling South East Asia. You should be more careful in some countries than others. China, overall, is pretty good for food hygiene and safety standards, particularly if you stay around the built up areas. India, on the other hand, is where even I succumbed to a stomach bug – but more on that in my India posts!

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