One of my favorite parts of living in China is the delicious, diverse, and preposterously cheap array of food available. Growing up in the US, I never considered the many different types of Chinese food that existed; in the states we tend to get a mix of Sichuan/Hunan/Cantonese (四川 / 湖南 / 粤) cuisine, adapted for Western tastes, that just gets branded as “Chinese food.”
There is, however, a pretty wide variety of food that falls under the umbrella of Chinese cuisine, from hearty Dongbei (东北, northeastern China) dishes to the Middle Eastern-infused flavors from the far northwestern Xinjiang (新疆) province (kung pao lamb with falafel makes me weak in the knees).
American Chinese food is actually something of a curiosity to many Chinese people, who sometimes have a hard time believing that Westerners can use things like chopsticks correctly. I was at a dinner last summer with one of my university language instructors six years my junior when seemed astonished by my ability to use chopsticks. I then pointed out that I have been using them since before she was born!
If you are going to be adventurous and try some new Chinese dishes, we highly recommend you want our live hangout "How to Read a Chinese Menu 101." It'll open the doors to exploring beyond the one or two dishes you've memorized.
As you may have heard there are some, shall we say, unorthodox food options on Chinese menus that you might want to avoid – I’m talking stuff like chicken feet, pig brains, all kinds of tongues, etc. If you’re into that stuff, more power to you, but if, like me, your food adventurism doesn’t go much further than bullfrog (delicious but still kind of weird if you over-think it while eating), we're here to help you keep an eye out.
1. chòu dòufu (臭豆腐) - “stinky tofu”
Common more or less throughout China, this dish certainly lives up to its name.
Stinky tofu (that is indeed the literal translation) is fermented in a brine that varies from region to region, but can feature anything from shrimp to bamboo to goat milk.
Westerners often compare it to blue cheese in that it has a strong odor but also a powerful taste; it’s an acquired taste, but is actually a very tasty dish if properly prepared.
2. yànwō (燕窝) – bird's nest (usually in soup or congee).
This is a very expensive delicacy in some parts of China as well as in Hong Kong and Chinatowns around the world, in which bird's nests are dissolved into water which is then used as broth or added to mixes for other foods.
Traditional Chinese medical beliefs hold that yànwō, made primarily from the saliva of the birds, aids in digestion and boosts the immune system, which better be worth it, as some types of nests can fetch up to US$10,000 a kilogram.
3. fèngzhǎo (凤爪) or chicken feet
They are pretty common these days.
I'm not a fan but if I was, it'd be easy, as they're available literally everywhere: the wet market (fresh meat/produce markets common throughout Asia) on my block has at least four stands that sell them, and they're commonly given out for free at bars and restaurants, much as peanuts are in the US.
Often soaked in vinegar and fried or steamed, they're also sold vacuum-packed in convenience stores.
Worth trying once, though the texture is hard to get used to!
4. xiēzi (蝎子) – scorpion (usually fried, on a stick)
I saw these once at a street food stall in Wuhan and I did a double-take: at first I thought they were just plastic toy scorpions!
Traditional Chinese medicine values scorpions and scorpion parts for ability to treat skin conditions, cure infections and even prevent mosquito bites, and they're actually a pretty common street-side snack in parts of China.
Sometimes they're not even fried, they're just on a stick there for you to eat.
Full disclosure: I think scorpions are awesome and may or may not have gotten a tattoo of one on my back when I was 18 but it would take a lot of convincing for me to eat one of these bad boys.
My more adventurous friends, though say they have a chicken-like flavor and, obviously, a crunchy texture!
5. mì fēng (蜜蜂) – honeybees (fried)
I've seen them on occasion here in Shanghai but they're much more common down in Yunnan (云南) Province in southwestern China, where restaurants will sometimes feature a big bowl of fried bees as an appetizer.
Known for their sweet taste and crunchy texture, bees are another thing I will probably never try but I'm told they're quite tasty as a snack.
What are your craziest/weirdest/most delicious-est China food stories? Did you ever have no idea what you were ordering and end up with something really strange? Let me know in the comments below.