If you ever plan on going to China, I sincerely hope you are not a picky eater. Authentic Chinese food – not the Americanized Chinese take-out we’re used to – can be particularly weird, but incredibly delicious. You just have to be open to trying anything and everything.
The craziest things I tried while I was in China – just off the top of my head – include a scorpion, jellyfish, chicken feet, chicken hearts, a chicken head, and a duck head. I’m pretty sure I had pig’s intestine as well, but who knows?
The important thing to remember is that there’s probably going to be a lot of food you cannot identify. But just because it’s unidentifiable doesn’t make it the mystery meat served in the cafeteria in grade school. The items mentioned above weren’t the most delicious food I had while I was in China, but they allowed me to take part in Chinese culture. I can remember eating each and every one of those crazy things I listed because they were a fun and interesting experience I had never had before.
So if you ever go to China, try something weird and make a memory.
There are plenty of dishes, street food, and snacks in China that you won’t have to muster up courage to eat. Here, I’ll show you some of my favorite and most memorable food.
Street food is a must-try, but you need to be careful about where you get it. If a cart doesn’t have a line at it, move on. You want to go where the locals go. This rule goes for restaurants as well. If there are no people there, don’t risk it.
Kao Leng Mian (烤冷面）
Kao Leng Mian is by far my favorite street food. Noodles, egg, sauces, cilantro, scallion, red onion, and sausage all make up this wonderful creation. I’m not sure of all the places in China you can find this, but I was introduced to it in Qingdao (northeast China).
Chinese BBQ (烧烤）
Chinese BBQ is often served late into the night along the street in pop-up restaurants. My favorite aspect of this BBQ is that you pay per stick and choose all that you want by hand. If you want more, just ask or go get it yourself.
Qingdao is a city on the coast, which means ample access to seafood. BBQ squid was a favorite among locals. There were entire street-side restaurants dedicated to only serving squid! Lines were common, but the squid was worth the wait – better than any calamari I’ve ever had.
Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐）
Is it delicious? That’s debatable. Stinky tofu can be smelled from across the street, but the taste isn’t half as bad. I tried it because I had heard about it so often from Chinese textbooks and TV shows like Bizarre Foods. This was purchased in Wulingyuan near Zhangjiajie National Park.
There are entirely too many favorites for me to list here, so I’ll try to keep it to my top five.
Tu Dou Si (土豆丝）
Shredded potatoes! They’re amazing. Just amazing. If you see them, get them!
Guo Bao Rou (锅包肉）
This is pork that has been battered and fried with ginger, scallions, cilantro, and carrots. The sauce is really sweet and is the closest thing to Americanized Chinese food (but still sooo much better) that I had while in China.
Rou Jia Mo (肉夹馍）
This is a sandwich filled with pork that’s been stewed with many spices and seasonings. It’s full of flavor and unlike any other pulled pork I’ve ever had.
Hot Pot (火锅）
Hot pot has been described as “Chinese Fondue,” but instead of dipping food into it, you cook food in it. The broths in this pot are spicy and not spicy. Ordering hot pot is similar to BBQ. You choose plates of vegetables, meats, etc. and then they’re brought out raw for you to cook. Hot pot is a unique experience and is a lot of fun. This picture was taken in Beijing at Hai Di Lao, a chain restaurant.
San Xia Guo (三下锅）
For this meal, you choose three different meats to go into the pot (“san” means “three”). In addition to the meat, there’s also an assortment of flavorings and veggies, such as garlic cloves, scallions, and seaweed. I believe this is a meal special to the Zhangjiajie area of China. If you ever find it, definitely ask for pork belly. Actually, try pork belly whenever you can, because it is absolutely amazing.
Dumplings are the best. There are more than one type and they’re all to die for. I still have an obsession with them, but luckily I’ve learned to make two kinds – baozi and jiaozi.
Baozi are buns stuffed with meat and/or vegetables. They’re cooked in a bamboo steamer and are usually served for breakfast. They are soft, moist, and full of flavor. They’re not the healthiest thing in the world, but they’re absolutely worth it.
Jiaozi can be boiled or steamed and are served with dipping sauces. These dumplings are from Chuan Ge Fish Dumplings – a really nice (not expensive) restaurant in Qingdao. Jiaozi, in general, are light, fresh, and healthy. Even after eating 20 or so, you won’t end up feeling bloated after a meal. Yes, I know this from experience.
I’m not sure if zongzi are actually considered dumplings in China, but for purposes of this blog, they will be. Inside this little packet made of a large leaf, there is glutinous (sticky) rice and other fillings such as peanuts, green beans, dates, or pork. They’re cooked by steaming or boiling. They can be found just about anywhere during the Dragon Boat Festival which takes place in late May/June depending on the year.
This list barely touches all of the food in China – there’s just so much food and so little time! But seriously, don’t head straight for the American chain restaurants. Give the local fare a shot before exploring the interesting changes that American chains have made to make themselves marketable in China. (Starbucks has special drinks and even has a zongzi-style dessert during the Dragon Boat Festival.)
A small warning though – once you have truly authentic Chinese cuisine, your average Chinese take-out place won’t satisfy your Chinese cravings anymore.
Proof of eating that scorpion…