Best Chinese food: 32 dishes every traveler should try
(CNN) — With one of the world’s most diverse food scenes, China makes it nearly impossible to put together one single list that truly encompasses the “best” Chinese dishes.
But with such a huge variety of flavors on offer, it’s immensely helpful to go into the country with an introductory list of essential eats that will give you a well-rounded culinary experience.
Can’t wait till then? Some of them can surely be found in your nearest Chinatown community.
We have included both English and Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese, depending how they are more commonly known) names in this story.
Peking duck is one of China’s greatest culinary exports.
One bite into this small mountain of crispy duck skin, juicy meat, radish, cucumber, scallion and sweet bean sauce wrapped neatly in a thin pancake, and you’ll understand why Peking duck has been captivating stomachs — including those of ancient Chinese emperors — for centuries.
It’s said that roasted duck first started tantalizing taste buds more than 1,500 years ago in Nanjing, when the city was the seat of ancient Chinese imperial regimes.
The capital relocated to Beijing in the 1400s, and the imperial families brought those tasty roast duck recipes — and the chefs — with them.
It was there that the current way we enjoy the duck, wrapped in that delicate thin pancake, was invented and then popularized around the world.
Vermicelli with duck blood
Serious duck fans won’t want to miss this vermicelli soup dish.
Many Nanjing residents will indeed tell you it’s their city — not Beijing — that’s the true duck capital of China.
The city’s obsession with the bird is evident in its wide array of duck offerings, including salted duck, pancakes made with duck grease and duck dumplings.
But nothing speaks to a duck lover’s heart quite like a cheap bowl of vermicelli soup with duck blood.
Made with duck-bone broth, duck blood curds and bits of duck offal, such as liver and gizzards, this street food dish fully utilizes every part of the bird to deliver incredibly intense flavors.
It may look simple, but steaming fish is a difficult art to master.
Timing is crucial. The number of minutes — or seconds — you should steam a fish is dictated by the type and size of a fish, as well as the strength of your own stove.
Undercook it by a minute, the flesh won’t detach from the bone; overcook it, the flesh will tighten too much and the fish will lose some of its moisture, tenderness and flakiness.
Cantonese steamed fish is usually served in some sweetened soy sauce and scallions.
Dan dan noodles
It’s nearly impossible to dislike China’s soul-comforting dan dan mian, or dan dan noodles. The question is: Which version to try?
Dan dan noodles are named after the way they were originally sold more than 100 years ago — on a dan dan, a carrying pole, by street hawkers.
There are many ways to serve this famous Sichuan specialty. Some think dan dan noodles should contain a dry mix of noodles, made with minced meat, chopped scallions, spices, crushed peanuts and various sauces. Others disagree, preferring dan dan noodles in a hot, spicy, salty and nutty broth albeit with similar ingredients.
But most people would agree that dan dan noodles taste better when topped with a handful of rou saozi — finely chopped pork that’s been pan-fried in lard until golden brown and crispy.
Steamed fish head with chopped salted chili
Pro tip: Order a side of dumplings or noodles to dip into the juice after the fish heads have been gobbled up.
Cuisine in the mountainous, landlocked southern province of Hunan (also known as Xiang cuisine) is often cooked with a generous portion of oil, salt and chili.
The province even has its own chili-themed folk song, with lyrics proclaiming that “it doesn’t count as a dish if there is no chili. A touch of chili triumphs over an exquisite meal.”
No other dish represents Hunan cuisine as well as steamed fish heads served with chopped salted chili (duo jiao yu tou).
Duo jiao, a staple relish in Hunanese homes, is made with chili peppers that are dried, diced then preserved in a jar of salt, ginger, garlic and baijiu (Chinese liquor) for at least a week.
The thick blanket of duo jiao gives the steamed fish head a salty and spicy kick. The leftover juice is a delicious dip for noodles or dumplings after you’ve devoured the fish.
Warning: Once you’ve tried a Cantonese-style, woodfire oven-roasted goose, there’s no going back. No other goose dish will please your palate in quite the same way.
