The China Hand’s Guide to WAIMAI

Article by Tim King

About a year and change ago, we published a pretty comprehensive guide to “waimai” (外卖, “takeaway”). Now that you have one of these waimai apps on your phone, it’s time to learn how best to use it. Luckily for you, in your hands right now is an amazingly researched and written article by me, Tim King, a certified zhongguotong (中国通, a foreign person well-versed in the ways of living in China, often translated as “China Hand”). If this can’t help you get the most out of your delivery apps, then nothing can (and I’m an e le me guy, so while all these apps are basically the same, your mileage may vary just a bit).

Open the App

It may be a little too obvious for us to start at the start, but opening your waimai app sets the pace for the rest of your ordering experience. The first thing you’ll see after the app’s splash page is a busy homepage, adorned with labeled icons to help your search, like “美食” (meishi, “delicious food”) and “晚餐” (wancan, “dinner”). Based on the troubling implication that “delicious food” and “dinner” are separate things, you are advised to skip all of them and pretend they don’t exist. Instead, scroll down just a bit, and we can move on to Step 2.

Find a Restaurant

Just below the Icons of Mystery (see Step 1), there will be an infinitely-scrolling list of restaurants. Just like Spotify and Facebook, what you see is curated based on a complicated mix of ad placement, your order history and just whatever happens to be nearby you. This is why Pizza Hut is always a top suggestion even though you’ve literally never ordered Pizza Hut, and remember that so you can use it as an excuse if anyone happens to notice that McDonald’s is also always a top suggestion on your phone.

Outside of that, there’s no particular order to the list of restaurants you’ll see on the homepage. Fast food places could be right next to dim sum restaurants, and coffee shops could be rubbing elbows with supermarkets (which will sell you the raw materials to make a meal, but ordering from a supermarket defeats the purpose of having an app to bring you meals). If you’re a fancy China Hand like me, you’ll probably be able to read some of the Chinese names and descriptions and best choose a restaurant for you; if you’re not, you’ll have to do what I do when those names and descriptions don’t include the word “炸鸡” (zhaji, “fried chicken” and the only food word I know in Chinese) and look at the pictures, hoping for the best.

Order Your Food

Now that you’ve looked at all the pictures for the restaurants, it’s time to look at all the pictures of the meals. This is where you must be most vigilant when placing your order because, and this will shock you so sit down if you’re faint of heart, some of those pictures won’t necessarily reflect the condition of the food that arrives at your door. The general rule of thumb is that if it’s a really nice photo then your meal will be a bit floppy and shoved into a plastic box when it gets to your house; if the photo looks kind of dumpy then the owners of the restaurant are the most honest people you’ll ever meet and you should give them all of your money without a second thought.

Exceed the Delivery Minimum

You might not agree, but I think the minimum purchase that each restaurant sets is totally necessary. If it wasn’t there, a lot of the entities involved in the waimai web would be operating at a loss, and on the consumer end we’d be waiting excruciating times for our meals while those poor scooter deliverymen ran themselves ragged delivering 3RMB bags of baozi around the city. However, the majority of the restaurants doing business through waimai apps use it as a way to up-sell you on stuff. These people aren’t stupid—they know that their gongbaojiding is 18RMB, a thing of rice is 1RMB, and that you need to get your order up to 25RMB before they even consider sending it out to you. But this isn’t like Step 3—you’ve ordered, so now you’ve got to make the least worst impulse buy possible so you can get the ball rolling. Do you order a drink? But that won’t be enough. Maybe an extra bowl of rice? Even with the drink, you’ll probably have to get two. Do you get another dish and tell yourself you’ll eat it for dinner? Choices abound, and the mental math required more closely resembles calculus.


Damn it all to Hell, why can’t I just get ONE thing of gongbaojiding and ONE thing of rice and have that be that? Of all the stupid things in this stupid world this is just the stupidest, I JUST WANT SOME LUNCH WHY CAN’T THAT HAPPEN. NONE OF THIS STUFF LOOKS GOOD, I DON’T WANT ANY OF IT. FINE. FINE. I WILL JUST GET FIVE CANS OF COKE AND A PLAIN BING. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?

Give Up

Now that you’ve rung up a bill around 50RMB, mostly of stuff you don’t want, you can delete your order and scroll back up to the McDonald’s menu at the top of your homepage, because McDonald’s food is always floppy no matter where you are in the world and they’ll always deliver no matter how much or little you’re buying from them.

So that’s it! I hope these tips have been helpful in making the menagerie of tasty foods available in your waimai app more accessible to you. Bon appétit!