When planning a vacation to China you will probably think about the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, packed trains you will have to ride or the language barrier you will come across. Hopefully you will also think of Chinese food, as food is very important in the Chinese culture.
In the 5 years I have been living in China I have eaten a lot of different kinds of Chinese foods. Some of the meals I’ve had were amazing and mouthwatering; others were simply terrible and made me lose my appetite.
Let’s forget about the last group, we’ll focus on some of the delicious meals I’ve eaten. In this list you will find a few of my favorite Chinese foods, which I think you should at least try once when traveling in China.
These Chinese foods will definitely make you happy!
Not the healthiest or the cheapest meal to eat, but definitely one of my favorites. When it’s cooked (smoked) properly the meat of the duck is so tender and soft, it will melt on your tongue. The sweetness of the sugar, the sourness of the bean sauce, the freshness of the cucumber and the tenderness of the meat; they will all mingle in your mouth and mix into an amazing flavor.
I enjoy watching the chef slice the duck in front of me, at the table and I usually have to refrain myself from quickly snitching a piece or two from the plate. Once it’s on the table I can’t wait to dip the duck in the sauce, place it on the pancake (春饼 – chūn bǐng), add a piece of cucumber & some spring onions, then roll it like a wrap and finally take a big bite.
Dumplings (饺子, jiǎozi) absolutely deserve a spot between the first 3 dishes of this list. They are not only one of my favorite Chinese foods, Chinese are also very fond of these little bites. Traditionally they’re only eaten during the Chinese New Year, but nowadays you can easily get them any day of the year.
They come in different ways with the fried and boiled ones being the most common. Not only the way they have been prepared can vary, also the filling can. Dumplings can be filled with meat (pork, lamb, etc.) and all kinds of vegetables, varying from cabbage (very common) to chives, bamboo shoots or white radish. Personally, the fried ones are my favorite; crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and with some good vinegar to dip them in, than your really are in the heavenly kingdom.
Candied haws on a stick
When they’re in season you can’t avoid them; the candied haws on a stick are everywhere. If I’m craving something sweet but don’t want to have westerns sweets, I often choose candy haws or (糖葫芦 – tánghúlu) as the Chinese call them. The original ones consist of hawthorns with crystal sugar. It is said that they can cure illness and that it cured the illness of concubine Huang (Song Dynastie, 960-1279).
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of the sourness of the haws, so when I give into my craving I usually choose a stick with orange, kiwi, apple or some other fruit. As you will see street vendors with a ‘tower’ of tanghulu on their bike, it’s a cheap and easy snack for when you’re out and about. Usually they shouldn’t cost more than $1 or 5-6 RMB.
This spicy Sichuan dish is an old time favorite. I discovered mapu dofu (麻婆豆腐) during one of my first months teaching in China, when one of my coworkers took me out for dinner. I remember that I wasn’t completely sure about this dish as it was way too spicy . It wasn’t until a couple of months after that dinner that I started to like it (I was getting used to eating spicy food). It’s a dish that mainly consists of tofu with some ground beef added and a lot of peppers. If you like spicy foods, you should definitely try it!
Chinese soup dumplings
Did I already mention that I like dumplings? These soup dumplings (XiaoLongBao – 小笼包) are different from the regular dumplings though as they are filled with both a meat / veggie mix and (surprise) soup. Their name comes from the way they are prepared; xiaolong means ‘small bamboo steaming basket’.
Traditionally, the filling of xiaolongbao consists of pork, but nowadays you can get them filled with crab, veggies, seafood as well as other fillings. The soup forms itself in the dumpling, because before steaming, aspic is put on the inside of the dough. The heat from steaming melts the aspic into soup. A little warning (from experience), when you’re going to eat this: be careful when taking a bite out of them as the soup will be very hot, which makes it easy for you to burn your mouth.
Hot Pot is popular in a few Asian countries and also in China. The history of China’s Hot Pot goes back over a 1,000 years and it originated in Mongolia. When ordering Hot Pot in China you are never going to get the same kind. This Chinese dish has gained popularity over the entire country and different regions have adjusted the broth to the taste of the locals, as well as to the weather.
In Beijing Hot Pot with lamb is quite popular where as in Chongqing people prefer a spicier kind of broth. I personally like Hot Pot because it’s a very ‘social’ dish. I’ve eaten it many times with a larger group of people, all sitting around a big table and together cooking our meal.
Sautéed Potato, Green Pepper & Eggplant
If there is one Chinese dish I could eat every day it would be this dish. This dish with sautéed potato, green pepper & eggplant is also called ‘the tree treasure’ dish (地三鲜 – dì sān xiān) and to me it has such a great flavor, I even took a cooking class to learn how to cook this dish, so I can also cook Chinese foods at home. It is not just the flavor, the combination of the soft eggplant and the bite that the potato has makes it one of my favorite Chinese dishes. You can try cooking this dish at home!
As you can see, China is a great place for anyone who loves food, likes to eat and is willing to take a risk every now and then, when it comes to eating something you’re not entirely sure it is. This list is only the tip of the iceberg since Chinese cuisine offers hundreds of different dishes. If you have traveled to China, we would love to hear from you about your eating experiences here. Leave a comment and let us know: ‘What are your favorite Chinese foods?’