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Chinese cuisine is famous all over the world, and for good reason. There are so many different styles of cooking in China that you could eat something different every day of the year. Unfortunately, the diversity and uniqueness of Chinese cuisine often gets lost in Chinese restaurants outside of the country. If you’ve ever been to a Chinese buffet in the US, you’re probably used to things like sweet & sour chicken, egg rolls, and fortune cookies. You won’t find any of these things on the menu in a real Chinese restaurant, though. Here are 10 must-try foods in China so you know what to order when you travel to the Middle Kingdom.
When it comes to traditional Chinese food, it’s hard to beat dumplings (饺子 – jiǎo zi). These tasty little morsels can be found all over the country and come in a variety of styles – steamed, boiled, and fried. Making the dumplings is quite the social affair, especially during the Spring Festival. It doesn’t have to be Chinese New Year to eat dumplings, though. They’re great for any occasion! Mix up a bowl with some soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and chili, and you’ve got one of the best dishes out there. Rather than just eat the dumplings, why not learn how to make them? Check out what a Chinese cooking class is like in this short video.
One of the few dishes found in western Chinese restaurants that’s actually on the menu in China is Kung Pao chicken (宫保鸡丁 – gōng bǎo jī dīng). There are different variations depending on the restaurant, but you’ll always get savory little pieces of diced chicken mixed in with peanuts, red chilis, and a sauce that’s a bit sweet. Paired with a bowl of rice, it’s a classic Chinese lunch that will always fill you up and never let you down.
If you’re looking to try a real deal Chinese breakfast, look no further than jianbing (煎饼 – jiān bing). It’s kind of like a pancake or crepe with an egg – but it’s also very much Chinese, with green onions and spicy chili sauce. At 4-5 RMB, it’s a delicious, filling, and super cheap breakfast. See how they’re made and learn how to order one in this oldie but goodie from our YouTube page:
It’s a common misconception that it’s impossible to be a vegetarian in China. There are actually several excellent Chinese dishes without meat. One of the most common is the classic scrambled eggs and tomatoes (西红柿炒鸡蛋 – xī hóng shì chǎo jī dàn). I thought it sounded weird at first, but ended up eating it multiple times a week in China. It’s one of those staple dishes that you can find just about anywhere, so make sure you give it a try.
More than just a dish, hot pot (火锅 – huǒ guō) is a full on culinary experience. While there are different regional varieties in terms of flavors and ingredients, the basic idea is the same – you order a pot of spiced broth, let it boil at your table, and add whatever meat, seafood, and vegetables you desire. You can also make your own bowl of sesame paste (麻酱 – má jiàng), to which you’re free to add a variety of things, such as: garlic, chili oil, green onions, coriander, and so on. A night of hot pot with some friends and a couple of beers is hard to beat. Get a closer look at a hot pot dinner in this short video:
China has been roasting ducks since way back in the day. We’re talking Southern and Northern Dynasties, people. Once a dish solely reserved for Chinese emperors and their families, Beijing roast duck (北京烤鸭 – běi jīng kǎo yā) is now for everyone. Whether you pick up a roast duck from your local grocery store to eat at home or indulge in a multi-course dinner at Quan Ju De (全聚德 – quán jù dé) or Da Dong (大董 – dà dǒng), you don’t want to miss out on this Chinese classic. Here’s what an evening at the famed Da Dong restaurant looks like, with plenty of shots of the imperial bird.
If you’re looking to do brunch in China, you just can’t beat dim sum (点心 – diǎn xīn). Of course, you’ll find the best dim sum in Guangdong province and Hong Kong, as it’s a traditional Cantonese dish. Dim sum is basically a variety of different dumplings and steamed buns stuffed full of just about anything, including: beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and vegetables. One serving usually has about 3 or 4 pieces, so it’s best to go family style and just order up a bunch and pass them around.
There are so many different kinds of noodles in China that it’s impossible to count them all. One of the most famous, though, is definitely Yunnan’s “Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles” (过桥米线 – guò qiáo mǐ xiàn). There’s an interesting legend tied to this noodle dish, which you’ll have to read the post to learn about. When it comes to having a bowl of Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles, you’ve got tons of choices. Common ingredients include: thinly sliced ham or chicken, quail, eggs, bok choy, spring onion, mushrooms, and tofu. Of course, you’ve got all kinds of options for condiments to season your bowl to perfection. Vinegar, soy sauce, and different kinds of chili are always available. You can see the noodles and several other Yunnan classics in this video.
Of all the regional varieties of Chinese food, Sichuan cuisine is far and away one of the best and most famous. One quintessential Sichuan dish that you need to try when traveling in China is Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐 – má pó dòu fu). Although there are different varieties of this dish, the basic recipe calls for tofu, chili/bean based sauce, fermented black beans, and diced meat. If you’re a vegetarian, just tell your waiter, “I don’t eat meat” (我不吃肉 – wǒ bù chī ròu) and they’ll whip it up for you minus the pork/beef.
While there are many varieties of Chinese food, there are a few dishes that you find everywhere. One such dish is Lanzhou Pulled Noodles (兰州拉面 – lán zhōu lā miàn). It seriously seems like there’s a Lanzhou noodle joint on every corner in China. A big bowl of these will fill you up and usually only costs around $1.50 or so. No wonder it’s so popular! There’s lots more to eat in a Lanzhou restaurant, though. Check the post for some other common dishes and be sure to watch the video. Warning – your mouth may start watering.
Are you hungry yet? I’m sure after reading this post you’re ready to book that ticket to China just to try these delicious dishes! These are some of my personal favorites that got me through 6+ years of living and traveling in China. How about you? Which Chinese dishes are your favorite? Leave a comment and let us know!