From Peking duck in Beijing to the spice markets of Sichuan, Chinese cuisine is as vast and fascinating as the country itself. Here are our tips for eating the best Chinese food in China. Warning: this post will make you hungry.
One of the first things you’ll learn when you visit China is that there’s no such thing as ‘Chinese food,’ at least not in the way most people think of in the West.
Chinese cuisine is as rich and varied as the dishes of Europe. The spicy aromas of Kung Pao Chicken in Sichuan is as different from the sweet flavors of Shanghai roast pork as a steak tartare in Paris is from a bowl of paella in Barcelona. Practically every province in China is known for a different dish and a new flavor.
Every year, award-winning writer, chef and China culinary expert, Fuchsia Dunlop leads a Gastronomic Tour of China – a journey through these foodie havens and into the country’s local markets, top restaurants and family kitchens.
The city’s namesake and most famous dish, Peking Duck, is itself ample reason to include China’s capital into your travel itinerary. This hearty, iconic meal is rightly world famous and you won’t easily forget the succulent crunch of the duck’s crispy skin paired rich hoisin sauce.
But it’s not only Peking duck which puts this city on the culinary map…
Beijing’s proximity to China’s northern provinces mean that the city’s flavors are infused with many exotic influences. Wander down a historical hutong and discover Mongolian Hotpot. Far less spicy than its Sichuanese counterpart, this dish is sure to soothe the soul on a crisp Beijing evening. Goji berries, jujubes, black cardamom pods, ginseng and fresh herbs steam in an aromatic broth at the center of the table and sides of marbled meats and crisp vegetables make for a sensually visual experience along with the wafting smell and – wait for it- mouthwatering flavor.
Xi’an Meat Burger – Roujiamo
Source: P. Xie
While Xi’an is best known for its ancient terracotta army, the present day inhabitants of the city have plenty to offer the hungry visitor. Navigate the beautiful city walls and venture to the vibrant Muslim quarter, where savory lamb skewers are roasted over red-hot coals and sweet glutinous rice is steamed in bamboo.
After washing down your meal with an ice cold pomegranate juice, enjoy some of the city’s famous sites (if only as an excuse to work up an appetite for the second meal of the day). Traditional Xi’an dishes include flavorsome cold noodles, hot and sour dumpling soup, and steamed beef with wheat powder.
Due to its unconventionally rich melange of flavors, Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is one of our favorite stops on the Gastronomic Tour of China.
It’s the third stop on Fuchsia’s Gastronomic Tour and if spicy food is something you can handle, then Chengdu will seem like paradise on earth. Just be prepared; the local dishes pack a punch.
Spiced not only with normal chili or ‘lajiao’, Sichuanese food also uses a special, local pepper known as ‘huajiao’ to give the food a tingling, numbing effect. This combination of numbness and spice is called ‘mala’ by the locals, and will ensure that your first meal in Sichuan is burned into your memory as well as your mouth.
After your spicy trip to Sichuan, you might need to heal your scorched taste buds with a sweet Shanghainese meal. Unlike the burning hot flavors of Chengdu, Shanghainese cuisine is ‘tiande,’ sweet, an ideal antidote to the spiciness of distant Sichuan.
Rich, fatty pieces of pork and freshly caught hairy crab are easy on the tongue, but don’t let your guard down completely. Dishes like ‘xiaolong bao’ or small dragon bags are aptly named, because these things can be vicious. Filled not only with flavor but also with piping hot soup, these dishes have been known to squirt water at unsuspecting visitors. Pierce the bag first with a chopstick to let the steam out before digging in.
Stuffed Orange with Crab Meat
Hangzhou is famous for it’s beautiful West Lake, a still, serene body of water which attracts tourists, world leaders and, most importantly, some of the country’s most inspired chefs. If you enjoy seafood, the sweet and sour ‘West Lake Fish’ and shelled shrimp will mingle perfectly with the tranquil surroundings. You can even try the savory sweet fusion of stuffed orange with crab meat.
Hangzhou also produced world-renowned tea, a flavor that is infused into many local specialties. A Hangzhou banquet wouldn’t be the same without a plate of tea-infused prawns soaked in the Longjing (dragon’s well) green tea that grows exclusively in the region’s hills.
Enjoy a local West Lake beer with your meal, and enjoy the calmness of this city. After the bustle and energy of Shanghai – one of the biggest cities in the world – you’ve definitely earned the downtime.
Wonder what it’s like to wander down side alleys to the kitchen of a local auntie, roll up your sleeves, and learn to cook and eat like a local? Discover all these cities with the help of Fuchsia Dunlop, on our Gastronomic Tour of China.