by Kath Tsai
- Asian Cuisines
- East Asian Cuisine
Chinese food culture has a long, long history and it’s the result of centuries of refinement and experimenting with various methods of cooking, many of them unique to China. At the same time, Chinese cuisine is also regional and it is influenced by the natural geography, climatic conditions, resources, specialties, and eating habits of each Chinese region.
As you may know, there are “eight major cuisines” in China. Some people personify them as follows: Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisines are like the beautiful and elegant ladies of Jiangnan (regions south of the Yangtze River); Shandong and Anhui cuisines are like the simple and unsophisticated stout men of northern China; Guangdong and Fujian cuisines are like a refined and elegant prince; Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are like a talented celebrity, rich in content.
Each cuisine features hundreds of dishes and snacks, and it’s so hard to choose the most popular 25. Any dish left out could lead to a heated debate between food lovers of different regions.
So I have chosen what I consider the most famous dishes to share with you. If you have an opportunity to come to China, don’t miss trying them.
Chinese dumplings (Jiaozi) generally consist of different kinds of meat such as pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, or even fish, and chopped vegetables wrapped into a piece of dough. The most common fillings include pork with Chinese cabbage, pork with celery, lamb with spring onion, and leeks with eggs, but there are many more varieties.
Chinese dumplings are usually boiled or steamed. Dumplings are traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year’s Eve and other festivals.
Related: Chinese Pork and Cabbage Dumplings by Chef Sam Wu
2.Proper Street Kebabs
In China, the most memorable culinary experiences are not found in Michelin-star restaurants. Instead, they can be found in the lively and bustling street stalls located in the heart of the city.
From mutton kebabs with cumin and squid cooked on an iron plate to roast chicken wings and oysters with spicy sauce, the Chinese street barbecue experience is a combination of the food itself and the busy street bustle. It is unique and hard to find anywhere else.
Over the past decade, crayfish have swept across China’s cities, and the whole country is crazy about this crustacean. The crayfish is stewed in a broth with ginger, garlic, pepper, and many other spices. From spring to early autumn, a nighttime dish of crayfish has become very popular. At the weekends, groups of friends go to a crowded stall, relax on small plastic stools, and order one or two pots of red crayfish.
Forget about chopsticks, because the best way to enjoy these delicious crayfish is by digging in with your hands. And what better drink to accompany this mouthwatering feast than a refreshing glass of locally brewed iced beer?
4. Lamb Hot Pot
Sichuan hotpots and nutritious Cantonese hotpots are quite popular in many countries. But in China, lamb hot pot is the most common, especially in northern China in winter.
According to legend, lamb hot pot originated in the Yuan Dynasty and was promoted by the emperors of the Qing Dynasty. The broth is heated in a copper container with a tall high chimney, from where the steam from the coals is released.
Although all kinds of meat, seafood, and vegetables can be cooked in hot pots, the best is definitely thin slices of mutton.
5. Guilin Rice Noodles
Guilin, in southern China, is known for its crystal-clear waters and stunning karst formations. It is famous not only for its paradise-like scenery, but also for its refreshing rice noodles sprinkled with sour beans, peanuts, bamboo shoots, and shallots.
There are rice noodle restaurants everywhere in Guilin and in many places around. Local people like to dip the silky rice noodles and ingredients into hot and sour brine, then eat them dry, or pour them into beef soup.
Different kinds of meat can be added to rice noodles. The most popular are sliced beef and large beef brisket.
6. Lanzhou Hand-pulled Noodles
Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles originated in the desolate Gobi desert in Northwest China. It is a first-class halal food. Each bowl of Lanzhou hand-made noodles is a feast as well as a handicraft.
In simple open simple kitchens Muslim noodle masters pat, fold, and pull the dough into long, thin noodles. And they do this faster than guests can order.
Traditional Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles are served with beef soup, sliced beef, coriander, and green onion.
7. Steamed Crab
For the Shanghainese, autumn without steamed hairy crab is inconceivable.
Every year, many gourmets from different Chinese cultural circles flock to Shanghai to taste this legendary food. Every September, these freshwater crabs from the Yangtze River estuary, waving their giant pincers, are sent to family kitchens, high-end hotels, and luxury restaurants.
