Chicken feet a step too far? Duck tongues got you licked? Stinky tofu not for you? Admittedly, Chinese food can seem a bit scary for the uninitiated.
Even the most adventurous eaters sometimes need a taste of home during a long journey in China.
So here are ten Chinese dishes cunningly disguised as western comfort foods you know and love, guaranteed to satisfy the pickiest, or most homesick of palates.
ròu jiā mó 肉夹馍
Folks call it the ‘Chinese hamburger’, but c’mon, it’s slow-cooked pork in bread, so 'pulled pork roll' is a more accurate name. Born in the old Silk Road city of Xi’an, this puck-sized rib-sticker balances the fatty awesomeness of the stewed pork with the austerity of unsalted, unleavened bread. It’s also the only food that shares its (Chinese) name with a James Bond actor. Think about it…
Fish (not) chips
sōngshǔ guìyú 松鼠桂鱼
Emperor Qianlong was a big fan of Suzhou’s ‘squirrel fish’, a boneless slab of white fish coated in garlicky tomato ketchup. Its curious appearance is the result of careful cleaver carving, which helps the meat fan outwards in chopstick-friendly mouthfuls. Coated in flour and deep-fried, all it lacks is chips (sorry) but you do get crispy fried noodles. Close enough.
Goat cheese tapas
rǔ bǐng 乳饼
In a country that prefers bean curd over Babybell, the Bai minority of Yunnan province buck the anti-dairy brigade by making a deliciously mild and crumbly goat cheese. Sliced, pan-fried, and dusted with salt and chilli flakes, it’s a delicious must-order in Yunnan restaurants all over China. Look for a version of the dish served layered between slices of house-cured bacon. The perfect pairing.
In Tudor England, a sweet bowl of rice pudding was all the rage for posh folk. But more than a thousand years earlier in the Tang dynasty (618-907), foodies were chowing down on ‘eight treasures rice’, the treasures being assorted candied fruits and nuts, dried dates and sweet red bean paste. Made with sticky rice and served steaming hot, it’s still all the rage today, especially at Chinese New Year.
rè gān miàn 热干面
Straight outta Wuhan in central China, this savoury breakfast favourite literally translates as ‘hot dry noodles’. Spaghetti-like mian (noodles) are mixed with oil then dried to make them good and chewy, and after a quick boil are topped with a lip-smacking sesame sauce spiked with chilli oil, pickled veggies and garlic chives. OK, it only looks a bit like a spaghetti carbonara. But it tastes way better.
dànxiàn sūbǐng kǎoròu 蛋馅酥饼烤肉
This beaut of a pie from Xinjiang province in China’s far west gives the east London variety (sans mashed potatoes) a run for its pennies. The pastry is just right: golden, crisp and pleated, and then it goes all deconstructed by having the meat – a hearty heap of cumin-spiced fried lamb and onions (the shepherd bit) – plonked on top. Inside: a moist, steamy filling of veggies and eggs. Weird but it works.
Breton-style breakfast crepe
All hail the #streetsnack from Tianjin currently trending in New York City. A batter of wheat flour and millet is cooked thin on a griddle, an egg (or two) cracked on top, then chilli sauce and fǔrǔ (腐乳; fermented bean curd) applied with a paint brush, before a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, coriander and spring onion, and the all-important ‘mysterious crispy square’™. Finally it’s folded up into the tastiest food parcel ever.
hāsàkè tǔdòu 哈萨克土豆
Admittedly a bit of a stretch, this one, but for homesick Québécois it might suffice. Cheese curds are sadly absent, but being essentially fried potatoes with beef and soy-sauce infused gravy, it’s still darn tasty. Look for it featuring occasionally on the menus of Xinjiang restaurants as ‘Kazakh-style potatoes’.
Deli sub with a difference
lǘròu huǒshāo 驴肉火烧
And the difference is donkey! Fatty Wang’s Donkey Burger (honestly) is a Beijing institution (86 Gulou Xidajie), and the donkey meat actually tastes like tender beef. The braised meat is thinly sliced and crammed into a flaky, toasty bread pocket. Apparently, donkey meat experienced a surge in popularity with the development of railways in northern China, because their transportation services were no longer in demand. Poor Eeyore.
‘Bavarian’ pork stew
suāncài zhūpái 酸菜猪排
A staple at dongbei (northeast) restaurants, this one-pot hodgepodge could be called ‘Bavarian’ for the spurious reason that it contains pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) and big hunks of slow-cooked pork ribs. It even has a kind of pork blood ‘sausage’, which is nicer than it sounds, finished off with heaps of slippery ‘glass’ noodles. Wash it down with a cold Tsingtao – the brewery was founded by Germans in China in 1903.