So you’re coming to China. Maybe to hike the Great Wall, maybe to visit the giant pandas, maybe to learn mystical kung-fu techniques from a man with knee-length eyebrows. But whatever your primary purpose, sampling the food is guaranteed to be high on your agenda. Chinese food is so loved the world over, that whether you live in Denver or Dusseldorf the chances are there’s a ‘Lucky Dragon’ or ‘Happy Palace’ takeaway on your street or the next one over.
So, with a bewildering array of dishes available to you, and limited space in your stomach, where to begin? Well, as a resident of the People’s Republic for a good four years now, and as a remorseless glutton for a whole lot longer, allow me to be your guide. Here are 22 Foods to try in China.
1. Foods to try in China: The familiar.
Chinese restaurants in Western countries tend to be mostly influenced by Cantonese cuisine. That is, the food of the South-East of the country. So, depending on exactly where in China you plan to visit, you might be surprised to find that many of your favourites from home are completely unheard-of in other parts of the Chinese mainland. That said, some Chinese dishes are so ubiquitous that we’ve encountered them from Yunnan to Heilongjiang and a hundred places between. So if your regular Friday night order at the Panda Express is the Kung Pao Chicken, this is your chance to try the real McCoy!
Kung-Pao Chicken 宫保鸡丁
A favourite of mine, both in China and back in the UK, this popular dish is a spicy blend of chicken, chilies, and peanuts. Typically the first thing I order when prospecting a new restaurant, as I’ve found it to be a good gauge of what the rest of the menu will be like. If the Kung Pao Chicken is really sweet, the rest of their dishes will probably be likewise. If it’s too spicy for you, you’ll want a fire extinguisher on standby for some of the others. And if it’s perfect, start ordering with reckless abandon, because I’ve never had a bad meal at a restaurant that serves good Kung Pao Chicken.
Twice cooked pork 回锅肉
As it’s name would suggest, it’s pork (usually thin slices of belly pork, similar to bacon), and it’s cooked twice, first boiled with spices such as garlic and ginger, then pan-fried, and often served with stir fried vegetables and hoisin sauce.
Peking/Beijing duck 北京鸭
A centuries-old recipe that can be found throughout China and beyond, Beijing or Peking Duck is oven-roasted duck, cut in to thin slices with a large part of the skin still attached, and is usually served with pancakes and spring onion.
2. Light bites, easy to find on the street.
For those times when you don’t have the time, money, or hunger required for a full meal, China excels at small, light meals. Either to be grabbed while on the go, or as a side dish to complement a larger feast.
Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍
Sometimes called Chinese Hamburgers, Rou Jia Mo are essentially sandwiches made of a soft, chewy bread, with a filling of stewed belly pork (similar to pulled-pork) and, apparently, no less than 20 different spices. A very common street food in the the province of Shaanxi.
Xiao Long Bao 小笼包
Definitely one to keep on the lookout for, especially if you happen to be visiting Shanghai, where they originate. Xiao Long Bao are best described as soup dumplings. Steamed, and invariably served in a bamboo basket, the soup inside these dumplings is usually made from pork, though crab and other fillings are also common. Absolutely delicious, though be careful, the soup inside tends to remain scalding hot even after the exterior is cool to the touch, just popping a whole one in your mouth and biting down might not be advisable.
If you want to find the best one in Shanghai then you might want to head over to Lost Plate Food tours website. Those guys will take you to the best ones in town.
Jiao Zi 饺子
One of the first things I learned to cook while living in China, Jiao Zi are thin-skinned dumplings, either fried or steamed, and with an assortment of fillings available, most commonly pork with cabbage, leek or carrot, though meat-free varieties are usually offered too. You’ll find plenty of variation like Sichuan’s Chaoshou, a delicious meat filled dumpling served in a spicy or vinegary broth.
Jian Bing 煎饼
A type of egg pancake or crepe, very popular as a breakfast snack in China’s urban areas and usually smothered in hoisin with onion and fried wonton filling. Jian Bing are always cooked to order to ensure crispness, so expect a short wait. Also a very popular “drunk food” in China, you’ll find plenty of those guys in the middle of the street late at night.
3. Hot Pot: a dish you can’t escape.
Especially in our part of China, Hot Pot is a way of life. When invited out to dinner by Chinese friends or colleagues, 9 times out of 10 that means Hot Pot. It’s less of a meal and more of a social occasion, in which all diners are seated around a large bubbling vat of oil and spices, the titular Hot Pot itself, and all take part in the cooking and serving. Essentially, the menu will be a list of all of the available base ingredients, meats, vegetables, noodles, and so on, all of which will be delivered to your table uncooked and tipped unceremoniously into the communal pot. Then it’s a simple game of fishing around in the pot with your chopsticks to see what prize you can pluck forth. Is it slice of beef? Is it a cauliflower? Is it a fish head? Only the tasting will tell.
