The best thing about living in China is the food. Cheap, healthy, varied, and mouth-wateringly delicious – China is a 吃货 (chī huò) - "foodie" heaven.
However, before arriving in China, my knowledge of the national cuisine was limited to three dishes:
- Beijing roast duck
- Special fried rice, and
- kung pao chicken
While all extremely tasty, these are just a tiny fraction of the tasty options available in China (and—if you look closely—in Chinatowns all over the world).
That’s why I'm introducing you to 6 incredible dishes that are popular, authentic, everyday foods within China, but less well known to us 外国人 (wài guó rén) – foreigners.
1. The perfect winter warmer: 泡馍 (pào mó) - bread soup
Right now in Shanghai, it’s really, really cold.
(Okay, it’s only about 32°F (2°C), but without central heating, it feels seriously painful)
Luckily, you can find small family-run restaurants all over the city serving 泡馍 (pào mó) – a hearty, meaty bread soup that instantly warms you from head to foot.
泡馍 (pào mó) originates from China’s North-western 陕西 (shǎn xī) - Shaanxi province, and is particularly popular in 西安 (xī ān) - Xi’an (home of the Terracotta Warriors).
A warm, steaming bowl of broth is filled with glass noodles, vegetables, mutton or beef, and torn slices of flat bread.
My favorite way to eat 泡馍 (pào mó) is with the bread lightly fried and served on a separate plate. You can then use your chopsticks to dip the bread into the broth for the perfect amount of time to ensure it is deliciously soaked but not soggy.
Pure comfort food…
Best eaten: for lunch during the cold winter months, when you need something that’s guaranteed to fill you up until dinner. Add chili oil for some extra heat.
2. Brunch, Chinese-style: 肠粉 (cháng fěn) - stuffed rice noodle roll
肠粉 (cháng fěn) – or fresh made rice noodle roll stuffed with the filling of your choice – is China’s answer to the bagel.
Super cheap (usually around 8RMB or US$1.20) and easy to grab on the go, a serving of 肠粉 (cháng fěn) is perfect for those days when you just need something simple and healthy to get you going.
Vendors heat a broad, flattened mixture of rice flour, water, and oil, then sprinkle on the filling, and finally roll and chop the finished product into conveniently-sized pieces. Fillings vary depending on the restaurant, although pork, shrimp, and egg are particularly common.
肠粉 (cháng fěn) – literally “intestine noodle”, because it looks a little bit like pig intestines, is a Cantonese dish from Southern China.
Note for the squeamish: there are no intestines inside – it’s named this way because of the shape.
Although most Cantonese don’t tend to eat spicy food, and simply flavor with soy sauce and sesame oil, I prefer to add a dollop of chili oil to give it some bite.
Best eaten: when you want a light, healthy breakfast, brunch, or snack that doesn’t break the bank.
3. The Chinese hamburger: 肉夹馍 (ròu jiā mó)
肉夹馍 (ròu jiā mó) – flatbreads filled with delicious, stewed meat – embody everything that’s awesome about Chinese street food. Like 泡馍 (pào mó), 肉夹馍 (ròu jiā mó) also originate from Shaanxi province. And the tender, moist filling has the spicy (but not overly-hot), hearty flavors that are characteristic of the region.
Meat fillings vary (lamb and beef are most common), but are always stewed for hours in a heavily seasoned soup to get that melt-in-your-mouth effect.
肉夹馍 (ròu jiā mó) are most commonly sold by street vendors for just a few RMB, although are also available in restaurants.
Eating this one is trickier than eating a hamburger.
Tip: either carefully nibble at the edges to avoid letting the filling spill out, or just accept the fact you’ll get meat on your face and take a big, delicious bite (I recommend this decision).
Best eaten: when you’re super hungry and need a snack that’ll really fill you up. Or you can have several for dinner.
See wacky Chinese versions of Western fast food here!
4. Messy but amazing: 小龙虾 (xiǎo lóng xiā) - crayfish, cooked Hunan style
Slightly pricier than the other dishes featured in this article, 小龙虾 (xiǎo lóng xiā) – crayfish (literally “little lobster”) are smaller, messier, and—in my opinion—tastier than their larger cousins.
小龙虾 (xiǎo lóng xiā) can be found in most places in China. Although the best I’ve ever tried were in 湖南 (hú nán) - Hunan province.
They were cooked with a hot, yet relatively simple sauce that didn’t drown the delicious seafood flavor.
Eating these critters is somewhat of a challenge: it requires tearing off the head and breaking into the hard outer shell to get to the soft, tender meat inside.
Most restaurants will provide special plastic gloves so that you don’t get your hands dirty. But you still don’t want to wear anything new or white in case the sauce flicks onto your clothes.
Best eaten: with a cold beer at an outdoor restaurant during the summer months, when the 小龙虾 (xiǎo lóng xiā) are at their fattest and juiciest.
5. Forget Kung Pao Chicken! Order 口水蛙 (kǒu shuǐ wā) - “saliva frog”
口水蛙 (kǒu shuǐ wā) – usually translated as “saliva frog” – is not blessed with a particularly attractive name. A more appetizing translation would be “mouth-watering frog”.
Nevertheless, this is fast becoming one of my favorite Chinese dishes.
The powerful, garlicky sauce is usually flavored with copious amounts of chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, which give it a 麻辣 (má là) – "numbing and spicy hot" sensation.
I think the soft texture of the frog soaks up the spicy sauce perfectly.
But if you're not ready to eat amphibians, there’s also a chicken version, called (unsurprisingly) 口水鸡 (kǒu shuǐ jī) – “saliva chicken”.
Best eaten: as part of a sumptuous Sichuan banquet.
6. Unexpectedly delicious: 猪肚 (zhū dǔ) – pork stomach
A particularly adventurous foodie friend of mine begged me to try 猪肚 (zhū dǔ) – pork stomach, or tripe.
I was initially suspicious, but the unique, rustic flavor and slightly chewy texture has really grown on me.
As with most dishes, the Chinese have a wide variety of ingenious ways to cook up 猪肚 (zhū dǔ): from soup to hot pot.
My personal favorite is stir-fried with ginger, peppers, and spring onions. The vegetables balance out the aroma of the meat wonderfully.
Chinese cuisine is deservedly famous for using every part of the animal.
While this doesn’t always have great results (I’ve never been able to get used to chicken feet!), 猪肚 (zhū dǔ) is definitely one example where unusual equals delicious.
Best eaten: over dinner in an authentic, raucous 东北 (dōng běi) – Northeastern style restaurant.
Get a taste for more Chinese food with these articles
Now that you're hungry, which of these dishes do you want to try? Do you have a recommendation for other authentic Chinese foods I haven’t listed? I’d love to hear them in the discussion section below!