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Why Chinese Food Is So Bad

There is probably a reason why five thousand years of history produced such bad food.

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If someone offers to take you to a nice restaurant in China chances are that it’s not going to be Chinese. There are plenty of good restaurants in most Chinese cities, but they tend to be themed off of food in Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Europe, the USA, etc. 

It’s almost phenomenal how bad Chinese food in China is. There are basically two options: oily, salty, and packed with MSG with chili peppers, or oily, salty, and packed with MSG without chili peppers. 
When you first arrive in the country there is a good chance that you think there are a plethora of local style food options … until you realize that everything tastes the same. 

I’m not complaining. I don’t mind simply, filling food, and I don’t really give a shit about anything that I’m writing here. I just find it interesting. 

And I realized that I’m wrong about something. 

I once attributed the low quality of China’s modern culinary tradition to the upheavals of the 20th century — to the Cultural Revolution, to Mao’s rustification program, to poverty, a lack of food options, and famine. It made sense: China’s traditional culinary tradition was lost like so many other aspects of the culture. 

But then I came to Taiwan — to places that didn’t endure many of these social crackdowns and strife — and the food is equally as horrible. People still go to foreign themed restaurants when looking for a good meal. 

I’m all out of theories on this. 

Filed under: China, Food, Kinmen, Taiwan

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

26 comments… add one

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  • Melissa Popejoy December 26, 2018, 3:27 pm

    I found this article after googling “why is Chinese food so bad in China”. It’s been over 6 weeks of misery and a lot of Indian food. 7 more days until Vietnam…

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    • Wade Shepard December 26, 2018, 3:42 pm

      Excellent! Yes, I believe I once did a search for the same thing. It’s really startling after traveling in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Japan, and many other Asian countries where people really know what good food tastes like. This would probably really anger most Chinese people, but it seems as if the upheavals of the past 60 years+ have decimated the country’s culinary traditions. It’s funny that in order to get good Chinese food you need to go to Hong Kong or Taiwan or to some overseas Chinese community.

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  • Emile Chaz February 14, 2019, 5:42 pm

    It’s funny seeing how people in the western countries complain about Chinese food being “oily, salty, and packed with MSG”. Hmm at least their obesity rate is not as high as it is in the U.S? The culinary view of this author seems incredibly naive and parochial.

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    • Wade Shepard February 14, 2019, 9:47 pm

      Chinese food is oily, salty, and packed with MSG. This isn’t debatable. Also, China is getting fatter and fatter.

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    • Markus March 6, 2019, 3:24 am

      Chinese versions of take-out food is seasoned to levels that would be ridiculous to anyone with a reasonable palate. Incredible amounts of MSG ‘enhancers’ rather than prople flavour profiles being carefully mixed and incorperated.

      “Western countries” “The US?” “culinary view of the author seems parochial?”

      Obesity rates have less to do with cuisine and more to do with addiction and/or a lack of release. What an incredibly ignorant statement to male. I hope you don’t become fat, as such lazy thinking mindset if incredibly damaging.

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      • Wade Shepard March 6, 2019, 8:39 am

        Exactly!

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      • Art January 31, 2021, 5:52 am

        No obesity has to do with rubbish food that Americans eat full of corn syrup and sugar it sounds like you are naive as for Chinese food products
        I wouldn’t touch them in a million years.
        As for local cuisine in China there must be plenty of good places to eat local cuisine but let’s bash China.

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    • Colby November 14, 2023, 11:17 pm

      You are clearly someone who has never eaten Chinese food in China or you grew up eating it and have some sort of bias. This article is on the money. Plus that entire obesity thing is completely unrelated to what is being discussed (also why would people be obese if their food sucked? It would stand to reason that people with bad tasting food aren’t obese).

      If you’ve ever eaten Chinese food and are not native or used to eating this sort of food, you would find it hard to disagree with this article. Nearly everything is oily, salty, msg-laden, and sometimes spicy sometimes not. I went for the spicy stuff because it added some flavor to the food. Overall though, the quality/taste is so consistently bad. I’m not talking macronutrients at all. I mean the flavor, sanitation, and quality of ingredients. Everything had this very similar, very bland, unappetizing quality.