The best traditional drink to accompany hairy crabs is Shaoxing yellow wine.
8. Fish with Sichuan Pickles
The fish that goes with Sichuan pickles is mainly grass carp. The dish is both spicy and sour. Fish is rich in high-quality protein and provides rich protein, minerals, and other nutrients. The presence of lactic acid in pickles can enhance iron absorption and stimulate the appetite.
There are many conflicting stories about the origin of this dish, none of which can be verified. And while the cooking method varies across the regions, the resulting tastes are basically the same.
9. Kung Pao Chicken
Kung pao chicken is a famous Chinese dish that is very popular with foreigners. It is a dish that features Shandong, Sichuan, and Guizhou cuisine.
Kung Pao chicken is cooked with peanuts, peppers, and other ingredients. It is red but not spicy, spicy but not fierce, while the meat is tender, smooth, and crisp. The combination of tender chicken and crunchy peanuts creates a perfect harmony of textures.
10. Shredded Pork with Garlic Sauce
Shredded pork with garlic sauce is probably the most famous Sichuan dish and can be found on the menu of almost any small restaurant. It is also a favorite for cooking at home.
It is sweet, sour, and spicy, with a spiciness that mixes with the rich aroma of onion, ginger, and garlic. The Chinese name for this dish is Yu Xiang. which means “good smell of fish”. And where does the fish smell originate from? Yes, you guessed it right – the pickled pepper.
Pickled pepper, once fried, makes the dish as fresh as fish. In the past, small fish were added to the pickling pepper, so the pepper really did smell of fish.
11. Red Braised Pork
Red braised pork, a famous and very popular dish, can be found in nearly all major Chinese cuisines and each one has its own characteristics. For instance, it’s spicy in Hunan province and sweet in Shanghai.
It is mainly made with streaky pork. It’s believed that the key part to making a perfect red braised pork is to select the right slices, with three layers of fat and two layers of lean meat. When cooked, it is fatty but not greasy. The pork is cut into 50-gram cubes and deep-fried before it’s then boiled with yellow liquor, soy sauce, and rock sugar for an hour when abalone sauce is added. It’s soft and sweet with a strong truffle flavor.
And just to prove how much this dish is loved by foreign visitors, a song has been written about it! – Hong Shao Rou
12. Steamed Fish Head with Diced Hot Red Peppers
Steamed fish head with diced hot red peppers, a traditional and classic dish of Xiang cuisine, is quite popular for its fresh and spicy flavors. The white tender fish head meat is covered with red diced chili peppers. It is not only appealing to the eye but is also mouthwatering.
Once steamed, the fish head absorbs the fiery flavors of the diced chili, creating a spicy and captivating taste. It is a savory dish that helps reduce cholesterol and increase brain power, making it very popular in Hunan and Jiangxi Provinces.
13. Sweet and Sour Ribs
The origin of sweet and sour ribs is still a topic of debate. Some believe it originated in Guangdong, while others argue that it was first popularized in Jiangsu. Regardless, it remains a popular dish in China and is also one of the more well-known Chinese dishes in other parts of the world.
A good cook always pays good attention to both the cooking method and the materials to make authentic sweet and sour ribs. Generally, a baby’s back rib or spare rib is considered the most suitable. First, the blood is removed, then the water is drained and the ribs are marinated. Later, they are wrapped in flour and deep-fried until the surface becomes golden and crisp. Once done, the ribs are stir-fried with rock sugar and rice vinegar to make them sweet and sour.
14. Mapo Tofu: Stir-fried Tofu in Hot Sauce
Mapo tofu is one of the traditional famous dishes of Sichuan Province. The main ingredients of this dish include bean curd, garlic sprouts, minced beef (or other meats), and a combination of seasonings such as thick broad-bean sauce, chili powder, Sichuan pepper, and soy sauce.
Mapo tofu has traveled across the ocean and settled in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and other countries, which makes it a truly international dish.
15. Twice-cooked Pork Slices
Twice-cooked pork slices are one of a dish representative of Sichuan cuisine.
The main ingredients are pork buttock, green pepper, and garlic. It has a unique taste, a beautiful bright red color, and is fatty but not greasy. Twice-cooked pork is Hui Guo Rout in Chinese, meaning “going back to the pot again”. The meat is boiled until partly cooked and then stir-fried, so it is cooked twice, hence the name.
