How are the Canteens/Dining Rooms in Universities of China?

I don’t know about you, but for me, food is vital. When I eat well, I have more energy to go about my daily activities while sustaining a stronger immune system. Food is among the challenges most students and foreigners face in China. I love to try different kinds of dishes, and living in China has given me the opportunity to try new dishes. From Fried Rice to Bamboo Shoots, to Seaweed and Pumpkin Soups, on to Dry Pot 干锅…the list truly goes on and on.

Perhaps you are a student looking to begin studies at a Chinese university, or a foreign staff who will need to catch many meals at the university and wondering what the dining rooms and canteens are like in Chinese universities. Here are some things you need to know.

Crowded elevators during lunchtime to canteens
Crowded elevators during lunchtime

1. Set out early

In China, breakfast is often a very light meal. Foods like Bao Zi 包子, Mantou 馒头, Rice Soup 粥, and Soy Milk 豆浆 are often the go-to foods. Thus, the canteens will rarely be packed for breakfast. Most people walk in and take these to go as they head to their classes or workplaces. However, lunch and dinner, more especially the former, are a whole different ball game. If your work and class schedule allows it, it is better to head out for lunch somewhere around 11:45 am to avoid the chaos of people heading for lunch (bicycles, motorbikes, and human traffic can make the trip to the canteen a little tricky). Standardly, lunch is between 12 noon and 2 pm. Most canteens can be found open and ready to serve food at 11:40 am. Although the canteens are kept clean despite the high influx of students and staff, earlier is still better as the food is piping hot, the queues are shorter, and the tables are all dry and unused.

Crowded paths to the canteen between 11:55 am and 12:30 pm
Crowded paths to the canteen between 11:55 am and 12:30 pm
Outside view of a student canteen building showcasing several different restaurants by floor
Outside view of a student canteen building showcasing different restaurants by floor
Students/teachers waiting in line or collecting lunch from different food counters
Students/teachers waiting in line or collecting lunch from different food counters

2. The Procedure for Grabbing a Good Lunch

First, you will need to have a campus card. This card allows you to pay for things using the card-reading machines at the restaurants, canteens, and shops on campus. It is also this card that lets you swipe in and out of the library or campus gates. You can put money into the card and recharge it using the card recharging machines on campus. In most universities, the canteens exclusively use these cards thus, it is better to have one handy. Otherwise, you may need to ask a friend or a stranger to assist you to pay, then you pay them back. Once you have this card, you can confidently walk in and head up to any counter that appeals to you and order (or point at) what you want. It really is that simple. In some cases, such as with noodles or fried rice, you may need to wait for the food to be prepared and then served. Usually, the prices at the student/teachers canteen is often subsidized and considerably cheaper by 2-5 yuan compared to having the same dish outside the university.

Sample of a Chinese university campus card
Sample of a Chinese university campus card

After you have your food, you can find a good spot to eat (while paying attention to any Covid-19 related regulations). Normally, you can expect to seat at a table for 4 with another stranger if you are alone. As the halls can be quite packed, especially between 12 noon and 1 pm, it is not unusual to quietly seat and eat at a table with a total stranger. Once you are done with lunch, you have to take your plates to the plate collection area usually found next to an exit.

Students waiting in line at a food counter
Students waiting in line at a food counter
A server at a counter and a campus card reading machine for payment
A server at a counter and a campus card reading machine for payment
Students/teachers having lunch
Students/teachers having lunch
A student getting some soup for himself
A student getting some soup for himself
Workers who receive plates from students exiting the canteen
Workers who receive plates from students exiting the canteen

3. If you are Feeling Richer and Fancier

If the subsidized meal plan of the canteens are not to your liking, and you just feel like eating more expensive dishes, or something you can’t find at the canteens, you can head to the commercial street of the campus. These commercial streets are as the name implies. There, you can pay with Alipay or Wechat, bank cards or cash just like you would outside the university.  You will not be required to take your plates away like in the student canteen. These areas can also get very crowded very fast during lunch time thus, if you aren’t having classes or lectures it is better to go even earlier as the order queue can get quite long. Having a translation app like Baidu Translate handy for purely Chinese menus is a good idea.

Sample of a menu from the campus' commercial street
Sample of a menu from the campus’ commercial street
Students eating together at the commercial street
Students eating together at the commercial street

4. The Teacher’s Canteen

Those who are willing to spend about 1-2 yuan more per dish compared to the classic student canteens can choose to have their meals at the teacher’s canteen. These ones often have a slightly classier vibe. The dishes are slightly more expensive, and as the name implies, most staff members go there to eat rather than the student canteens. These will also usually be around the class and office areas rather than the dorm areas. The same procedures discussed in point 2 apply when eating at this canteen. In some universities, these canteens can be used by both students and teachers. However, in others it is exclusively for staff.

5. Halal/Kosher Options

For those who cannot eat pork or who prefer not to, there is often one canteen on campus where pork isn’t served or included in the dishes. It may often be referred to as the Muslim canteen. Some Christian students who do not eat pork can usually be seen eating there as well. Unfortunately, I am yet to find any university where Kosher food rules are followed on campus (could happen soon). For those with more restrictive food choices, it may be better to cook your own meals. The dorms often have a general kitchen area where you can cook your own meals without worries.

Entry to a canteen offering the halal option
Entry to a canteen offering the halal option

Overall, the university canteens are generally well-regulated and offer a great variety of dishes. You can even find many of the top 100 Chinese dishes at the university canteens. I bet you will find that one thing you love which will keep you going back.

Hand-pulled noodles ready to be served
Hand-pulled noodles ready to be served

Written by Dr. Sandra Chukwudumebi Obiora author of the Apoetsbrain platform.

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