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      • VBJ November 17, 2023, 9:32 am

        Very true. It really is wild how they can make it all taste the same.

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  • Mike April 5, 2021, 9:34 am

    Chinese restaurant food is generally garbage these days, unless you can find a restaurant that makes food from scratch (fresh ingredients) using authentic methods. Otherwise, you will get some reheated frozen “Chinese” vegetables (like you can buy at Walmart) with some sickening pre-made sauce over the top. Eggrolls with be reheated frozen types. In short, it is low quality school lunchroom grade food. Our last meal from such a restaurant (and it will be our LAST such meal) resulted in us throwing away all the leftovers we had in takeout containers. For 3 of us, $50 down the drain!

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    • VBJ April 6, 2021, 5:08 pm

      This is sadly the case. The country has moved way into the fast / frozen food era. They are forgetting their culinary traditions — even the most basic of such. The exception is when out in the countryside. But I expect a counter push to this movement and artisan — aka real — restaurants. Cultures seem to go through this phase of “faster, cheaper, worse” globalization and then get post-global — which is really just a fancy twist on what was normal 20 years ago.

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  • David May 13, 2022, 4:17 pm

    It’s because most Chinese people can’t cook. They make terrible food and season with plenty of msg to trick them into thinking it tastes ok.

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    • VBJ May 16, 2022, 9:28 am

      I agree.

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  • Bwilson April 5, 2023, 10:49 pm

    Nothing says “I ‘live in China’ but have never set foot outside of Shanghai or Guangdong Province” like asking this question.

    Chinese food is not bad. Visit Chengdu. Visit Xi’an. Visit anywhere in Hunan Province. Saying all Chinese food is bad on account of the food available in the biggest cities is like saying all European food is bad on account of the food available in London or Amsterdam.

    No variety? In the north they don’t even eat rice with their meals! Northern China is a wheat culture, not a rice culture. The staple grains, meats, cooking techniques vary significantly across the country. Some places (like where I live in Guangdong Province) have bad food like what you describe, but you can’t judge the entire country’s cuisine based on just those places.

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    • VBJ April 6, 2023, 8:12 am

      Haha seriously? This is probably the most hilarious comment we’ve ever received on this site. You know I wrote Ghost Cities of China, right? You know I spent five years traveling to every corner of the country, right? You know that I was a China correspondent for Forbes and covered central and western China, right? And yes, I’ve spent a good amount of time in Chengdu, Xi,an, all over Hunan … as well as every other province except for Ningxia …

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  • B. H June 10, 2023, 11:50 pm

    It seems that the author is not able to enjoy the taste of ‘umami’ . It’s not good for you, but it doesn’t mean they are bad.
    At least, compared to corn syrup, MSG hardly damage your health.
    A moaning author, very boring.

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    • VBJ June 11, 2023, 3:43 pm

      Very boring … but yet you read the entire post and left a comment 🤣

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  • Steve June 18, 2023, 2:43 am

    Can confirm

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  • Rich October 13, 2023, 5:27 pm

    Honestly just sounds like you were dumped by some Chinese girl and just came here to vent about the culture. Honestly everything you write about China is vindictive garbage, and yet you take so much pride in it lol. What a joke.

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    • VBJ October 16, 2023, 11:15 am

      Haha, it’s so funny to me how people seem to have nothing better to do than get triggered by someone who doesn’t like something that they do. If you like eating low quality food that’s packed with chemicals and heavy metals bathed in seed oils, go for it. I don’t care.

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      • Colby December 30, 2023, 7:33 pm

        Sorry for the ranting at this guy on your site. I just can’t stand people who make inferences that someone is bigoted based on their own warped view of reality.

