Top 10 Must Try Dishes in China

By: Heather Hall

Before moving to Shanghai, my idea of the perfect Chinese meal was sweet and sour pork, fried rice and an eggroll. This would be capped off with a wonton cookie stuffed with a sometimes profound, often baffling fortune. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the Middle Kingdom and found such “traditional” Chinese delights to be largely creations of the West! What awaited me instead was infinitely more tantalizing. Fiery peppers, tangy vinegar, numbing pink peppercorns, crumbles of ground pork and aromatic blends of spices and sauces result in dishes with unparalleled flavors and textures. Here are some of my favorites that any visitor to China would be remiss not to try:

1.       Běijīng kǎoyā 北京烤鸭

Specially-bred and fattened ducks are glazed and hung in a wood-fired oven to roast until the juicy meat is encased in a crispy brown shell. Beijing roast duck, or Peking duck, was first mentioned in a cookbook for the Chinese royal kitchen in the 14th century. The delicacy was soon enjoyed by the landed aristocracy and introduced to the rest of society in the 19th century with the opening of Quanjude restaurant in Beijing. The chef first prepares the skin, often served with fruit or sugar for the perfect salty-sweet bite. The meat is then expertly carved and often enjoyed wrapped in thin pancakes with crispy vegetables and plum sauce. Depending on the restaurant, you might be served a rich stir-fry of the organ meat that will make an offal fan out of even the most skeptical diner. The meal culminates with a soup made from the duck’s bones. The first in beak-to-tail dining, you will want to devour every morsel of your succulent bird!

2.       Xiǎo lóng bāo 小笼包

A Shanghai specialty that translates as “small steaming basket bun,” these beloved snacks are more commonly referred to as soup dumplings. The magic ingredient is pork jelly, a gelatinous white substance, made from pork skin, which ultimately melts into the soupy broth for which xiǎo lóng bāo are known. The delicate rice flour wrappers are pressed into perfect circles by deft hands and are so thin they are almost translucent. The dumplings are steamed to soupy perfection in elegant bamboo baskets. To avoid scalding your tongue, make a small tear in the top of the dumpling to release some of the steam before biting into it. Just take care not to lose any of the precious soup!

3.       Mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐

Fresh squares of silken tofu are nestled in a piquant sauce colored an alarming shade of red and dotted with ground pork, green onions and cilantro. The first bite is heavenly, as the soft tofu practically melts on your tongue. Then you crunch down on one of the hidden Sichuanese peppercorns and your mouth starts to tingle. The sensation spreads and intensifies with each bite until your entire mouth is numb as though shot through with Novocain. The purported originator of this quintessential Sichuan dish is said to be Pockmarked Granny Chen for whom a chain of famous restaurants is named in Chengdu.

4.       Zīrán páigǔ 孜然排骨

Arguably the best dish from Hunan Province features pork ribs that are slow roasted until the meat practically falls off the bone. But the hallmark is the zesty spice blend that will leave your mouth burning and yet crying out for more. Heavily seasoned with cumin, fennel seeds and chilies, these spare ribs are truly finger-licking good!

5.       Dàndàn miàn 担担面

This deceptively simple noodle dish also hails from Sichuan, but lacks the numbing spice of mápó dòufu. Don’t be fooled by its tame appearance, as a biting sauce lurks beneath the noodles at the bottom of the bowl. Often topped with a lettuce leaf and crushed peanuts, you will need to stir this concoction to actualize its full potential. A generous dose of sesame oil imparts the flavor of roasted peanuts while chili oil packs a familiar Sichuan punch. Though most Chinese dishes are meant for sharing, you will want your own bowl of dàndàn miàn!

6.       Lián'ǒu 莲藕

Preparations for lotus root, an exotic plant similar to water lilies, vary from province to province. The “hot and sour” lotus root, a Hunanese specialty, comes thinly sliced, doused in vinegar and red chilies, and lightly sautéed so the pieces are pliant but crispy. Yunnanese palates prefer thick slices of lotus root that are lightly battered and fried with copious amounts of garlic, chilies, spring onions and sometimes a little ground pork. However lotus root is served, you will be going back for more!

7.       Dàpánjī 大盘鸡

“Big plate chicken” is a hearty, comforting stew from Xinjiang Province in the northwestern reaches of China and features chicken, potatoes, onions, peppers and a liberal amount of cumin. It’s usually served with flatbread which you will employ in mopping up every last drop of the savory broth. Luckily the “big plate” moniker isn’t an exaggeration – one order often easily feeds a party of six!

8.       Mómo 馍馍

These steamed Tibetan dumplings are made with wheat flour so they are fluffier than their xiǎo lóng bāo cousins and are traditionally filled with seasoned beef or yak. Most Tibetans are devout Buddhists who are forbidden from taking a life, but they rely on the fat and protein to survive in the harsh climate. To avoid the moral conundrum, they only consume “clean meat,” or that which was killed by someone else. Non-vegetarians won’t need cold weather in order to enjoy these savory treats!

