One of the most exciting parts about moving to a new country is getting to truly immerse yourself into a new cuisine. Creating a must-eat list for China is somewhat difficult as the country is incredibly large and the cuisine tends to be regional. One thing is for sure, though, you won’t be seeing any General Tsao’s chicken recommended. The Chinese food of the West is incredibly different from what you’ll find once you arrive in the country. Don’t be scared, though! While the Chinese food in China might be different than what you’re used to, that doesn’t make it any less delicious.
Here are seven dishes that will serve as a good introduction to food in China:
Xiao Long Bao
A dumpling filled with soup?! These Shanghai specialties are made of a soupy pork stock that is simmered until it turns into gelatin. The gelatin pieces are inserted into intricately folded dumplings and then turn to soup when the dumplings are steamed. Be careful when eating xiao long bao- the soup will be dangerously hot when they are fresh from the steamer. Either wait a few painful minutes before diving in or place a bao in your spoon, pierce it with a chopstick, and let the broth cool that way. No matter how you decide to eat your soup dumplings, the rich, flavorful broth and dangerously thin dumplings are bound to please.
Roast duck is a Beijing specialty that has been served for thousands of years. It started as a main dish on imperial court menus and the first restaurant serving Beijing roasted duck opened in 1416. Only a certain type of duck is used for the Beijing variety. After it is killed, air is pumped in to separate the skin from the fat. It is then soaked in water and hung to dry for 24 hours before it is roasted. Traditionally it is then served in front of diners over three courses- the skin, the meat, and then a bone broth.
You can find variations of hot pot all over China, but the most famous is the Sichaun type. And if you know anything about Chinese cuisine, you know that Sichaun means spicy. Chili paste is added to the broth which makes it deep red in color and fiery to taste. You then cook a variety of meat and vegetables in the spicy broth at the table in front of you. If you can’t handle the heat, don’t worry. You can generally get a pot with a divider and opt for a tamer version as well.
Jiaozi might be one of the more familiar Chinese foods when you first arrive in China as they are dumplings. Jiaozi can refer to dumplings that are steamed, boiled, or pan fried, though they will all have their own more specific name as well. In China, dumplings can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They generally have a fairly thick skin and are horn shaped. You can expect jiaozi to be served with a soy sauce based sauce.
Baozi are a type of steamed bun that is filled with anything from meat to vegetables. While they might seem similar to jiaozi, the dough for baozi is made with yeast and is a type of bread. Different areas of China will have different fillings for their baozi. For example, in the Cantonese Guangdong province it is very common to find them stuffed with char siu, or barbecued pork typical to the area.
This fried, savory pancake is a popular street food breakfast in China. Jianbing is similar to a crepe and made from a batter of wheat flour and eggs that is fried on a griddle. The center is filled with scallions, cilantro, lettuce, and chili sauce. If you’re looking for a quick, on-the-go breakfast, jianbing stands are easy to find around the country.
Another Sichaun dish not for the faint of heart, mapo tofu is tofu cooked in a spicy sauce with ground meat, usually beef or pork. The sauce is thin, oily, and bright red. It’s made from a combination of douban (fermented broad bean and chili paste) and douchi (fermented black beans). Mapo tofu is said to have a “numbing spiciness” so make sure to have some milk handy!