Chongqing hot-pot 重庆火锅
Only for the brave. The Chongqing Hot Pot is as spicy as Chinese food gets, the deep crimson colour of the broth being entirely a result of the herculean quantities of chili peppers and huā jiāo (the rightly-feared Sichuan ‘numbing peppercorns’) which go in to making it. A fantastic assault of flavour if you’re a fan of fiery food, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Dry hot-pot 干热锅
A Hot Pot without the broth. This usually takes the form of a large cast-iron pan, similar in shape to an oversized wok, loaded with meat, vegetables and spices. Most commonly chicken or shrimp based with good assortment of potatoes, peppers, and onions. This kind of hot pot generally arrives at your table cooked, the small flame beneath the pan is just to keep the whole ensemble hot while you and your friends forage with your trusty chopsticks.
What separates this from the regular type of hot pot is that the food comes mounted on wooden skewers, which are then plunged in to the broth to cook. This means you can set aside your chopsticks for now, in favour of playing a culinary version of ‘kerplunk’, drop all of your skewers in at once, wait 5 minutes then grab one at random to see what you’ve won. What I always find amusing at these places is that there is no menu, it’s more like a buffet, you raid the fridges and counters at the back of the restaurant and select anything that takes your fancy, then at the end of the meal the waitress will simply count your empty skewers to calculate your bill. A skewer with beef steak or shrimp costs exactly the same as one with onions or mushrooms, so don’t stress about the bill, just grab whatever you choose.
4. Foods to try in China: Tofu, declination of the popular bean curd.
I never got tofu until I moved to China. As far as I was concerned it was some mysterious gelatinous substance that sandal-wearing vegetarians were utilising as a pitiful substitute for meat. It took a nation of 1.4 billion people to show me the error of my ways. In the cuisine here tofu is not used to replace an ingredient but rather to complement it in many diverse ways, similar I suppose to how potatoes are used in so many western dishes. Now even I, whom PETA would probably dub a ‘murderous, blood-splattered, seal-clubbing, carnivore’ find myself seeking out the chinese character for tofu on a menu, because no dinner seems quite complete without it. Here are a few dishes that might make you reconsider tofu as well.
Ma Po Tofu 麻婆豆腐
Another Sichuan staple, Ma Po Tofu is a dish cooked with soft bean-curd and plenty of spices. Vegetarians beware, although the dish contains no actual meat, the sauce itself is traditionally cooked with pork, so we’d recommend checking that with the chef before ordering. The tofu in the dish easily soaks up the flavours of the broth like a sponge, which can end up becoming something of a sweating contest if you’re not into spicy food.
Pan-Fried tofu 圣剑豆腐
More of a Yunnan specialty, pan-fried tofu can be found on every street corner in the popular tourist hotspot of Lijiang. The one I’d recommend though always has the craziest queue and is located in the nearby old town of Shuhe. This is, hands down, the best tofu I ever had. Crispy on the outside, covered of spices and incredibly soft on the inside, it is worth the wait but maybe order two batches to help your future cravings!
Tofu noodles (Dou Hua Mian) 豆花面
Noodles and tofu, what is there not to like? With a nice broth at the bottom of the bowl make sure to mix it all up and enjoy the combined flavours. The only difficulty is to pick up the tofu and the noodles at the same time, requiring a level of chopstick dexterity that often doesn’t come easy to foreigners.!
We’ve found this treat in Chengdu thanks to Lost Plate Food tours, truth is, I’ve not been able to see it since in other restaurants so if it’s on the menu, you’re in luck! Order it!
Stinky tofu 臭豆腐
Bah! The bane of so many a Chinese street, and not our cup of tea, but something you can’t visit China without trying once. Stinky tofu, well, stinks. You’ll smell it long before the vendor himself hoves in to view, and that’s because it’s prepared by steeping it for months in a concoction of fermented milk and dried shrimp, a real recipe for a pungent aroma. The locals insist that the worse it smells, the better it tastes. Though I remain sceptical, as far as I can see, the only good thing about eating stinky tofu is, once you’ve eaten it, you can’t smell it any more. If you are trying it though, be sure to find good quality sellers, as I can’t imagine anything worse than getting sick from Stinky Tofu.