9.       Rǔbǐng 乳饼

Many Han Chinese are lactose intolerant so dairy isn’t a widely available menu item in China. Yunnan Province, where some of the country’s largest ethnic minority populations live, is also home to a delicious pan-fried goat cheese. Some restaurants serves this tasty snack with a mixture of salt, pepper and spices for dipping, though we’ve also enjoyed the cheese dipped in sugar.

10.   Huǒguō 火锅

Hotpot is a classic meal enjoyed around China and, as with lotus root, each region has its own tasty interpretation. The concept is simple: a large group gathers around a metal pot built into a table or directly in the floor and creates a customized stew. The restaurant will provide the broth and raw ingredients; the rest is up to you! Always opt for pork over chicken, unless you like chicken feet and bones in your soup, and add a liberal amount of leafy greens and vegetables. Eat each piece after it’s cooked and you will be left with a wonderfully seasoned broth perfect for a batch of home-made noodles or tiny dumplings. Remember that in China, slurping is appreciated! 

About the author

Expat Blog ListingHeather Hall is an American expat living in China. Blog description: I'm an American expat in China trying to prove that it's possible to have fun almost anywhere as long as you have an adventurous spirit and an open mind. And I eat a lot of good food in the process.
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Contest Comments » There are 19 comments

Kerianne Geist wrote 10 years ago:

Heather's descriptions of the foods make me feel as though they are right in front of me and I am about to taste them. It opens my eyes to the possibilities of Chinese foods.

Sarah Bennett wrote 10 years ago:

DaPanJie and Huoguo are my favourites! Great list to make someone hungry, Heather :)

Cheryl McGovern wrote 10 years ago:

These sound amazing! I am not a fan of different foods (especially spicy) but your descriptions really make me feel like trying! YUM!

James Pham wrote 10 years ago:

Drool. I want all of this! Nice rundown of dishes!

Harley @ WindhorseTour wrote 10 years ago:

Solid list of 10 wonderful dishes, I hope you can add a few photos. For me I love Mápó dòufu 麻婆豆腐.

Melody Gardner wrote 10 years ago:

My husband and I love trying different ethnic foods, and we always attempt to get something we've never had before. That being said, I LOVE lotus root and always want that when it's in season/available. Thanks for a peek into some great food items that everyone should try!

Jan Burgwinkle wrote 10 years ago:

Your descriptions bring back memories of the dishes I've eaten in China and make me drool a bit to try the ones I've missed. There's always another trip to look forward to, though...right?!

Luann wrote 10 years ago:

Sorry Heather, My husband has traveled to China and the "food" he ate and described for me really doesn't sound like what you wrote about. Maybe he was in the wrong dinner locations. :)

Jeannie Mark wrote 10 years ago:

I'm also living in China but haven't delved into food and it's meaning as well as Heather. Food is all about family and pleasure here and she captures it so well! Now I'm hungry. :)

Deanna wrote 10 years ago:

Gosh, this all sounds good! Well, except for the spicy tofu, I don't care for Novocain. But those ribs! The description makes my mouth water! If I ever make it back to China I will have to get a few orders.

Molly wrote 10 years ago:

Your food descriptions have me ready to go back to China! Yum!

Sally wrote 10 years ago:

I think I'm ready for some fried goat cheese! Or maybe just sweet and sour pork with broccoli, white rice and an egg roll... haha. Stir fried organs didn't quite appeal to me like the rest of the things in this list... :)

Steve wrote 10 years ago:

I've had those soup dumplings at a famous restaurant in Los Angeles, and have heard of Peking duck, but all the rest is new to me. I had no idea there was so much variety in Chinese food!

MaryAnne Oxendale wrote 10 years ago:

I had been seriously craving some decent Chinese food for the past few weeks (one of the drawbacks to actually leaving China, I suppose) and your descriptions of dishes nearly had me on the next flight to Shanghai! Xiao long bao for the win!

Lisa Kaminsky wrote 10 years ago:

Nom nom nom! I want to put all 10 of these in my mouth immediately! Not all at once, of course... I'll definitely keep this posting bookmarked for when I eventually get to China! Nice writing, HH!

Maribeth wrote 10 years ago:

My favorite American Chinese meal would also have included an eggroll but after reading this I'm ready to go to China and try the authentic food. Excellent descriptions!

Ann wrote 10 years ago:

I would love to try all the dishes. Heather's description makes the food come alive on the page. I am sure my taste buds would love each dish.

Christine wrote 10 years ago:

What a great write up - definite something that can be bookmarked and referenced in the future! Thanks for sharing!

Delorus wrote 10 years ago:

This is wonderfully written, but I'm skeptical of some of these dishes. Yak meat dumplings? I never thought about eating yak before, but I guess it's not that different than beef!

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