Today, let’s take a step back from the ubiquitous Western-Chinese dishes like fortune cookies, orange chicken, and egg rolls to explore traditional foods spotlighted in China. Chinese cuisine has gone on a long journey, mastering its methods and techniques from the early days of ancient imperial kitchens to the now bustling street stalls in Shanghai and Beijing. For a delicious taste of this thousand-year history, here are 10 traditional Chinese dishes that you must give a try sometime in your life.
1. Peking Duck
Let’s start off with a familiar classic. Peking duck, with its roots found in Beijing, is truly the epitome of Chinese culinary sophistication. It may look like a simple dish, but it really packs a mouthful of flavour. Just imagine this: crispy duck that’s moist and thinly sliced, is served alongside fresh spring onion, cucumber, and a sweet bean sauce. Wrap it all up in a thin pancake and it’s a one-bite wonder that will have you going back for more.
2. Dumplings (Jiao Zi)
Dumplings are an absolute staple in Chinese cuisine and are perfect for any occasion. They can be steamed, boiled, or fried, but no matter how they’re prepared, they’re always bursting with so much flavour. The filling can be anything from juicy pork and shrimp to a mix of vegetables, proving that there’s an endless list of great combinations. If you’re visiting during Chinese New Year, you can even find families gathered around the table making dumplings together.
3. Hot Pot
Hot pot is the ultimate communal feast that’s all about sharing and bringing people together. It’s a simmering pot of spicy and salty broth, filled with a variety of ingredients like thinly sliced meats, seafood, tofu, noodles, and a variety of veggies. The cool part is, each person gets to cook their own selection, somehow making this shared meal also a personalized experience. But the best part has to be the flavourful dipping sauce that perfectly complements each and every item you pick up to eat.
4. Mapo Tofu
This dish isn’t for the faint of heart - brace yourself for this fiery Sichuanese dish. Mapo Tofu is a medley of soft tofu and minced meat, all swimming in an incredibly spicy, peppery sauce that will definitely make your tongue numb. Infused with bean paste, Sichuan peppercorns, and garlic, its spicy but delicious flavour will have you reaching for your water so you can enjoy more.
5. Char Siu (BBQ Pork)
Love a great barbecue flavour? Then char siu is an absolute must-try. It’s the most tender slab of pork that’s marinated in a sweet and sticky sauce, roasted until its caramelized perfection. A common dish found in Cantonese cuisine, it’s perfect on its own with just a bowl of rice, but it also serves as a great addition when sliced up in a noodle soup too.
Sometimes, dishes don’t need to be extremely fancy or extravagant to be delicious and heartwarming. When it comes to Chinese comfort food 101, there’s nothing quite like a steaming bowl of congee. It’s a rice porridge that’s been slow-cooked to a nice creaminess, served plain as a side dish, or ramped up with a variety of toppings like meat, seafood, or pickled vegetables. Eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it’s always a good go-to if you’re craving something homey and warm.
7. Baozi (Steamed Buns)
Just imagine a soft, fluffy exterior wrapped around a steaming hot, juicy filling consisting of meat or vegetables. Sounds pretty good, right? Baozi are steamed buns that can be found all over China. With so many different fillings, either savory or sweet, it works as both a great snack and a hearty meal. Found on breakfast tables and bustling street food markets, these buns are easy grab-n-go snacks that you can easily enjoy anywhere.
8. Kung Pao Chicken
If you love a good bit of spice, this Sichuan classic will do the trick. Kung Pao chicken is a vibrant mix of diced chicken, peanuts, and veggies all stir-fried in a deliciously tangy but incredibly spicy sauce. With each bite, this iconic dish will deliver so many different flavours - sweet, sour, salty, and definitely spicy.
9. Chow Mein
Commonly found even in Western-Chinese restaurants, this classic noodle dish is one you have to try straight from China to get the real experience. These stir-fried noodles are so so versatile, tossed with an assortment of meats, seafood, and vegetables in a savory sauce that complements each and every item. Quick to cook and packed with loads of flavour, chow mein is a quintessential Chinese dish you can find on every street corner and restaurant. Here’s a tip: try getting them crispy for an added crunch and change in texture!
10. Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings)
No list of beloved, traditional Chinese dishes could ever be complete without xiao long bao on it. These delicate soup dumplings are an example of culinary craftsmanship at its finest. Encased in a thin wrapper lies a juicy, succulent filling and a flavourful broth that explodes with every bite. These soup dumplings taste best when they’re piping hot, but just be careful with your first bite - you don’t want to burn your mouth!
With so many fantastic dishes to try, China is worth visiting just for the food alone. Whether you’re into something savory, spicy, or sweet, there’s something in Chinese cuisine to please your taste buds. So the next time you head to your favourite Western-Chinese restaurant, maybe give one of these more traditional dishes a try.