Upon hitting your mouth, the goose magically falls apart, offering an explosion of combined flavors from the crispy skin, melted fat and tender meat.
Some restaurants will use special types of wood, such as camphor wood or lychee wood, to give the bird a special smoky taste.
Chaozhou cold fish/crab
Seaside Chaozhou is known for no-frills seafood dishes that serve one purpose — to maximize the fresh ingredients’ original umami flavors.
Among the best dishes showcasing this style is Chaozhou-style cold fish or cold crab.
To preserve the freshness of the seafood, fish and crabs are lightly seasoned in salt before they’re steamed. They’re then cooled and served at room temperature.
The fish is often dipped in a special soy bean paste from Poling, while the crabs are served with a garlic and vinegar sauce.
Cross-the-bridge rice noodles
Legend has it that cross-the-bridge rice noodles were invented many years ago by a loving wife. Her husband studied on an island, so the wife would travel across a bridge to deliver him his daily lunches.
As the food would be cold after the journey, the disheartened wife decided to bring a pot of scalding hot chicken broth, along with the rice noodles and raw ingredients.
It was an ingenious plan, really. The chicken oil on the surface of the soup would keep the liquid warm. When the husband was ready to eat, she’d cook all the ingredients by pouring them into the hot soup.
Today, many noodle shops offer their own style of cross-the-bridge rice noodles, offering a choice of different ingredients and soup bases.
A flavorful partnership of chicken and peanuts.
One of the most internationally famous Chinese dishes, Kungpao chicken is made by stir-frying diced chicken pieces with scallions, ginger, peppercorns, chili and deep-fried peanuts.
There are different origin stories, but many believe the dish was inspired by a former Sichuan governor in the 1800s called Ding Baozeng, whose nickname was Ding Gongbao — alternatively romanized as Kungpao.
It’s said that Ding loved a sour and salty fried chicken dish from China’s Shandong province. After he was relocated to Sichuan, he asked his chef to add some local chili and peanuts to the dish — and the rest is history.
Sweet and sour pork / Lychee pork
Deep-fried pork can feel a bit heavy, especially in unforgiving summer weather. Thankfully, we have sweet and sour pork.
The pineapple in the dish and a sauce made with sugar, vinegar and soy sauce add some freshness to the crispy pork.
If you’re a fan of sweet and sour pork, you should also try the Fujian version of the dish — lychee pork. By incising the surfaces of the pork pieces, they resemble lychees’ uneven skins after being deep-fried.
There is no lychee in the dish traditionally — the sweetness comes from sugar, but some restaurants add lychee or use lychee sauce to match its name.
Bonus: The rugged surfaces on the pork hold more sauce and have a more tender texture.
Who needs French fries when you have dumplings?
Whether you love them steamed, boiled or pan-fried, jiaozi pack a full punch of carbs, proteins and vegetables in one mouthful.
Rouyan pork dumplings
One of the most interesting styles of dumplings is Fujian’s rouyan version — delicious enough to earn their own spot on this list.
The mini pork dumplings have an extra chewiness to them as their wrappers are made of pork and some flour.
Wenchang chicken rice
While Hainanese chicken rice isn’t actually from China’s Hainan province (it was first served in Malaysia), the dish was inspired by the tropical island province and its famous Wenchang chicken.
Made with a special breed of poultry from the island’s eponymous city, Wenchang chicken is prized for its thin skin, tender meat and sweet flavor.
The most common way to cook a Wenchang chicken is by blanching and air drying it. Similar to Hainanese chicken rice, the Wenchang version is often served with yellow chicken fat rice and chicken soup.
Hainan locals usually prefer garlic and ginger paste, chili sauce and the juice of small tangerines as condiments.
Mapo tofu is one of Sichuan’s most popular dishes.
A memorable mapo tofu packs a boatload of zing — salty, peppery and spicy flavors should all hit the taste buds in a single spoonful thanks to the different types of spices, peppers and chili used in the dish.
Discerning local gourmets insist that the best mapo tofu should be made with Hanyuan peppercorns and broad bean chili paste from Sichuan’s Pidu district.
