Chinese food is not all just dumplings and buns. It’s not orange chicken, moo goo gai pan, or chop suey. It is not a serving of General Tso’s Chicken (I’ve actually never had that) and a fortune cookie. Chinese food is complex, diverse, and not drenched in saccharine neon colored sauce. Every region of China has it’s own cuisine, and for too long has it all been conglomerated into what is considered “Chinese food.” There is not just one Chinese cuisine. There are Cantonese, Shanghainese, Anhuinese, Beijingnese, and Tibetan cuisines. There is Chinese Muslim cuisine. Chinese food is not what you find at Panda Express; it is something much much more.
So without further ado, I give my non-ranked, north to south list of favorite “Chinese” foods. I haven’t tried a lot of regional cuisines, but I hope to inspire and maybe help you rethink “what is Chinese food.”
Zha Jiang Mian (Beijing & the general North)
There’s a saying that Southern Chinese (basically anyone south of the Huai River) love their rice, while Northern Chinese love their noodles. So it goes without saying that one of the my favorite “northern” dishes is zha jiang mian.
Zha jiang mian consists of thick wheat noodles that is topped with a salty porky and fermented soybean sauce (the jia jiang). Mix the noodles with the sauce and there you have it, a simple hearty meal that will fill you up for the rest of the day. It’s basically the Chinese equivalent of spaghetti bolognese.
Fun Fact: Because of Northern China’s proximity to Korea, the dish has been exported over there. Known as Jajangmyeon, it’s eaten on “Black Day” (April 14) by people who have no significant other.
Roast Duck (Beijing and Cantonese-style)
I don’t think I know a single Chinese person that does not like roast duck. In fact, I don’t think I know a single person that doesn’t like duck period. 2 of China’s most famous styles of roast duck are Beijing and Cantonese style. They differ in the way they are prepared:
Peking duck uses the “pekin duck.” They are fattened, then killed and roasted in a brick oven, hung up to dry so as to be glazed with some syrup, and then roasted again. It’s served traditionally in three stages: the skin is first served by itself, then the meat is carved up and eaten with scallions and wrapped in a pancake or bun, then the bones and leftovers are made into a soup. If they don’t offer to make a soup, I tend to take the bones home and make a lovely congee out of it.
The Cantonese (I know I’m going out of north-south order, but what can you do) way of roasting duck is more akin to barbecue (without the mesquite coating or dry rub). The duck in this case is roasted over a wood burning fire or rotisserie oven. The duck is then chopped up into pieces and served with a sauce and eaten with rice. And unlike Peking duck restaurants, you’ll most likely see all the roasted ducks hanging in the window of a Cantonese restaurant.
Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai)
Perhaps no food is more representative of Shanghainese cuisine as xiao long bao. Translated as “Little Basket Buns,” these soup dumplings are filled with either pork or crab meat and filled with piping hot soup that explodes in a mouthful of delicious upon biting into it. The buns are either steamed or fried, and usually come in a bamboo basket of 6-8. Since I am decended from a long line of Shanghainese, I am very particular about my xiao long bao. The skin needs to be thick enough to not tear when I lift if up with my chopsticks and it must be boiling hot on the inside.
Tip: Use a spoon to eat xiao long bao with. After picking up the dumpling and dipping it in vinegar, put it in a spoon and take a small bite. Then drink up the soup and then eat the rest of the dumpling. That is how a true Shanghainese person eats xiao long bao. Whenever my parents took my friends out to eat, they’d say that if you can eat a xiao long bao properly, then you are truly Shanghainese.
Fan Tuan (Shanghai)
This is another Shanghainese food, but this time it’s a breakfast food. Maybe it’s pure nostalgia on my part, as I associate this with lazy Sundays when my dad would come home with a bag of fan tuan, youtiao, and Chinese soy milk. Basically, this breakfast food of the gods is a piece of youtiao (basically a stick of deep fried dough), pickled vegetable, and dried shredded pork all wrapped in glutinous rice. For me it blows pancakes out of the water, as I don’t like sweet breakfasts all that much.
Fan tuan is a common breakfast food in Shanghai, there are even 24 hour breakfast places that serve different variations of this food. I’d recommend anyone to try this. Some Chinese supermarkets sell this food, although if you’re close to a large Chinese community you’ll bound to find a restaurant that sells it in the mornings.
Stinky Tofu (Shanghai, Taiwan, and most regions of China)
Yes, I can see those disgusted faces now. Stinky tofu is, to no surprise, fermented tofu that is either fried (yum) or steamed (pretty disgusting). It’s smell is what turns most people off, as it can remind people of either vomit or something akin to vomit. It’s most commonly found as street food in most parts of China, although it’s mostly associated with Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. What can I say, when I was a child I refused to put anything that remotely smelled like feet in my mouth, but as I got older (and braver) I tried some fried stinky tofu and instantly fell in love. It is delicious, especially with some hot sauce.
