Before my trip to China, I can’t say my experience with Chinese food in the US had been a good one. For me, Chinese food evoked images of strong-smelling takeout, wok stir-fries, and too-sticky chicken. Needless to say, my view of Chinese food was drastically limited, and, as a result, I was worried about what I’d eat when I actually visited China. Fortunately, my experience with food in the Middle Kingdom was nothing short of amazing. From cheap yet tasty street food to full-blown restaurant meals, I was wowed by the variety of cuisine China has to offer. To celebrate the unique delicacies of this special country, I’ve compiled a list of 11 things you need to try based on my gastro-adventures through China.
#1. Hot Pot: Hot Pot is God’s gift to China, and China’s gift to the world. It’s so freaking good. I had never heard of hot pot before coming to China, but after one taste I was smitten. Hot pot is basically what it sounds like: a pot of hot soup stock in which food is cooked. At a restaurant, the pot is placed in the middle of the table. You order a variety of ingredients to cook in the stock, like thin slices of beef, shrimp, vegetables, tofu, and noodles. Once the stock in the pot has come to boil, you cook these items yourself, placing ingredients in the pot and removing them with your chopsticks when ready. Before trying my first hot pot, I noticed that we each had a cracked raw egg in a small bowl in front of us. What is this for, you may ask? You use the egg as a sauce, and it is INCREDIBLE. The taste of thinly sliced beef cooked in flavorful stock and dipped in raw egg sauce is literally one of the best experiences my taste buds have ever had. Pro tip: Cook the meat and other such ingredients first. This will give the stock more flavor, which is KEY for when you cook the noodles at the end. The noodles taste SO good because they have absorbed all the flavors of the stock and previously cooked ingredients. Hot pot was undoubtedly one of my favorite experiences with Chinese food during my visit.
#2. Soup Dumplings: Soup dumplings are steamed buns, usually containing a broth that gives these treats their name. These bad boys are especially popular in Shanghai, where I tried them. It was an interesting experience eating the bun: my Chinese Air BnB roommate was obviously a pro, so she explained how to do it. Holding the bun in your chopsticks or in a soup spoon, you have to bite the bun slightly, slurp the soup as it oozes out of the bun, then eat the bun in two or three bites. On the streets of the old town area of Shanghai, you’ll see people slurping the soup out of these dumplings with a straw! (Can’t say I didn’t also do this myself…)
#3. Yunnan Cuisine: Although I did not visit Yunnan province during my time in China, I ate at restaurants serving Yunnan dishes in both Shanghai and Beijing. I gotta say, Yunnan cuisine delivers. It can be on the spicy side, like some of the chicken dishes served with chili peppers. Fried goat cheese is also popular. My personal favorite was an omelette-like dish served with jasmine blossoms that I ate at a restaurant called Little Yunnan in Beijing. The jasmine gave the eggs a unique, delicate flavor that was really delicious. Next time I go to China, I definitely want to make it to Yunnan!
#4. Cold Noodles: This dish, also known as liangpi, rocked my world in Xi’an. You will see liangpi all over the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an – eat as much as you can!! As the name suggests, the noodles are served chilled and topped with a delicious medley of sauces, including a peanut sauce, a spicy chili sauce, and sesame sauce. I’m a lover of all things pasta and noodles, but the thickness, texture, and flavor of these noodles really stands out – in fact, the cold noodles dish I ate in Xi’an was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had!
#5. Mountain Noodles: I tried these noodles on the streets of the ancient town of Pingyao, and they were my go-to street snack while there. I can best describe these noodles as a kind of spicy rigatoni, given their large, tube-like shape and the seasonings used to prepare them. These mountain noodles are the perfect Chinese comfort food: warm and delectable. Street vendors usually serve this dish with little sticks instead of normal chopsticks, so pinch each noodle and munch away as you stroll Pingyao!
#6. Tripe: Yes, I said it. Tripe. I admit it: I loved eating sheep’s stomach on the streets of China. When I first ordered tripe at a street market in Beijing, I had no idea what it was. My guess was either funky mushrooms or calamari because of its shape – I just wanted to try it because I had seen a lot of people eating it. After housing my first bowl, I figured I might as well ask what this tasty weird dish was. Despite language barriers, I successfully deduced that this scrumptious snack was sheep’s stomach. Aaaaand then I ordered another bowl. Lol. And another one the next day. Whoops. The sauce is really what makes this dish delicious: kind of like the dressings served with cold noodles, the sauce served with tripe is often a mix of spicy, savory, and peanut sauces. Cheers to surviving many bowls of tripe in China!
#7. Stinky Tofu: Mhm, this is exactly what it sounds like. This popular street food gets its name from the fermented tofu’s strong odor. You’ll know when a food stall sells stinky tofu because, well…you’ll smell it. While at the Tianzifang market in Shanghai, I kept seeing tons of people with the same dish, but I had no idea what it was. Finally, I found the food stall selling it. And I still had no idea what it was. So I asked, and, with the help of translation apps, finally concluded it was “stinky tofu” (not “sticky tofu” which I first understood). Of course, I had to try it. The dish is usually served in a small bowl with a few pieces of tofu, covered in a rich, spicy sauce and garnished with cilantro. Although the sauce was really flavorful, the tofu itself was strange-tasting, as you can imagine. Although this wasn’t my favorite dish in China, I would definitely recommend mustering up the courage to try it!
#8. Persimmon Cakes: Persimmon cakes were my go-to sweet treat in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an. The dough of this cake is made with persimmons, a tantalizingly sweet fruit that I fell in love with in China. The cakes often have a sweet filling, like red bean paste. You’ll see these orange cakes being freshly fried all over the Muslim Quarter, so try one after your cold noodles!
#9. Black Sesame Ice Cream: Black sesame is the new Belgian chocolate. You need this ice cream flavor in your life. Black sesame ice cream is sweet, but not too rich. This unique flavor is popular across Asia, and you’ll see it in ice cream shops and restaurants. After one taste, you may find yourself craving it after meals like I did by the end of my time in China!
#10. Mooncake: These little cakes are traditionally eaten in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival in October – right when I visited. The Chinese traditionally eat mooncake amongst family or give the cakes as gifts to loved ones and friends (I was actually lucky enough to score a whole box as a gift from a colleague). Most mooncakes have a pastry-like exterior with a dense, sweet filling. Although they come in many varieties and flavors, my favorite kind was filled with a variety of nuts and seeds, like sliced almonds and sesame. I liked this version because it was sweet but not too overwhelming. These cakes make for a great snack or dessert!
#11. Taro Pastries: Taro pastries are little purple buns with a flaky exterior and moist interior, sometimes with a gummy at the center. Yes, a gummy. So weird but so good. The cake-like filling is made with taro, a root vegetable common in Asia. The purple hue comes from food coloring, because why not. I had no idea what these little guys were when I first bought one on the streets of Shanghai, but they looked cute so I went for it. What a pleasant surprise this was! The interior is sweet, akin to a Starbucks cake pop, and the gummy in the center is the perfect final touch.
China is a food lover’s fantasy. I found the food in China to be so different from most Chinese food in the States – virtually everything I ate during my time in China was new to me. Comment below with any other recommendations for real deal Chinese food!