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        • VBJ January 2, 2024, 8:53 am

          Thank you, man. I appreciate your well thought out position and that you took the time to share it. I especially liked this:

          Do you think it’s an accident that truly authentic Chinese restaurants do not thrive anywhere outside China (I’ve never been in an American restaurant that comes close to authentic Chinese food, nor have I anywhere else)? Do you think it’s an accident that Chinese people, when going for an upscale dining experience, often don’t go to Chinese restaurants? Even look at the more westernized version of Chinese food, it’s generally very poor quality.

          That’s very true. I’ve also never been to an authentic Chinese restaurant anywhere else in the world, and probably with good reason. It’s also true that more upper class Chinese people tend to avoid traditional cuisine when going out to eat … and the nicer Chinese restaurants in China tend to serve food from Hong Kong or another place in Asia that still has its culinary tradition intact.

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    • Colby December 30, 2023, 7:31 pm

      I’m gonna step in here because this comment is so insanely ignorant and juvenile.

      I’ve never had any issue with a Chinese woman nor a Chinese person, but this article is 100 percent on the money. Anyone I know who has gone to China has had this exact sentiment (aside from those who are native or are used to this cuisine).

      People like you are such a problem in this world and are a huge reason for the degradation of intellectualism in America. You make this idiotic assumption that because someone has a very negative experience with an aspect of a culture that it is somehow out of ignorance.

      Do you think it’s an accident that truly authentic Chinese restaurants do not thrive anywhere outside China (I’ve never been in an American restaurant that comes close to authentic Chinese food, nor have I anywhere else)? Do you think it’s an accident that Chinese people, when going for an upscale dining experience, often don’t go to Chinese restaurants? Even look at the more westernized version of Chinese food, it’s generally very poor quality.

      This is someone who spent a lot of time all over the country and shared his experience. You don’t have to agree with it, but why be so ignorant as to make the assumption that this person has some sort of vendetta against the country or its people?

      I love the food in India, but Indians are some of the worst drivers on the planet (by objective measures). Does that infer I have some underlying dislike for Indian people? Why can’t people have positive or negative experiences with a culture without some underlying nonsense? You’re why people hate cultural relativists.

      Also, you’re not forced to read or comment on anything. Why not just go away?

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      • VBJ January 2, 2024, 8:48 am

        Very well put. It is absolutely fascinating to me why so many people get offended because you don’t like something that they do. I mean, who cares? It’s like they think it’s a value judgement on their character or something.

        If he was like, “Hey, I think you’re wrong here because …” Or “It’s this way because …” Or even just explained why he thinks modern Chinese food is good I’d be like, “Hmm, ok, thanks” and maybe I could even learn a thing or two.

        Yes, it is very strange when people expect others to like every single thing about a culture absolutely without criticism. I get that a lot on this site. They seem to think you’re either with us or against us or something … But really this is just about discussion and dialogue. Culture, like everything else, isn’t an all or nothing package. No culture that I’ve ever experienced has it all figured out, and discussing the behavioral or thought patterns that you experience elsewhere is a fundamental part of going there. To shut yourself up and not allow a critical word to roll off your tongue about a place is to miss a big part of the show of travel.

        What’s interesting to me — and I understand that I’m generalizing here — is that these are the same type of people who support political party, activist groups, and seem to define themselves by their social and political ideology. They can just accept a downloadable program of ideas verbatim without criticism or thought. I don’t understand how they can do it … but I guess they make the world go round. If everyone was questioning everything not much would get done 🤣

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  • Sebastian February 3, 2024, 7:04 am

    Some cuisines are just better than others, and some are worse. If you think about it, there aren’t that many countries that have managed to export their cuisines. France, Italy, Spain/Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Japan, Korea, Indian/Bangladesh/Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, USA. That’s a short list, and China is not on it, and neither is Mexico, because tex-mex is what is popular, which is an American thing I guess.

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    • VBJ February 5, 2024, 9:09 am

      Definitely true! It would almost be a comedy sketch if someone opened an authentic Chinese restaurant serving modern Chinese food in another country.

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