From Dim Sum to Peking Duck
10 Dishes You Have To Try In China
1 February 2019 by Kiera Greenwood
When in Rome, or in this case China, there are a number of things that you simply have to do. Which in this corner of the world includes eating, eating and, erm, eating some more – with something to wash it down with too, obviously. Here, you’re invited to taste your way around the varying delights of each province and with food this good, who would pass up that opportunity? We certainly wouldn’t.
It’s a cuisine that we’re all familiar with. A staple in the modern day diet of international fare. Perhaps more of an excuse to dine out, or order in, rather than making it yourself – unless you are of course far more adept at getting authentic in the kitchen than we are, in which case, hats off to you. But unless you strike lucky with your local, it’s likely that what you think is typical Chinese food is in fact a long way away from its origins. Your time in China offers up the ultimate opportunity to encounter the real deal. It may be different, but it’s also very, very good.
But where to start? We’ve listed ten of our favourites to get you going. You’ll just have to follow your own nose from there...
1. Peking Duck
Originally from Beijing, this dish has made its way worldwide and established itself as a firm favourite amongst the masses when choosing to dine a la Chinese. Finding its origins back in the early 14th century, the consumption of Beijing or Peking Duck, as it’s more commonly referred to, is deeply ingrained in the city’s traditions. Combined with wafer-thin pancakes, thinly sliced cucumber and a rich sauce, both preparing and eating this tasty dish is much like a well rehearsed ritual. For some bona fide Beijing grub, a bit of duck is a must.
2. Dim Sum
Classically Cantonese, the bite-size dishes that make up Hong Kong’s renowned dim sum are enough to make some foodie fanatics travel to this corner of the world alone. They’re usually enjoyed from morning to early afternoon and are as integral to Hong Kong life as the Star Ferry is to Victoria Harbour – if you’re not already up to speed, that means that they’re pretty vital. Classics include barbecued pork and steamed shrimp dumplings, but you will find many a restaurant putting their own twist on things. Our top tips? A dainty nibble is more polite than wolfing it down and pacing yourself will get you far – having eyes bigger than your belly doesn’t bode well in a country where it’s considered rude not to finish your food.
3. Xiaolongbao (Steamed Soup Buns)
Often served as part and parcel of a dim sum spread, these typically Shanghainese soup buns will have you slurping one after the other in no time. Served everywhere from street markets to top-class hotels this twist on a dumpling is popular for a reason. So, what are you waiting for? Grab some chopsticks and dig in to the broth-filled delights. It would be rude not to.
Strictly speaking it’s not a dish, but Chinese chá is definitely a specialty worth treating your tastebuds to. Dating back almost 5,000 years, tea is part of this country’s heritage. And like much of Asia, China sure does know how to brew a good cuppa. It’s time to forget your staple English Breakfast variety, because here it’s all about the green stuff. No, we’re not promoting anything dodgy, it’s just that green tea comes out top of the popularity stakes here. Grown on home soil, tea is thought to have spiritual as well as general health benefits and drinking it is much more of a ceremony than we’re used to. The Chinese believe that tea enhances an individual's philosophy, ethics and morality – so, pretty important then.
For those who have seen Disney Pixar’s short film ‘Bao’, chowing down on a dumpling may not seem as appealing as it once did. But we can assure you that dumplings don’t really come to life and this is an absolute must-eat dish. It’s another well known one that you’re likely to have tried before, however, eating one (or three) in their home country is a completely different story. Here, they’re the star of the dining table show. Whether you go for prawn, beef, pork, fish, veggie or even a slightly more unusual offering that many menus will offer up, you’ll be in for a treat. Particularly popular in Xian, you should head to a dumpling banquet to get the full experience.
6. Mapo Tofu
When in Chengdu you can’t really avoid Sichuan’s signature spice and what better way to embrace it than by digging into a healthy helping of mapo tofu, which literally translates to “pockmarked grandmother’s tofu” – it’s far more appetising than it sounds, promise. Named after its creator, a pock-faced woman who invented the dish in the 1800s, stir-fried tofu and beef are cooked in chili bean paste, soy beans and chili oil to showcase the very basis of typical Chengdu cuisine. Simple and inexpensive, yet mouth wateringly delicious.
7. Guilin Rice Noodles
Found primarily in – yep you’ve guessed it – Guilin, these rice noodles have been a basic staple of the region for as long as its people can remember. Renowned for their delicate taste, made up of a whopping 28 spices, if you fancy trying your hand at slurping from the bowl during your time in China, these rice noodles are a great place to start.
8. Stinky Tofu
One of this country’s most popular street foods, stinky tofu really is as stinky as is implied – but that doesn’t seem to put people off. The overpowering smell is due to the tofu at hand being fermented for longer than the standard time. Deep fried in vegetable oil and served with chilli and soy sauce, veggies will be happy to know that this is a dish that’s 100% meat free. That is if the brine that it was fermented in was vegetarian in the first place. Fingers crossed aye. Whether you’re adventurous enough to try it, or are just reached by its pungent fumes whilst wandering a hectic hutong, it’s definitely a “been there, done that” kind of dish.
9. Hairy Crab
We know, it sounds questionable. They aren’t exactly two words that you automatically put together and we’re not sure that anyone would ever be sold on the news that a dish is ‘hairy’, but in Shanghai, hairy crab is a big deal. Named for its furry, mitten-like claws, this delicacy is so popular that as well as taking centre stage on restaurant menus, it can even be bought from vending machines. Best enjoyed simply steamed, a good hairy crab can set you back has much as a prime steak. This is one not to be missed, even if just to tell your friends back home about.
10. Deep-fried Mantou
Just because you’re in a country not known for its desserts, doesn’t mean that they don’t do them well. Much like the Chinese version of a donut, deep-fried mantous are less intimidating to our foreign palettes than some of China’s more unusual desserts, but still both authentically unique to this part of the world and thoroughly delicious. Dip the dough in condensed milk and your sweet tooth will be well and truly satisfied.