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The Chinese food that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, is pretty different from the dishes that people are eating in China. Spring rolls, prawn crackers and house special chow mein are largely influenced by Hong Kong cuisine. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, food from Hong Kong is equally as delicious as some of the meals I’ve come to know and love in China.
Although many of you may have already visited China and tasted some of the cuisines, I’d first like to introduce you to some of the basic ingredients that are commonly found in a Chinese meal.
Basic Chinese Ingredients
Rice is the obvious staple of Chinese cuisine. Chinese people will usually consume rice at least once a day and almost every household owns the essential rice maker. White rice is prevalent in the South of China and is also used to make other products such as noodles and the infamous rice wine, 白酒 Bai jiu.
China has a plethora of vegetables (and fruits), especially grass type veggies that look similar. Garlic, spring onions and chives are also very popular. Some interesting vegetables include 苦瓜 (kǔ guā) bitter melon and aubergine aka (eggplant) 茄子 (qié zi). Seaweed, although not a vegetable, is added to soups and dishes and eaten like one.
Noodles are more popular in the North of China and come in many shapes and sizes (more than you ever imaged!) and served hot, cold, and with or without soup.
Tofu and Soy Beans
Being in China was the first time I was seriously introduced to this phenomenon known as Tofu. Unlike in the West where Soy is reserved for health nuts and the lactose intolerant among us, soy and tofu is available in all forms including drinks, dishes and sauces (soy sauce). It is, of course, a great source of protein, just watch out for the delightfully stinky tofu 臭豆腐 (chòu dòu fu)…
Spices and Herbs
There are some great spices in China, including the amazing 麻辣 (má là) or ‘hot and numbing’ 花椒 (huā jiāo) commonly known as the Sichuan pepper. Other spices and herbs commonly used in Chinese food are ginger, coriander and cloves.
Chamcen and I have chosen the following 10 popular Chinese dishes because they are traditional, delicious and meals everyone should experience in China (and maybe at home, but that’s another article!). The meals are from all over China, and cater to different tastes and use ingredients indigenous to those areas.
Popular Chinese Dishes
四川 (sì chuān) – Sichuan
Sichuan province, located in southwest China, is known for the 花椒 (huā jiāo) or Sichuan pepper. Sichuan cuisine is known for its strong flavours and spices including star anise, garlic and ginger.
1. 麻辣火锅 (má là huǒ guō) – Hot and Numbing Hot Pot
Hotpot is both delicious, versatile and one of my favourite Chinese dishes! Sharing one big pot makes the meal even more communal than dining in China already is. A ‘sauce’ or soup, sometimes split in two to cater to different tastes, is put in the centre of the table and your ingredients are added and left to cook. The genius of hotpot, in my opinion, is that it seems ANYTHING can be added to the dish! Meatballs, fishballs, potato, mushrooms, lettuce, tofu, thinly sliced meats, dumplings, noodles and shellfish just to name a few! Once the ingredients are cooked, you use your chopsticks or a spoon to take out what you want to eat and dip it into your ‘customized’ sauce. You can even drink the ‘soup’ at the end of the meal (although this is not recommended with 麻辣火锅 (má là huǒ guō)) In Guangdong, people drink the soup at the beginning of a meal instead! Amazing. Now I’m going to get me some hotpot!
2. 麻婆豆腐 (má pó dòu fǔ) – mapo tofu / stir-fried beancurd in chili sauce
Since I’m not a huge lover of tofu, this really isn’t my cup of tea, but this dish is available as a staple on menus and I have seen this dish A LOT! 麻婆 (má pó) translates to ‘pockmarked grandmother’ (yummy!) and consists of tofu cooked in a chilli-bean sauce. Minced meat is often added to complete the dish.
3. 宫保鸡丁 (gōng bǎo jī dīng) – Kung Pao Chicken
Another great dish from Sichuan. A combination of chicken, peanuts and chilli (of course), this dish is thought to be named after the Governor of Sichuan during the Qing Dynasty. Of course, you’ve probably seen a less spicy but similar dish in your local Chinese restaurant.