It’s most commonly cooked with minced pork or beef — and tofu, of course. But as the Sichuan dish is so wildly popular nowadays, restaurants often serve creative versions of mapo tofu with different types of meats.
Pork belly with dry, pickled Chinese mustard
Tender, well-braised pork belly is naturally irresistible — but the star of this Hakka dish is actually mei cai, a dry, pickled Chinese mustard that gives the hearty stew its sour and salty taste.
It’s said that every Hakka family, a traditionally nomadic tribe in China, pickle their own mei cai.
When they make too much of it, they will whip up a mei cai relish that’s a great topping for plain rice and noodles.
Jian bing guozi
One of the most welcome sights on a cold morning in Tianjin in northern coastal China is a jian bing stand, with its sizzling hot pan.
Jian bing guozi is composed of two elements: Jian bing (crepes) and guozi (deep-fried crisps).
To make a jian bing guozi, first, a mung bean mixture is fanned out with a ladle onto a flat-iron pan. Eggs and scallions are then spread out on the crepe.
After the pancake is flipped over, a dollop of bean paste, sheets of guozi crisps (or, sometimes, deep-fried breadsticks and vegetables) are added before the vendor — usually an elderly man — folds the stuffed and toasted pancake and hands it to you in a paper bag.
Use a spoon to catch the spilled soup from a xiaolongbao.
Wondering whether the xiaolongbao wrapper will break on the long journey between the steaming basket and your mouth is one of the most suspenseful moments that can take place at a dining table.
Amassing a huge following in and outside China, xiaolongbao, also called xiaolong tangbao (translated as “small basket soup bun”), is a mix of soup and pork packed inside a thin dumpling wrapper.
In addition to pork, the soupy dumplings can also be filled with crab meat and crab roe.
Chen cun rice noodles
If you’re one of those people who thinks the real star of beef chow fun is the noodles and not the beef, you should try Chen cun fen (Chen village flat rice noodles).
Chewier, wider and thinner than the usual flat rice noodles, Chen cun fen is a specialty from Chen village, a town in Shunde district in the Pearl River Delta.
In addition to being stir-fried in a noodle dish, the semi-translucent and smooth Chen cun fen make a great base layer for dishes such as steamed spareribs and seafood as the noodles absorb all the flavors from the other ingredients.
Named after famous poet, painter and statesman Su Dongpo (who lived about 1,000 years ago), Dongpo rou is made up of braised pork belly, rock sugar, soy sauce, yellow wine and other seasonings.
The result is a richly flavored and extremely tender pork slab that can easily be pried apart with chopsticks.
It’s a delicious dish that goes well with steamed white rice.
Hot and sour soup
Surprisingly, China’s famed hot and sour soup isn’t just great at warming up your body in winter.
Local Sichuanese believe that the soup can also expel excessive humidity and hotness from one’s body in summer as well.
A bowl of hot and sour soup should have a balance of sourness (from vinegar) and spiciness (from peppers) — but not hotness from chili.
Shreds of tofu, Chinese mushrooms, wood ears and bamboo shoots are some of the common ingredients found in the thick soup.
Small baskets, big flavors.
Dim sum refers more to a style of serving food — it’s a type of meal in Cantonese food culture — rather than a specific dish.
It’s a cunning way to include many different varieties of small plates — from pan-fried radish cake to prawn dumplings to siu mai — in one meal.
At the same time, dining on a combination of these dishes during a dim sum session is far more enjoyable than eating just one version on its own.
Beef/fish poached in chili oil broth
Don’t be fooled by its bland-sounding Chinese name — shui zhu, which translates literally to “water boil.”
Shui zhu is a cooking technique that was first developed in Sichuan cuisine. The word water (shui) refers to the hot, spicy chili oil broth that is used to poach thinly sliced beef (shui zhu niu), pork (shui zhu roupian) or fish (shui zhu yu).
Today, the photogenic crowd-pleaser is often served with sliced celtuce (a type of lettuce) and flat mung bean noodles in the broth, too.
The best barbecue pork should be slightly charred on the outside and contain just the right amount of sweetness and saltiness from the maltose, wine and soy sauce.