If you’re brave enough, try steamed stinky tofu. If you like it (like my parents), then you’ve beat me and Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods and I commend you.
Hong Kong Style Western Food (Hong Kong)
Hong Kong Style Western Food is exactly the what it sounds like: “western food” that has been adapted for the Chinese/Hong Kong palate. It’s mostly common in Hong Kong and in the Chinese communities of Southern California (where I proudly live), but you can also find restaurants in major cities like Shanghai.
What is Hong Kong Style Western Food? Common things on the menu include spaghetti and meatballs, pork cutlet (Japanese style) with curry or tarter sauce, ox tongue curry, and, the mother of them all , German-style pork knuckle. They also serve more traditional Chinese/Cantonese-style cuisine, such as lo mein, fried rice, and congee. Every order comes with either vegetable or cream soup. And they also offer drinks like Spanish Coffee (iced coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream) and the local Hong Kong favorite yunyang, which is a half coffee half tea drink sweetened with condensed milk.
One of my favorite snacks from this unique cuisine is their toast. It’s not regular toast, but a large square slab of bread that’s either fried or has condensed milk (or something else as sweet) poured on top.
Dim Sum (Cantonese)
Again, another obvious choice. Dim sum has to be one of the most famous ways to eat “Chinese food” in the world. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know what it is or who hasn’t tried it. Dim sum comes from an older tradition of yum cha (and it’s still called that by the Cantonese speaking community), where you sample varieties of tea while also snacking on a variety of tapa sized entrees. There are way too many entrees to list here, but my favorites are chicken feet, bbq pork buns, shrimp dumplings, egg tarts, sesame balls, turnip cakes, and rice noodle rolls. Wikipedia has a large list of common dim sum dishes, but I like to stick with the “if it looks good, eat it” rule and not ask what’s in the food.
Egg Tart (Hong Kong/Macau)
Ok, this is cheating a little bit, as egg tarts are found in dim sum. But I’m making it it’s own section because you can find two kinds of egg tarts in China, the Hong Kong style and the Portuguese-inspired Macau style. Hong Kong egg tarts are a product of it’s British rule, so they are inspired by British custard tarts. Unlike British tarts, Hong Kong egg tarts do not have milk in them and are not served with cinnamon. They are eaten right out of the oven, although some bakeries do sell them cold.
Macau’s version of the egg tart is inspired by the Portuguese Pastel de Nata. it has the same caramelized burnt look to it, and is richer than its Hong Kong counterpart. So while technically it’s not a “Chinese food,” it’s been so integrated into Macanese cuisine that I’m going to make it count.
Boba/Bubble Tea (Taiwan)
Ok, this is not exactly a food, but it is part of Taiwanese cuisine (please ignore the political implications for the time being). Called Boba, Pearl Milk Tea, or Bubble Tea (depending on where you live), basically this is fruit or milk tea with chewy tapioca balls that you drink through an oversized straw. Variations of this tea exist in the hundreds: almond, taro, earl grey, and, my favorite, pudding are some examples of the varieties that have been created. You can find boba pretty much everywhere in Taiwan, and this drink has now traveled overseas to practically every Chinese community.
Boba is especially popular among younger Chinese generations. You’d often find that cafes that sell the drink are popular places for students to hang out with friends or even do homework in. If you ever come across a tea cafe in China (or Asia for that matter), it’s a great place to see young locals.
Hainanese Chicken and Rice (Hainan)
Hainanese Chicken is popular in overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s even the “national dish” of Singapore (in the way that curry is the national dish of Britain). The chicken originates from the island of Hainan, known as China’s Hawaii. It’s boiled in pork and chicken stock and served with rice that has been prepared with a separate chicken stock. The rice is different from normal rice in that it’s oilier and more flavorful. The meal also comes with a variety of dips for your chicken, like chili sauce, ginger sauce, and a oyster sauce/garlic sauce. Some places offer soy sauce instead of the oyster sauce. Hainanese chicken and rice is a recent find of mine, and I can’t believe I’ve gone so long without it. It tastes like nothing I’ve had before, especially not like the bland chicken breasts you get at some restaurants. It’s really REALLY good.
If you live in Los Angeles, THE place to go for Hainanese chicken is Savoy Kitchen in Alhambra. It’s this tiny hole in the wall place that’s ALWAYS packed. But the chicken is the best I’ve ever had.
So that about wraps up my favorite Chinese foods. I hope that I’ve spread the word that there is not just one type of Chinese food, but a whole slew of regional cuisines that make up “Chinese food.” So, my turn to ask a question.
What’s on your list of favorite Chinese foods?