5. Sweet snacks to indulge.
I never expected that China would have much to offer in terms of sweets, certainly the dessert section of a Chinese restaurant menu in europe rarely gets further than fortune cookies and fruit salads. Thanks to people better versed in local cuisine however, I’ve been able to discover that the country is filled with sweet little treasures and all you need to do is look for them. There are too many to name and Sichuan has been surprising me with some pretty amazing new flavours but so far the capital of Sweet in the country has to be Beijing.
Tang Hu Lu 糖葫芦
Those now come in many forms, with all types of fruits a popular one being strawberries, but if you want to go with the traditional, you’ll have to try the hawthorn ones. Those small bitter apples are covered in a sweet red sugar and are a delicious treat. You will see them pop-up everywhere in Autumn around schools and in busy streets. I’ve been obsessed with those for the longest time but beware, your teeth might not appreciate the experience as much as your stomach.
Macau Egg tart
This one is a classic and you probably already know it. The Macau egg tart will remind many Europeans of “flan” or egg custard tart, and due to Macau’s strong Portuguese history it’s no wonder! But the taste might surprise you a little. A lot more eggy than what we get back home, these egg tarts can be found absolutely everywhere in China in any bakery you will find. Try to get them warm! I have to confess that I love the ones from KFC, and might grab them once in a while after going shopping.
Tang You Guozi 糖油果子
A Chengdu snack I love more than anything. Sadly I’ve never been able to find it outside of town! Those little doughnut balls are fried and covered with sesame seeds. Make sure to scout the streets of Chengdu to find those! We mentioned them before when we went hunting for Chengdu’s hidden gems, and they are still in my top 3 treats in China.
Black Sesame Soup
You might have heard of this if you enjoy Chinese movies. My first time hearing of it was in the famous Wong Kar Wai movie “In the Mood for Love” where it is mentioned as a comfort food. How happy was I then to taste this treat during our visit to Hong-Kong last winter. A little sweet, this soup is the perfect treat on a cold winter night. Maybe not so popular anymore, finding it in a restaurant might be a little tricky.
Tian Shui Mian ( Sweet water noodles) 甜水面
That’s a bit of a strange name I know but these cold noodles are amazing. Beware, depending on where you get them they might be a little spicy too. Dumped in a sesame sauce at the bottom of the bowl all you need to do is to mix them up and enjoy! Don’t be scared by the cold aspect of the noodles, those are pretty thick and not soggy at all. You’ll find those available from street vendors or small restaurants.
6. Foods to try in China: Weird and wonderful
Ok, Chinese people eat some odd food. At least that’s the way it seems to us, though if you’ve ever witnessed the reaction of a Chinese person when faced with a slice of blue cheese, you’ll appreciate, it’s all about perspective. Nonetheless, there are plenty of things out here which would seldom make it to the dinner table in the West, so if you’re adventurous dive right in, you never know what you might find you’ll like.
Very popular in Hong Kong though less common on the mainland, a hearty stew made from snake meat. I first ordered this principally to secure manly bragging rights, but was pleasantly surprised. It’s meaty, it’s flavourful, and on a cold winter’s day, it’s great thing to warm you through. While mainly popular on the outskirts of the city itself, this soup is beloved by older generations in winter. Get to Tai Po to give it a try.
Often encountered as a snack food in the markets of Beijing, scorpions are consumed whole (yup, legs, pincers, stinger and all) after being barbecued on a skewer. Again, I ordered these pretty much just so that I could say I’d eaten scorpions, and again I found, much to my astonishment, that they’re delicious. I remarked in an article at the time that they tasted like BBQ flavour crisps, but having had ample time to reflect, I’d like to amend that, and offer more precision. In the UK there is a brand of crisps called ‘Wheat Crunchies’, the crispy bacon ones to be exact. Cooked, whole scorpions taste just like crispy bacon flavour wheat crunchies. *
The snack food isles at supermarkets can be a real gold mine if you’re looking to track down unusual tidbits, particularly if you’re after packaged or preserved things to bring home as novelty gifts. Just today we spied these stacked up alongside the seaweed flavour Pringles, and while not by any means the strangest things to be encountered on a stroll around our local walmart, they do at least bear convenient English labeling. .
*I’d like to apologise to the purveyors of ‘Wheat Crunchies’, who are probably at this moment preparing the necessary paperwork to take legal action against me for publicly likening the taste of their product to that of a grilled arachnid. But trust me guys, I mean it in a nice way.
P.S: We’ve left a lot out of this list but it’s near impossible to include everything so we had to make a few choices! Tell us what you think people should try when they come to China in the comments!
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