General Tsao’s chicken, beef broccoli, wonton soup, spring rolls, sweet and sour pork and fortune cookies, these are some of the “Chinese food” that foreigners would look for when they arrive in China. With the hope of finding something familiar or trying the authentic version of their favorite dish, many foreigners end up being disappointed to find out that the “Chinese food” they know isn’t exactly the local’s ideal dish to order or sometimes, they are not even available on their menu.
This however, shouldn’t be something to worry about. Consider this an opportunity to get to try a new or maybe even a better dish. And no, we get it, we won’t include chicken feet, intestines or frog legs. China, as you know, is a vast country and each region features distinct and unique cuisine. Szechuan province is known for its spicy food while Cantonese style is mostly sweet.
Don’t limit your choices with the list we have below though. We have also a created a list of 22 popular meat, fish and vegetable dishes including useful phrases that you can use when in a restaurant in China. It has English, Chinese characters and pinyin with tones in case you want to use it to practice your Mandarin. You can print the A4 version or for your bulletin board or create a foldable pocket version with easy-to-follow steps to carry with you wherever you go. Download it now for free:
1. Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao)小笼包
These meat-filled dumplings originated in Jiangnan region in China although they are mostly associated with Shanghai and Wuxi. Xiaolongbao is often referred to as a kind of dumpling but is actually a type of steamed bun or “baozi”. It is traditionally served and prepared in small bamboo steaming baskets which are called “xiaolong”, hence the name.
Xiaolongbao usually has pork or sometimes with minced crab meat in it but there have been a lot more variations recently. The soup inside them are made by using solid meat aspic, meat set in gelatin, and wrapped with the skin. While steaming, the aspic then melts into soup. The most common way to eat them is to first dip in Zhenjiang vinegar with ginger slivers, and then have a small bite at the corner to let the soup seep out to the spoon, finally eat the Xialongbao while drinking its broth at the same time. Be careful not to burn your tongue in the process.
2. Beggar’s Chicken (Jiao Hua Ji) 叫化鸡
There are many legends and stories behind the origin of this dish. There was once a beggar who led a wandering life in poverty. One day, he came across a wild chicken; others imply that he stole it. He decided to cook the chicken with neither tools nor condiments. He killed the chicken, plucked it and wrapped it in lotus leaves. He then built a fire and placed the chicken over it. With the fear of being discovered by nearby guards, he covered the entire chicken with mud thus keeping the smell trapped within the mud.
Since the chicken’s natural juices were trapped inside, it turned to be extra succulent. When it came time for him to eat it however, a travelling noble, attracted by the scent of the chicken, came to ask what he was preparing. The beggar was kind enough to share his meal and the noble found it to be very good. The noble man wondered how a simple beggar could cook such succulent chicken so he asked how he made it. This cooking method eventually spread and found its way to the imperial court.
Over a century ago, a small restaurant recreated this method of cooking, following the said legend. They called it the Beggar’s Chicken and it has become popular to the locals since then. Nowadays, restaurants wrap the chicken in lotus leaves and bake it. There are still others who cook the dish outside using hot coals and covering the lotus wrapped chicken with clay or mud to keep it more traditional.
3. Scallion Pancake 葱油饼
There has been a legend in China that pizza is an evolution of the scallion pancake, a widely famous food in China and Taiwan. It is rumored that Marco Polo missed the scallion pancake so much when he returned to Italy so he looked for chefs to recreate the dish but the chef he found failed to imitate it. The dish they created, however, was praised by everyone who tried it. The chef who created it improvised the dish by adding cheese which turned out to be today’s pizza. This rumor was later refuted by historians though, stating that pizza existed in the Mediterranean, 250 years earlier than Marco Polo’s time.
Congyoubing or scallion pancakes are made from non-leavened flatbread with oil and minced green onions. They are available both as street food items and served in restaurants. There are plenty of other variations to serve the dish by adding bacon, ham, tuna or other food.
4. Shanxi Oat noodles 莜面栲栳栳
Shanxi cuisine is most well-known for its noodles and the extensive use of vinegar as a condiment. The oat noodles are intricately arranged to shape like a honeycomb in a steamer basket. It is served with a chili oil-vinegar dip, simply peel off a strip of noodle and dip it in this sauce before eating. The oat noodles have a mild taste and soft light texture. They are made from naked oat, a grain indigenous to Shanxi province.
5. Sichuan Firecracker Chicken 辣子鸡
Also called as “Chicken with Chilies”, the Firecracker Chicken is a Sichuan dish that’s incredibly spicy. As mentioned, Sichuan province is known for their spicy dishes. This dish may appear terrifying, seeing more chilies than chunks of chicken; however, the spices are only there to add to its flavor and are not supposed to be eaten. The chicken has a crisp and crunchiness with a lot of flavor. This recipe is a specialty of Gele Mountain which used to be a district of Sichuan province.
6. Suzhou Style Mooncakes 苏州式月饼
Mooncakes are usually associated with Mid-Autumn Festival but this style of mooncake is not exclusive for the Chinese holiday. These mooncakes are baked and available all throughout the year. These mooncakes can either be salty or sweet. This style has been around for over a thousand years. The savory types are usually served hot and with pork mince fillings, salt and pepper. It is popular for its layers of flaky dough and crispiness.
Mooncakes were known to be used by the Ming revolutionaries to overthrow the Mongolian rulers in China. The mooncakes have secret messages hidden within them. The messages contained the plan for the revolution which was held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, also the date of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Another way to hide the message is to print it on top of the mooncake which came in packages of four. To be able to decipher the message, each of the four mooncakes was cut equally into quarters and the 16 pieces were put together like a puzzle, thus revealing the hidden message. They then eat the mooncake to destroy any evidence of the message.
7. Red Braised Pork or Hong Shao Rou红烧肉
Red braised pork is a popular and classic dish from China which are cooked with pork belly, ginger, garlic, aromatic spices, chili peppers, sugar, soy sauce and rice wine. The pork is cooked until the meat is ready to fall apart. The long braising process results in a texture that feels like the pork is melting in your mouth. Sweetness is its main component with its thick sauce and tender texture.
I’m sure there are plenty of Chinese dishes out there that you find unique and delicious. We would like to hear about your experience and suggested food. What’s your favourite dish?