广东 (guǎng dōng) – Guangdong
Guangdong cuisine known as 粤菜 (yuè cài) is known for having a light flavour and similar to dishes found in Hong Kong.
4. 叉烧 (chā shāo) – char siu/barbecued pork
I’m drooling just thinking about those delicious 叉烧包 (chā shāo bāo) Barbecue pork buns. They’re so good, Nora even has a song about them! 叉烧包 (chā shāo bāo) are commonly served as dimsum and are made by steaming dough and creating a bun or ‘bao’ with the chashao meat inside. The meat itself is slow roasted pork cooked in a sweet mix of oyster and hoisin sauces as well as vinegar and sesame oil. You might have come across this dish in the west, although it often takes the Cantonese pronunciation char siu.
5. 白切鸡 (bái qiē jī) – Cantonese poached chicken, known as “white cut chicken”
White Cut Chicken is a kind of 烧味 (shāo weì) dish which is boiled in a chicken broth with ginger and often served rare, on the bone and cut into strips. A tangy dipping sauce is usually brought with it, which is a mix of ginger, spring onions and peanut oil. Yummy!
Another Guangdong dish to try is 肠粉 (cháng fěn).
上海 (shàng hǎi) – Shanghai
Sugar is an important ingredient in Shanghai cuisine and is often mixed with soy sauce. Seafood is also a staple, especially Shanghai hairy crab 上海毛蟹 (shàng hǎi máo xiè).
6. 小笼包 (xiǎo lóng bāo) – Steamed dumplings
I’m a massive fan of 饺子 (jiǎo zi) or dumplings and 小笼包 (xiǎo lóng bāo) are the speciality dumpling of Shanghai. They are made differently to the normal 饺子 (jiǎo zi) that you may have come across and are more similar to 包子 (bāo zi) than dumplings. Before steaming, the top of the dumpling is twisted, which gives it a particular and unique design. 小笼包 (xiǎo lóng bāo) are often filled with pork and sometimes crab meat. Inside, you often find a ‘surprise’ soup that is hotter than the sun, so careful when you take a bite! A less healthy alternative to the 小笼包 (xiǎo lóng bāo) is known as the 生煎包 (shēng jiān bāo), a fried dumpling filled with minced pork.
北京 (běi jīng) – Beijing
7. 北京烤鸭 (běi jīng kǎo yā) – Peking Duck
Beijing duck is one of China’s most well-known dishes and has been served for centuries. The thin and crispy skin makes is especially delicious (my weakness!). Duck meat combined with spring onions, cucumber some hoisin sauce and rolled in a pancake, what could be better?
8. 番茄炒鸡蛋 (fān qié chǎo jī dàn) – Tomatoes and scrambled eggs.
Friends of mine make this dish every time I visit them because this is genuinely one of my favourite Chinese dishes. It’s so simple and tasty! It’s kind of become my comfort food in China! Fried tomatoes with scrambled egg and sometimes a bit of sugar, this dish is super easy to make at home too.
9. 京酱肉丝 (jīng jiàng ròu sī) – Shredded pork with bean sauce
Stir-fried pork strips and vegetables in a sweet bean sauce is another great dish from Beijing. It’s usually served with leek or onion and wrapped in a pancake. I can’t help but think that Beijing is on the right track with this pancake thing…
江苏 (jiāng sū) – Jiangsu
Located in the south-west of China, Jiangsu or 苏菜 has a variety of types of cuisine. This province is known for having flavourful fish dishes.
10. 松鼠桂鱼 (sōng shǔ guì yú) – Squirrel Mandarin Fish
With its odd name and odd appearance it might look like the Squirrel Mandarin Fish doesn’t have a lot going for it, but the combination of sweet and sour flavours with a crispy skin and soft flesh is perfect. Chamcen suggested sweet and sour pork as a dish to add to our list, but I was reminded of this (more tasty) fish alternative!
There are so many great Chinese dishes out there to try! If you’ve got some favourites, please share them with us in the comment section below!
Did you know that our free OCR tool in the Written Chinese Dictionary mobile app* is actually optimized for menus? This means that when you scan a Chinese menu, instead of breaking down the characters, it will actually tell you a ‘normal’ name for a dish!
*currently only available for iOS.