Grocery Shopping in China; Or How Not To Starve

Whether you’re working or travelling in China, if you’re in the country for any length of time, you will probably need to eat. And lucky for you, the food in China is abundant and cheap! In fact, food is so cheap that eating out is generally more common than it is in North America. A cheap meal in a restaurant can range from 8 to 50 yuan (or $1.60 to $10 CDN) per person. However, sometimes the business of a restaurant setting and not knowing what kind of meat you just put in your mouth can get tiring, so being able to buy groceries for your own home-cooked meal is a must. And like almost everything in China, grocery shopping here isn’t exactly the same as it is back home, so we’ve compiled a few of our tips and tricks to make buying food in China as easy as possible.

There are three main ways to get your groceries here; supermarkets, smaller markets and fruit/vegetable stalls, and MeiTuan (online ordering.) But before we get into the nitty-gritty details, a few general thoughts on grocery shopping in China:

You may not be able to find the same items you normally get back home. This is probably obvious, but your go-to ingredients may not be widely available in China. For example, block cheese, crusty bread, smoked meat that doesn’t taste… weird. Other expats have assured us that you can find these foreign items in specific international stores and online, but they haven’t been available in our go-to supermarket.

The foreign items you do find can be very expensive. Yes. Everything in China is generally cheaper, but some of the imported items are relatively pricey. Things like coffee beans, olive oil, and protein powder can all be even more expensive in China than they are back home.

You may see some things that are unexpected. There will also be new sounds and smells that you’re not familiar with, which will take some time to get used to. In almost every section of a supermarket, there is someone yelling or speaking into a microphone trying to sell a particular product from that section. In terms of the smell, we still haven’t figured it out but you’ll know what we’re talking about. Check out the video on the right for an example of something different:

Shopping in Supermarkets: 

Just like in North America, there are many supermarkets in China – even some chains that you may recognize like Walmart, Carrefour, Vanguard, and Tesco.

Selection: Shopping in these stores gives you a wider selection of dry goods, chips, grains and pulses, meat and seafood than some of the smaller stores/stalls throughout China. Plus, you can usually find booze and imported items (real pasta, olive oil, certain spices, chocolate) as well as home items, clothing, electronics, etc.

Pricing: Most of the food you’ll find here is comparable in price to the food at the markets or smaller food stalls, but there are a few items that may be slightly more expensive.

Weighing and Bagging: Occasionally, meat and produce is pre-packaged, but if you’re picking items from larger bins with no barcodes, you will need to have it bagged and weighed. Unlike supermarkets in Canada, this is done before you get to the checkout (we made that mistake before). For frozen meat, bag your own meat and take it to one of the meat counters to have it weighed and priced. For produce, if you don’t take the pre-packaged and priced items available, bag your own produce like normal and then take it to one of the many ladies standing at the scales to have them weigh. You can’t miss them.

Once everything is weighed, you take it to the checkout the same way you would at home.

Paying: In a supermarket, you don’t haggle. We have been told there are places where you can do that if you have the confidence, but here the price is what it is. Payment options are usually WeChat and Alipay, Cash, Chinese bank cards, and occasionally foreign credit cards – though we have had trouble using ours at both Walmart and the Vanguard so we wouldn’t suggest relying on those. 

Shopping in Markets and Small Shops:

These shops and stalls are independently owned. Sometimes, many vendors are in the same building in a bazaar/marketplace set up – usually in this case there’s one vendor selling fruit, one selling veggies, another selling meat, seafood, dry goods, and ready made food (green onion pancake, Baozi, etc.)

Sometimes these vendors are in their own storefronts. It seems like people visit these shops and stalls much more often and buy smaller amounts of things every day or every other day. And since we visit the same local stalls so often, we’ve been able to form relationships with some of the shop owners. Although our communication is limited to some enthusiastic waving and smiling, it’s given us a small sense of community in a new and unfamiliar place.

Selection: The selection at these places is smaller, but the basics (tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, broccoli, eggs, some breads) are generally available.

Weighing and Bagging: When it comes to meat or pre-made goods, you can just point to the product and tell your vendor how much you would like (in weight or units, depending). They will bag and weigh it. At places that sell fruit or veggies, the case may change. If there are bags within your reach, bag you own fruits and veggies (or even eggs – in bags. Yes!) and bring them to the vendor’s scales to be weighed and priced. If you don’t see bags around, just grab your produce and the vendor will bag it as he or she weighs it. For dry, pre-packaged goods with a barcode (think packaged cookies, sauces, etc.), just grab the item and take it to the cash.

Paying: Sometimes the prices are posted – usually everything in 500g. If the prices are posted (hanging on signs from the ceiling or in the produce containers) then you shouldn’t haggle. If not, and you have enough Chinese to hear them offer a price and you have the confidence to haggle, have at it. Some head shaking and typing your preferred price into a calculator or app on your phone may do the trick. But if it’s all too much for you and it doesn’t appear that they’re gouging you in price, just take the one they offer you. No stress required.

Most vendors (even the smallest ones selling cherries out of bins on the street) will accept WeChat or Alipay or cash. Don’t expect to use your foreign cards here. 

Note: We had been told that sometimes shady vendors will try and take advantage of foreigners and raise their prices just for us, but so far we don’t think that has been the case. Everything has seemed to meet our expectations and we’ve had no trouble. Most vendors are very friendly and are just trying to make an honest living like everyone else.

MeiTuan: 

Although online grocery ordering is becoming popular worldwide, China has really got it down. There are a ton of apps from Eleme to MeiTuan that allow you to order groceries right to your door. Instantly. And from tons of different places too. Like uber eats, you can order take-out food, groceries, water, beer and other booze, even household supplies – anything that can be picked up by a guy on a motor bike can be brought to you. And you can even track him in real-time so you know exactly when he’ll be knocking on your door. 

There are some set-backs to this method. It requires a mobile form of payment (WeChat or Alipay) that may not be available to you without a Chinese bank account. You’ll need to learn your exact address in Chinese characters to input it into the app – we had our coworker type it out and send to us so we could just copy and paste. And unless you can read Chinese characters easily, you will likely need a translating app to search for the items that you want. You do have the option to scroll through all the items at a given store, but if you’re getting your grocery haul from a larger store like Walmart or Tesco, this can be a lengthy process. 

But you can’t beat the convenience.

What was once a stressful ordeal has become just another part of our daily life here in China. We can get everything we need to make delicious home-cooked meals and have been able to try some new and exciting things as well – like cucumber flavoured chips and matcha Oreos. We hope you enjoy shopping, cooking, and eating in China as much as we do!


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