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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Feeling inspired by the variety of Chinese food? Also read our guide to Taiwan street food: dishes you must try.