Whether or not you like the Chinese food you’ve eaten at Happy Garden or Golden Dragon or whatever your go-to takeout place back home is, throw all your preconceptions about Chinese food out the window and get ready for a varied and rich taste experience when you get to China. Oh, and a whole lot of dumplings.
In China, you won’t find any General Tso’s chicken or super-gooey beef and broccoli rice, and you certainly won’t find any fortune cookies. What you will find is so, so much better. I’ve compiled a few of my favorite foods here, but the world of Chinese food is so much bigger than what I’ve listed here. Additionally, take note that food specialties vary vastly by region, so there may be a ton of foods that I haven’t even mentioned here that are just super delicious. Read on to whet your appetite for travel and for, well, food.
1. Chinese hamburger (肉夹馍)
Every single time I get rou jia mou I mean to take a picture but then I get too excited and accidentally gobble half of it up before I can capture a shot. This flaky, meaty treat is billed as a Chinese hamburger, but it’s so much better than that. It’s a freshly cooked flaky bun filled with chopped fatty pork in its sauce, along with optional spicy pepper. Rou jia mou is uninterrupted by cheese or lettuce—it’s just a simple harmony of juicy meat and bread, punctuated by parsley, spicy peppers, and just the right amount of sauce. Most often found at street food vendors, rou jia mou is the perfect snack for when you’re on the go.
2. Chinese barbecue (烧烤)
Like Chinese hamburgers, Chinese barbecue has little to nothing in common with its American counterpart. While American barbecue consists mostly of big chunks of slow-roasted meat slathered in sauce, Chinese barbecue is basically just anything you can put on a skewer, smothered with dry spices. Lamb, chicken wings, bread, chives, tofu, mushrooms, squid, you name it. If you can put it on a skewer, it’s Chinese barbecue. There are abundant street stalls selling truly fantastic barbecue if you want a skewer or too on the run. However, Chinese and American barbecue do share two important commonalities. Both are best enjoyed with friends outside on a summer afternoon or evening, and both are seriously delcious.
3. Hot pot (火锅)
Like barbecue, hot pot is best enjoyed with friends. There are a number of different variations of this dish, but the basic concept is that a big pot of boiling soup is put on a flame on your table, and then you get to choose whatever you want to dip into it. Beef strips, tofu, brain and organs, veggies, whatever you want. You also get to create your own sauce to dip your food into, and can usually choose from sesame oil, peanut sauce, soy sauce, and a variety of other ingredients. Hot pot can be as crazy or as simple as you make it. The most popular variety, which hails from Sichuan, has two soups together – one spicy and one mild. That way, you can customize your meal to the utmost. With a group of people, you can choose any number of items to cook in your pot, thus sampling a wide variety of different foods. Hot pot isn’t just a meal – it’s a food experience.
4. Ma la tang (麻辣烫)
Like hot pot, ma la tang (numbing spicy soup) is fun because it’s customizable. But unlike hot pot, ma la tang can just as easily be enjoyed by one person on a lunch break. The basic concept of ma la tang is that you handpick a bunch of ingredients from a giant refrigerator and throw them into a bowl, and then the cooks at the restaurant throw it all into a broth for you. You can choose how spicy the broth is, and what toppings are on it. Delicious, fresh, dirt cheap, and completely customizable, ma la tang will make you forget that Chipotle even exists.
5. Baozi (包子)
These super bready dumplings are most often eaten for breakfast, but you can find them at street vendors at any time of day or night. They cost next to nothing (around 3 cents a pop), and they’re freaking delicious. They come with a number of fillings both sweet and savory, such as egg and vegetable, tofu, pork, red bean, and egg custard. Fun, yummy, and cooked fresh, they’re a delicious and convenient treat at any time.
I’ve seriously just scratched the surface of Chinese food with this list. I’ve barely dived into the vast worlds of breakfast foods, street snacks, and dumplings and noodles, not to mention desserts, specialty holiday foods, convenience store snacks you can’t find in the West, beverages, and more. Heck, I’ve barely scraped entrees. There are so many delicious Chinese foods, and the best way to find out more about them is to come try them out for yourself. However, if you want more lists like this, or are interested in specific foods (i.e. desserts), let me know in the comments below and you can also download our free Chinese Food Menu here! Thanks for reading, and happy eating.