A Cantonese roast shop will let you choose the level of fattiness you want in your char siu, Cantonese for barbecue pork.
Half lean, half fatty char siu is the go-to option if you are a newbie.
Barbecue pork is a highly versatile ingredient served in many delicious dishes — from char siu macaroni soup for breakfast to char siu bao — steamed buns –– at dim sum.
Bao — a steamed bread roll filled with a variety of ingredients including meat or vegetables — come in many shapes and sizes.
It could be a plain bao with a glossy and smooth exterior (mantou), or an oversized steamed volcano-shaped bao stuffed with an entire meal’s worth of food (da bao, or translated as “big bao”).
But one of the best baos is undoubtedly sheng jian bao.
The pan-fried bao is filled with pork and broth, while scallions and white sesame seeds are sprinkled on top.
Rou jia mo
The Mausoleum of Terracotta Warriors is usually the reason travelers visit Xi’an, but this western Chinese city’s delicious and similarly historical rou jia mo is another great reason to head there.
The ubiquitous street eat consists of a grilled mo (flat bread) and an overflowing amount of shredded pulled pork belly that has been braised in soy sauce, rock sugar and spices such as cinnamon, star anise, cloves and peppercorns for hours.
Undercooked mo is a big no-no. A common saying in Shaanxi province goes “tie quan hu bei juhua xin,” which means “iron ring, tiger’s back and chrysanthemum’s heart ” — the perfect patterns you should look for on a well toasted mo.
Cantonese herbal soup
Cantonese parents are the real experts when it comes to therapeutic herbal soups, which are simmered for hours to infuse the liquid with healing qualities and deliciousness.
Various seasonal ingredients offer different cooling or warming qualities to restore balance in the body.
For example, apple, snow fungus and lily petal soup will hydrate your body, whereas winter melon and barley soup will cool you down in hot weather.
Chinese preserved sausages are usually steamed before serving.
The Chinese version of salami is often categorized into two main types: Laap cheung and yun cheung (in Cantonese).
Laap cheung is preserved meat sausage that has a slightly sweet taste. Yun cheung, on the other hand, is mostly made with offal from poultry, giving it a stronger and gamier flavor.
Unlike their European counterparts, Chinese preserved sausages should be steamed before eaten.
You can find them wrapped in buns, stir-fried with sticky rice or steamed in a clay pot.
Sweet taro paste
The secret to a delicious Fujian-style taro paste is binlang yu, a special breed of yam from Fujian’s Fuding county. The white and purple flesh of a binlang yu has vibrant fragrances and an earthy, nutty and sweet taste.
To make the dessert, the taro is cooked and mashed before it’s mixed with sugar and lard.
The thick, silky taro mash will then be garnished with sweet toppings such as dates, candied cherries and gingko.
When it comes to nourishing your digestive system, in sickness and in health, it’s all about congee (porridge, commonly made with rice).
A popular breakfast item in many parts of China, the versatile cheap eat can be served plain with a drizzle of soy sauce and scallions, or stewed with savory ingredients such as chicken or fish.
Lean pork floss and century egg congee is one of the classics served in the south of China. Congee made with millet instead of rice and flavored with pumpkin is popular in the north.
Those who are extra hungry can order a side of soy sauce-fried noodles, deep-fried breadsticks (youtiao) or soy milk. These can be enjoyed on the side, or you can tear up the breadsticks or add some noodles to the congee.
Chaozhou beef balls
Most people who visit Chaozhou can’t resist picking up a family-sized bag of super bouncy and flavorsome meat balls made of beef beaten by hand to bring home with them.
Highly praised for their understanding of beef, Chaozhou people are also famous for other dishes such as beef hot pot.
Sweet rice balls
One of the most loved desserts in China, sweet rice balls, or tangyuan, can be found in many regions.
Ningbo is one of the best places to sample these round mochi-like desserts.
The soft, pillowy exterior is made with sticky rice while the filling is made of black sesame, sugar and lard.
The lard gives the filling an extra fragrance and sheen.