Oesophageal cancer is common in Chinese populations, but individual-based epidemiological studies have provided little explanation. A case control study with 400 cases and 1598 controls (800 hospital and 798 general practice) was conducted among Hong Kong Chinese. In multivariate analyses, statistically significant effects on risk were detected for several potentially preventable exposures with high attributable risks (ARs). These included preference for consuming drinks or soups at high temperature (AR = 14%), infrequent consumption of green leafy vegetables (AR = 15%) and citrus fruits (AR = 26%), ingestion of pickled vegetables (AR = 29%), tobacco smoking (AR = 44%), and alcohol drinking (AR = 48%). On the assumption of multiplicative risk, the combined AR due to these exposures was 89%. This is the first case control study to show an association between pickled vegetable consumption and oesophageal cancer risk. The finding considerably strengthens the evidence for carcinogenicity of N-nitroso compounds in man and helps to explain the very high risk among Chinese.