The best Chinese food: 19 mouthwatering dishes
Xia long bao
Xia long bao are a Shanghainese specialty. Often known as soup dumplings, these little pleated parcels contain minced pork in jelly, which once steamed, melts into a rich, warm broth. The trick to eating them is to pick the dumpling up gently from the top, dip it in dark vinegar and then nibble a small hole through which you can slurp out the soup.
Stinky tofu divides opinion like no other Chinese street food. Fermented and then deep-fried, this distinctive snack often comes with lashings of chilli sauce. Unsurprisingly, given the name, you can usually smell it several streets away. The taste, however, often has inquisitive visitors pleasantly surprised.
Siu mei, or Cantonese barbecued meats, are a Hong Kong classic. If you’re not sure where to start, search out a restaurant serving whole roast sucking pig. This is no ordinary hog roast: the beast is stuffed with sticky rice and roasted over an open flame until every inch of skin is perfectly crispy.
Sichuan hot pot
Hot pot, or huo guo, is one of Sichuan’s best-known dishes and makes good use of the fiery chillies which the province is known for. Try it at a dedicated hot pot restaurant in Chengdu, where the dish is heated at your table. You’ll be presented with thin slices of raw meat and vegetables to cook in an oily stock spiked with chilli and peppercorns.
Rou jia mo
Rou jia mo might have gained the moniker “the Chinese hamburger”, but the sandwich-like snack has been around far longer than its Western counterpart. The recipe is thought to have originated in Shaanxi province, and the capital, Xi’an, remains the spot to order one. Inside the dense wheat flatbread (the "mo") you’ll find minced lamb or beef with fresh coriander and spices.
It’s been decades since Beijing was known as Peking, but somehow the name has stuck among foreigners when it comes to the city’s famous roast duck. Beijing kaoya, as it’s properly known, will be carved at your table: morsels of crisp skin are eaten first, then the meat is dunked into sweet bean sauce and wrapped in a thin pancake with cucumber and spring onions.
Mid-autumn festival means one thing when it comes to food in China: mooncakes. These small, round pastries are available in more and more flavours each year, with fillings ranging from traditional lotus bean paste and egg yolk to strawberry and black sesame. Today they’re often given as gifts, presented in elaborate boxes to family, friends and business associates.
Lanzhou la mian
There’s nowhere better to try Lanzhou’s classic beef noodle soup, Lanzhou la mian, than in Lanzhou itself, capital of Gansu province in China’s northwest. The city’s famous hand-pulled noodles are the star of the dish, served with beef, spring onions and chilli oil in a clear, aromatic broth flavoured with spices like turmeric and cumin.
If you’re in Beijing around Chinese New Year, you’re sure to come across these moreish crescent-shaped dumplings, which are traditionally served at this time of year. Jiaozi recipes vary, but often contain pork, cabbage and chive. Traditionally they’re steamed rather than fried and served with soy, vinegar and chilli oil for dipping.
Thin egg and spring onion pancakes, jian bing are a popular breakfast food. Sometimes known as Chinese crepes, just like their European namesake they’re bought from street stalls and eaten on the go. Sometimes you’ll find them served simply with a smear of hot sauce; other vendors add fillings like pickles, vegetables and crunchy, deep-fried wonton skins.
Come autumn, steamed hairy crabs are the ultimate delicacy in Shanghai and the state of Jiangsu in eastern China; some of the finest are said to be caught in Yangcheng Lake near Suzhou. Eating them is a fiddly task. First remove the shell, then pick out the highly-prised roe inside. The crabmeat itself can finally be extracted and dipped into a rice vinegar and ginger sauce before eating.
Hainanese chicken rice
Hainanese chicken rice might be best known as Singapore's national dish these days, but there are no prizes for guessing where the recipe originated. The dish has three key elements: poached chicken, sticky rice cooked in chicken stock and ginger, and a thin broth on the side. Lip-numbing chilli sauce is the traditional accompaniment.
Dragon well tea shrimp
The city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province might be famous for its lake, but it’s the local rivers that we have to thank for this dish. Dragon well tea shrimp, or longjing xia ren, sees local river prawns stir-fried with longjing green tea leaves. Reportedly the dish was created by accident after a chef dropped in the leaves by mistake while cooking for a former emperor.
This simple rice porridge is China’s most famous breakfast dish and comfort food – and it appears in numerous guises. Some of the most common congee toppings and accoutrements include minced pork, century eggs, mushrooms, coriander, chilli oil and fresh ginger. At breakfast, meanwhile, you’ll nearly always find it served with deep fried dough sticks called you tiao.
There’s more to Sichuanese cuisine than its famous hot pot. One of the most traditional recipes is mapo doufo, a tofu dish that can be roughly translated as "pockmarked grandmother’s bean curd". As in much of Sichuan’s cuisine, chillies feature heavily in the dish, usually with ground beef or pork, fermented black beans and spring onions.
Char siu bao
Dim sum doesn’t get much better than char siu bao, sweet and sticky barbecued pork encased within a fluffy, cloud-like bun. Cantonese in origin, this dim sum staple is now a favourite all over China. Baked versions pop up on menus here and there, but traditionally the hand-rolled dough buns should be steamed for just ten minutes.
No, they aren’t aged for a century, but these preserved eggs might have you fooled. Don’t be put off by the translucent, jelly-like whites or soft green-grey yolks: century eggs
are a widely-consumed delicacy. The off-putting appearance comes from the preservation process: several weeks encased within a mixture of rice husks, ash, clay, lime and salt.
Sticky rice parcels somewhat like tamales, zongzi are traditionally eaten as part of the Dragon Boat Festival celebrations in early summer; each region has their own variation. Inside the bamboo leaf wrapper, which has been steamed for several hours, you’ll find a fistful of glutinous rice surrounding fillings like marinated pork belly, shitake mushrooms or red bean paste.
Like them or loathe them, you can't deny that chicken feet remain a resolutely popular snack. If you're trying them for the first time, you might find the texture harder to handle than the taste. Look out for steamed, stir-fried and marinated variants to ease you in, particularly in Hong Kong where they are a traditional dim sum staple.
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