China is one of the ultimate foodie destinations.
Chinese cuisine is a rollercoaster of flavors, ingredients, and cooking styles and almost every city or town is famous for a least one dish. The big metropolises are a smorgasbord of dishes from around the country. And don’t turn your nose up at the outstanding street food—just look for stalls with a long line of locals and make sure your food is cooked while you’re waiting.
Xinjiang Lamb Skewers
The lamb-heavy cuisine favored by the Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic group primarily living in the northwest Xinjiang region, is a delight that’s popular across the country. Getting to far-flung Xinjiang is a bit of tough for most foreign travelers, but you can eat deliciously fatty lamb skewers at Crescent Moon in Beijing, arguably the city’s best Xinjiang restaurant.
Spicy Chengdu and Chongqing Hot Pot
There’s something of a spicy stand-off between Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province, and neighboring Chongqing. Both claim to be the home of the best spicy hot pot in China and you can’t go wrong in either city, just head to any hot pot joint with customers queuing outside. You’ll typically get a bubbling cauldron of liquid with compartments for spicy and non-spicy oil, in which you plop raw ingredients to cook and devour.
Beijing Craft Beer
Beijing’s craft ale scene is one of the best in Asia, so there’s no excuse for drinking the cheap local Snow beer when you’re in the capital. The best tipples are those from the US-run brewhouses of Great Leap, Slow Boat and Jing A, while the cosy-cool lane house beer venue run by Arrow Factory is also worth checking out.
Grandma’s Mashed Potato
Hearty, mildly spicy cuisine from the southern Yunnan province is among the country’s most popular food styles, and often has more in common with southeast Asian dishes than those in much of China. The must-try Yunnan dish is Grandma’s mashed potato (Laonai yangyu), which is usually mixed with scallions, pickled vegetables, and chili powder. Don’t forget to order grilled goats’ cheese too.
Fancy a massive load of cheese in your tea? Millions of customers of the Shenzhen-born café brand Hey Tea do—the company’s speciality is cold tea with a creamy, frothy cheesy topping. Customers line up for hours in many Chinese cities to get a cup of the stuff, and spend as much time posting photos of their dairy-dollop prize on social media as they do drinking it. Still, it is almost as good to slurp as it is to snap.
The Roger Moore
The roujiamo is a meat sandwich originating from Shaanxi province, and is sometimes called a Roger Moore by foreigners clocking onto its name’s similarity with that of the late James Bond actor. The meat is usually chopped up stewed pork in a flatbread-like bun, and it’s rightly known as a street food classic across China that shouldn’t cost you more than a couple of dollars. Stateside this snack is known as a Chinese hamburger.
White Rabbit Candies
These white milky soft candies are sumptuous chews of nostalgia for many Chinese people, with the brand’s origins dating back to the 1940s. Still available in pretty much every convenience store in the country, their retro-cool packaging has helped them remain in fashion for decades, although their mega-stickiness is a bit of a problem for those with fragile teeth.
Cancel default morning munch options like Cheerios and bagels and embrace China’s breakfast food of choice: congee. It’s a long-cooked rice porridge that doesn’t taste of much eaten plain, but often comes spruced up with pickled vegetables, meat or tofu, depending on which region you’re in. It’s available for a pittance in local restaurants across China.
These little parcels of yum are aesthetically lovely, and are one of China’s most beloved traditional dishes. They typically feature glutinous rice stuffed with fillings that vary from meats to vegetables to nuts, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and daintily tied up with string. You’ll find them everywhere during Duanwu Festival, aka Dragon Boat Festival, in late Spring.
Buddha Jumping Over the Wall
Many Chinese dishes have famous legends behind them and the one associated with this soupy dish is as odd as its ingredients list, which includes quail eggs, bamboo, ginseng and shark fin (left out by many restaurants due to ethical concerns). According to tradition a Buddhist monk once smelled this dish and leaped over a wall so he could get closer to it. To be fair, it tends to smell as good as it tastes.
This is by far China’s most fun dish: a whole chicken is cooked and served in a hard clay covering, which the diner smashes with a hammer before tucking into the bird inside. Legend has it that a beggar once wrapped a chicken in clay to cook it because he had no pots or pans, thus accidentally stumbling across a brilliant cooking technique.
