Thanks to China’s sheer enormity, travelling through the country is as much a tastebud odyssey as it is a history lesson. And eating your way around the street food markets allows you to get a true taste of the diverse culinary scene here.
The sun sets and the makeshift stalls rise, becoming a hearth that local communities swell around, eager to devour the cheap, fresh snacks on offer. From jiǎozi to jianbing, here are seven ridiculously delicious street food snacks you have to try.
1. Dumplings – jiǎozi
You’ll find these bite-size, crescent-shaped parcels sold everywhere across the country, from tiny hole-in-the-walls at train stations to street stalls at lively public squares. Pinch your chopsticks over each piece and dip into a soy or chilli sauce, before sinking your teeth into the thin dough and soft meat and vegetable mix (usually pork and cabbage).
Plenty of hotels and tour groups organize dumpling-making classes for travellers, but you’ll be able to experience the real deal at a homestay. Traditionally, families would serve jiǎozi to celebrate their recoveries from winter illnesses. To this day, creating jiǎozi makes for major family-bonding time, particularly in the run-up to big festivals such as Spring Festival.
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2. Xi’an pancake – xian bing
Sometimes dry, but always delicious, this Chinese-Islamic snack originates from the eponymous city in central China. Flaked meat is loaded in between two thin discs of dough, accompanied with a handful of cabbage and flecks of fresh ginger, diced onions and a splash of Shaoxing rice wine and chilli oil.
One of the best places to grab a xian bing is from one of the (many) small stalls in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an, the hub of the Muslim community, just west of the Bell Tower.
3. Beijing pancake – jianbing
This 2000-year-old snack is so popular in the capital that, for those on the go, it’s the one thing that’s worth the wait. First the batter is thinly spread out onto a hotplate, then various toppings, sauces and spices are generously sprinkled and dolloped on as the batter crunches and curves skywards.
Next, a smaller, golden sheet of crispy batter (bao cui) is placed inside, which crackles as the jianbing is folded up like a parcel and served.
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4. Steamed buns – baozi
If you spot both locals and travellers swarming around puffs of billowing steam in the morning, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across a baozi stall – make sure you get in line.
A popular breakfast choice, baozi are served on bamboo steamer baskets, but you’ll only need one or two to keep you going. Made using thick dough, it has a fluffy yet heavier consistency than jiǎozi, and feels as if you’re biting into a warm roll. It’s the fillings, from red beans to seaweed to minced beef, that liven up this otherwise plain bun: as soon as your teeth reach the centre, the flavour bursts and ripples across your tongue.
5. Candied fruit on a stick – tánghúlu
If you’re in need of something sweet after a big dinner, the go-to Chinese treat is tánghúlu. Skewered fruits (grapes, hawthorns, strawberries) are doused in sweet syrup that crystallises and hardens. This candied treat was first created over 800 years ago but it’s still believed to help with digestion problems.
You’ll need to crunch through the hard coating of sugar first to get to the sweet burst of fruits inside. It also has a distinctive, lingering smell, so it’s best to try one first at Wangfujing Market, Beijing, before deciding whether you can handle the annual Tánghúlu Fair in Qingdao, east China…
6. Thick rice balls – cífàntuán
Usually served with soy milk, cífàntuán is another popular breakfast snack that’s enjoyed across Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Piping hot clumps of steamed rice are wrapped in a crispy sheet of thin dough (you tiao), resembling something similar to a sushi roll.
Cífàntuán can be either sweet or savoury – for a sweet one, try a sugar and sesame seed filling, and for savoury opt for flaked pork, mushrooms and pickled veg. The stalls behind Plaza 66 in Shanghai are a good place to start, but get exploring to find your own favourite.
7. Fried rice – chǎo fàn
From east to west, chǎo fàn is one of China’s most well-known dishes. An egg is cracked into the wok first, followed by rice, spring onions and then small pieces of beef (niúròu), chicken (jī) or pork (zhūròu). The spoon clangs against the well-oiled wok as it’s all continuously tossed and turned on a high heat.
The final result is then poured out into a bowl and served, steaming hot, right in front of you. As the rice is quite thick, it should be easier to grasp clumps of it with your chopsticks – but if you’re still a novice, using a spoon is fine, too.