Why is it a favorite among the Szechuanese? Because it is spicy and slightly sweet, and of course the wonderful flavor of the pork belly itself.Wow, just thinking of it makes my mouth water!
16. Fried Eggs with Tomatoes
Fried eggs with tomatoes is a dish made with tomatoes and eggs, of course. It has a sweet and sour taste that is particularly appealing to both the elderly and children. The ingredients are readily available, making it a simple dish to prepare.
Chinese students studying abroad often find comfort in this dish, as it reminds them of home and their families.
17. Roast Duck
When it comes to roast duck, the most famous variety is the Beijing-style roast, particularly the renowned Quanjude preparation. Of course, there are many ways to make roast duck in China, all with different tastes.
Roast duck is crisp and delicious and is always eaten with sweet sauce, cucumber sticks, and green Chinese onion, which are rolled up in a thin pancake. Having never seen a duck eaten in this manner before, as soon as travelers came to China, they immediately fell in love with it.
18. Egg Fried Rice
Egg fried rice is a colorful, tasty, and easy-to-make dish. The main ingredients are long-grain rice, egg, and green onion for flavor and garnish. To make it more nutritious and colorful, you can add various vegetables such as diced carrots, bell peppers, peas, corn, etc.
It’s a dish that many people grow up with. The enticing aroma of egg mixed with green onion and soy sauce always brings back lots of childhood memories.
19. Hot Spicy Dip
The hot spicy dip is the predecessor of spicy hot pot and is kind of a simplified version of hot pot. The difference is that the meat and vegetables are put on a bamboo stick, which is dipped into the boiling red soup. The ingredients used in hot spicy dip and hot pot are the same. The biggest difference is that the dip is simple and fast to prepare.
It can be bought from street vendors and has become especially popular over the last 20 years. There is no luxurious decoration, no expensive ingredients, no elegant restaurant foreman, nor even a decent signboard. There are only several tables, two stoves, and bamboo sticks all over the floor. Yet, they are always surrounded by a circle of people, with sweat on their faces, enjoying the delicious food.
20. Xinjiang “Big Plate Chicken”
Xinjiang big plate chicken is a halal dish made with chicken, tomato, green chili, and noodles served on a large plate, thus its name.
The chicken is usually fried first and then stewed, then the delicious chicken, with its burnt skin, is mixed up with the bright colors of green pepper and red pepper. The potato starch in the soup absorbs the oil, making it less greasy.
Chopsticks are used to pick up the thin broad noodles, which are then stirred in the soup a few times. Once in the mouth, all kinds of flavors dance on the tip of the tongue.
This dish has a unique taste. It not only has the rough and bold spicy flavor that people in Northwest China like but is combined with the peppery taste that Sichuan people are crazy about.
21. Scalded Shrimp
Scalded shrimp is a famous traditional dish. The shrimp is blanched in clean boiling water.
Guangzhou people are particularly fond of blanching shrimp because it maintains its fresh, sweet, tender, and original flavor. A dip in a delicious sauce makes this dish perfect.
22. Braised Pork with Vermicelli
Braised pork with vermicelli is from Sichuan and northeastern Chinese cuisine. It is mainly made of pork, vermicelli, and pickled or fresh cabbage. That’s the original, but other versions have arrived with richer tastes, for example, pork and vermicelli with cabbage, pork, and vermicelli with tofu, pork and vermicelli with radish, etc.
The seasoning differs according to the ingredients used. The variety of ingredients enriches the nutrition, color, and flavor of the dishes.
23. Steamed Rice Powder and Pork
This dish originated in Jiangxi and is mainly popular in southern China, although it has now penetrated across the country. In the Jiangnan area, eating steamed rice powder and pork is an important annual custom at the beginning of summer. And it’s also a must-eat traditional dish for Chinese New Year.
The fried rice powder and the seasoned pork are mixed and then steamed. It tastes fresh, soft, and not greasy. Different regions choose different side dishes, such as sweet potato, pumpkin, lotus root, taro, green bean, etc.
24. Chinese Sausage
Sausage is made from pork which is chopped or ground into small pieces, seasoned with salt, sugar, wine, soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, and other ingredients. The pork is filled in chitterlings, dried in the air, or smoke-cured. The finished sausage, kept in the refrigerator, usually lasts for about three months.