The absolute must-try Beijing dish, from its juicy tender flesh to its crispy skin. It’s worth going slightly high-end in the capital to get the best of the bird—the classy restaurants run by famed chef Da Dong have servers that slice up whole ducks next to your table. For a more local experience try Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant near Tiananmen Square, which teems with domestic tourists but retains rustic charm and stupendous meat.
Taiwanese restaurant chain Din Tai Fung might well serve the best soup dumplings, xiao long bao, in the world. Load up on the pork versions, dip them in ginger and vinegar, then either pop them in your mouth whole for a soupy burst or nibble an edge and suck out the liquid.
The ultimate Chinese street food item, these chicken wraps feature crunchy, cracker-like ridges inside to give them structure and satisfying bite. You’ll find street sellers hawking these all over China, noticeable by their big metal cooking surfaces on which they ladle batter to make the wrapping after you order.
This snack tastes more appealing than its name suggests, even though its scent does match up to its moniker. Often sold on sticks as a street food snack, this fermented version of tofu makes a fun alternative to other street foods like jianbing or a roujiamo. If you go to Shanghai it’s worth checking out Zhujiajiao: a pleasant water town not too far from the city center, where the smell of this snack fills the picturesque streets.
Cloud-level fluffy and ubiquitous across China, these white balls of joy are like oversized dumplings, but with marshmallow softness. They come stuffed with various ingredients, most commonly pork, and are often eaten as a breakfast snack.
Every October the invasion of the hairy crabs begins in east China. Also known as the Chinese mitten crab, Eriocheir sinensis has become prized around the country’s annual Golden Week national holiday, as that’s the time its gooey orange roe matures. You’ll see the funny little crabs strung up in every Chinese supermarket during this time—they are often given as gifts as well as eaten in restaurants.
These treats become ubiquitous in China around Mid-Autumn Festival, when they are given as gifts so often that businesspeople sometimes find themselves with boxes and boxes of them following client meetings. They are round pastries, often with beautiful traditional patterns drawn onto their tops andfilled with increasingly varied ingredients, but red bean paste is the most common. Foreign brands such as Häagen-Dazs have gotten in on the act with their own versions.
Chongqing cuisine isn’t just known for its scorching hot pot—its xiaomian, translated to “little noodles,” are equally as intense. A staple food in the huge city, they are often eaten for breakfast and usually feature hyper-spicy Sichuan pepper. If you don’t make it to Chongqing you can try them at Pangmei Mianzhuang, a fantastic lane house restaurant in Beijing, which is usually crammed with locals slurping these super-cheap noodle dishes.
If Beijing is a city of craft beer, Shanghai is a city of cocktails and the best of the best is Speak Low: a speakeasy bar run by celebrated mixologist Shingo Gokan. His award-winning Bacardi-based signature drink, also called Speak Low, is only served at the bar’s top room—enter by pressing Shanghai on the world map on the wall and a secret door reveals the space. Consider retiring your taste buds after drinking it.
You could spend a lifetime learning about and drinking tea in China, where the beverage is the basis of an entire sipping culture. Pu’er tea, which like many of the finest tastes in China originates from the southern Yunnan province, has a rich and earthy flavor and is among the most popular teas. For a lighter option seek out jasmine tea from Fuzhou in Fujian province.
Beach city Sanya is in southern China’s Hainan: the country’s only island province and home to tropical zones. The city is quickly becoming a bustling, high-end resort mecca but there are still plenty of places there to try chicken in coconut soup: a local favourite that makes use of the coconuts the scorching climate helps produce. If you make it to Sanya, check out Houhai Bay: a breezy enclave that’s yet to be taken over by the tourist masses, unlike Sanya’s other large beaches.
The smell of durian, usually imported from Southeast Asia and also known as jackfruit, has been compared to that of sweaty gym socks, rotting meat and fermenting onions. It’s banned on public transport in much of Asia, but it’s an enormously popular snack in China. The heavy, meaty, creamy taste is too much for some, but others wolf it down raw, put it in smoothies, or nibble durian cakes from dedicated shops.
Shaoxing, a pleasant historical city a short drive from Hangzhou, is a good place to stroll around for an afternoon, but its main draw is its famous local wine. Fermented from rice, its production dates back centuries and is still sold in beautiful vase-like pots. If you go to the city seek out the atmospheric and bustling Xianheng Winehouse, and start slurping.