Cuisine in China
Not just noodles, fried rice and kung pao chicken, discover the essence of cuisine in China and sample only the best with our top travel tips.
With its ancient origins, detailed techniques and intricate flavor and texture combinations, it is little wonder that Chinese food is among the most popular cuisines the world over. It’s also naturally a key part of the country’s overall cultural identity.
Whether you’re keen to tuck into fragrant noodle dishes or slurp down flavorsome soups, a vacation here provides you with the ideal opportunity to sample truly authentic Chinese food. It is important to note, though, that traditional Chinese food can be very different to what you might find at restaurants, take out joints or Chinatowns in your own country!
Like many other countries across the globe, the tastes, aromas and ingredients can vary massively depending on where you are. Almost all of the food in China can be categorized into one of ten major schools of cooking. Here we take a look at six of them, in addition to the cuisine in neighboring Tibet and Hong Kong.
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Cuisine in China: Beijing and The Great Wall
The capital is known for its popular Chinese monuments, the Great Wall nearby and, of course, its eclectic cuisine that draws from imperial cooking styles and northern Chinese culinary traditions.
Peking duck is one of the most iconic dishes and you’ll find restaurants across the city which specialize in it. Other popular meat-based dishes include jiǎozi (dumplings) and steamed buns filled with pork or beef.
The city’s street food markets are a must-see for first time visitors. The most famous is Wangfujing Snack Street – situated on the city’s oldest road – a warren of tiny restaurants and street side vendors selling everything from steamed buns through to skewered meats and exotic insects.
Xian marks the beginning of the Silk Road and has historically been home to a large Muslim population. Its food has been massively influenced by flavors from the west over the centuries. Expect to see fragrant noodle dishes packed with rich lamb and garlic as well as slow roasted minced pork stuffed inside fresh pitas.
Go on a tour of the market on Muslim Street where you’ll be able to taste hundreds of more unusual foods. Look out for Paomo – Xian’s most famous dish that’s made up of a fresh flatbread topped with noodles, green vegetables and a spicy lamb broth.
Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou
Shanghai is home to some of the best restaurants in China, particularly along its Bund waterfront and in the French Concession. Steamed buns stuffed with everything from pork to sweet custard are a mainstay on most menus, plus you’ll spot batches being prepared in huge bamboo steamers at roadside stalls. Due to the city’s proximity to the Huangpu River estuary, river crab is also very popular.
The Shanghainese adore sugar – expect plenty of unusual desserts like glutinous rice balls and mooncakes filled with red bean paste at restaurants and snack houses, particularly around Yuyuan Garden.
Cities close to Shanghai also have their own distinctive dishes, which tend to be lighter and focused around seasonal ingredients. Don’t miss West Lake Fish drenched in sweet and sour sauce in Hangzhou. In Suzhou, head to one of the restaurants along Taihu Lake to savor local fish dishes like crispy Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish.
Hong Kong, like Shanghai, is home to every kind of cuisine imaginable. If you’re after local grub though, the city’s main culinary offering is dim sum. Often served from trolleys at restaurants, popular dim sum varieties include fried dumplings, pork-filled steamed buns and steamed chicken feet.
Hong Kong is also the birthplace of the hawker – a street-side stall or cart serving up cheap yet delicious snacks. Designated hawker centers in places like Graham Street in the city center and Fa Yuen Street in Mongkok offer a wealth of options! The metropolis’s long history as an international port means you will also find hundreds of restaurants specializing in everything from Western food to Japanese delicacies.
Guangxi Province and Guilin
The cuisine in Guangxi Province on China’s southern border with Vietnam has been influenced by flavors from nearby regions such as Sichuan, Hunan and Guangdong.
Noodles, rather than rice, dominates. Ingredients from the Li River are a common sight, from large river snails stuffed with garlic, chilli and mint to catfish boiled in local beer and spices (known as Beer Fish) that’s best associated with the town of Yangshuo.
If you’re touring Guilin to admire its dramatic karst mountains, you’ll be able to try authentic Guangxi cuisine like braised duck cooked in lotus leaves and cheap yet filling Guilin Rice Noodles. The city’s most well-known dish is the local lipu taro – steamed pork meat, preserved bean curd and seasonings, all slow cooked together in a pot until they form a melt-in-the-mouth meat loaf.
Think spicy food, think Sichuan! The region stretches across the Yangtze river in southwest China and most of its dishes include liberal helpings of chilli and local Sichuan peppers. Not for the faint of heart; you may want to order up a side of steamed rice to help counteract the spice!
While Kung Pao Chicken is the most popular dish here, other unmissable dishes include Mapo Tofu, a dish made of silken tofu and ground pork tossed in a spicy bean curd sauce. Sichuan Hot Pots are a fun, hands-on eating experience which allow you to add your own meats and vegetables to a spicy broth.
Also known as Dian food, the cuisine in China’s Yunnan Province is famed for its light southeast Asian flavors and less complex dishes. It’s home to one of the largest communities of ethnic minorities in China, meaning the food can vary depending on which city or rural area you visit within Yunnan.
Crossing the Bridge Noodles is a dish on most menus in Yunnan Province and is a chicken and rice noodle broth to which you can add your own meat or vegetables. Vegetarian-friendly dishes include the region’s wild mushroom hot pots and Granny’s Potatoes, made from mashed potatoes mixed with spring onion and chilli.
Yunnan is one of the few places where you can try Chinese cheese. Called rǔbǐng, it is a goat’s milk cheese that’s typically sliced up and pan fried. Baba, a bread that’s cooked over hot coals and either served plain or with a delicious aromatic filling, is a regional breakfast food in Yunnan and often sold at street markets.
If you’re a tea drinker, Yunnan Province is where the majority of China’s pu’er tea is grown. This black fermented tea has an earthy taste and is one of the most sought after regional tea varieties in the country.
The food in mountainous Tibet is quite different from mainland China. Dairy is a key ingredient, given the reliance on yaks and goats. You’ll also find rich meat-based dishes like mutton soups as well as Zanba, a dough ball made from roasted barley flour that’s usually served alongside warming yak milk buttered tea.
Other typical Tibetan dishes include Tibetan Yoghurt, which is made from fermented yak milk and even has a festival dedicated to it! Tibetan Momo (fried dumplings filled with meat or vegetables) served up with a chilli dipping sauce are also popular. While the capital city of Lhasa is dotted with restaurants, the best Tibetan food experience is visiting a local’s home on a cultural culinary tour.
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