The main producing areas are Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, and Shanghai, where all kinds of sausages are made, usually in the very same way though with slightly different ingredients.
There are many types of sausage divided into two categories: Sichuan-style sausage and Cantonese-style sausage. The main difference is that Cantonese sausage is sweet while Sichuan sausage is spicy. They are both popular during Chinese New Year.
25. Lotus Root and Rib Soup
Lotus root and rib soup is a traditional Hubei dish. The soup is boiled on a slow fire for hours until the meat completely falls off the bone. The lotus root tastes glutinous and also crisp. One spoonful of this fragrant and sweet soup will make you sigh at its perfection!
Spareribs and lotus root soup are essential dishes when hosting esteemed guests in Hubei Province. This delightful soup is not only delicious and nutritious but also appetizing and beneficial for blood circulation. For people from Hubei, the soup represents the taste of home. While this dish can be found across the country, true authenticity lies in using lotus roots sourced from Hubei province.
Selecting the lotus root is a very particular art: first, the lotus root should be glutinous rather than too crispy so that it will soften and taste sweet once cooked; second, do not use the lotus root head or tip because the head is too tender while the tip has a fishy smell. In Hubei, Honghu lotus root is considered the most delicious, and the best time to eat it is after the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Check out next the 20 most popular Chinese desserts.
Based in Wuhan, Kath Tsai is a freelancer writer and mother of two wonderful kids. Kath has B.A. in English Linguistics from the Yangtze University, she likes food and cooking new dishes for family.
If they were all in a recipe book I would buy a copy.
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First up are those termed the Four Major Cuisines: Lu cuisine from Shandong province; Chuan cuisine from Sichuan; Yue cuisine from Guangdong; and Su cuisine from Jiangsu.What are the 4 famous Chinese cuisines? ›
First up are those termed the Four Major Cuisines: Lu cuisine from Shandong province; Chuan cuisine from Sichuan; Yue cuisine from Guangdong; and Su cuisine from Jiangsu.What are the 5 major Chinese cuisines? ›
While there is an incredible culinary variety across the country, there are five major cuisines that dominate the Chinese landscape: Sichuan, Shandong, Cantonese, Huaiyang, and Northeastern. Each one has its own unique flavours, preparation methods and ingredients. Each is also connected to particular regions of China.What is China's number 1 food? ›
1. Dumplings. Chinese dumplings (Jiaozi) generally consist of different kinds of meat such as pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, or even fish, and chopped vegetables wrapped into a piece of dough.What is America's Favourite Chinese dish? ›
General Tso's Chicken, with its battered chicken in a sweet and sour sauce, laced with chilli, is apparently, America's favourite Chinese takeout dish.What are lucky foods in China? ›
- Dumplings and Potstickers: Wealth. ...
- Spring Rolls / Egg Rolls: Wealth. ...
- Noodles: Longevity. ...
- Mandarins and Tangerines: Luck. ...
- Fish: Surplus. ...
- Tang Yuan Rice Balls: Reunion. ...
- Buddha's Delight: Self-Purification. ...
- Fortune Candy: Luck, Happiness, and Prosperity.
- Anhui (Hui) ...
- Cantonese (Yu) ...
- Fujian (Min) ...
- Hunan (Xiang) ...
- Jiangsu (Su) ...
- Shandong (Lu) ...
- Szechuan (Chuan) ...
- Zhejiang (Zhe)
The palette of flavors and textures represent the senses of taste – salt, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, sharp, nutty, numbing, and smoky, awakening the palate to the next nine courses ahead that will incorporate each of these flavors more in depth.What is a typical Chinese meal? ›
High importance is placed on freshness and flavor of produce or food. A typical Chinese's meal usually consists of rice, soup and three to four side dishes. Dishes are made of seasonal vegetables, fresh seafood or bite-size portion of meat or poultry.What is better kung pao chicken or General Tso chicken? ›
Kung pao chicken and General Tso's chicken are similar in that they are both chicken-based dishes with a hint of chili, but the primary difference is that latter is deep-fried and coated with a syrupy sweet and sour sauce, and the former is coated with a gentle, more balanced sauce.