In China, food conquers all. Eating is the national obsession, and China’s incredible diversity of terrain and climate, coupled with millennia of culinary history, equals an unmatched abundance of dishes and cooking styles.
From the dim sum carts of subtropical Guangzhou to the samsa-sellers of Urumqi on the old Silk Road, it’s a distance of well over 2000 miles, with millions of sizzling woks in between cooking up endless regional Chinese food.
In a country with a food scene as diverse as mainland Europe, where does one start? Read on to discover just a few of the must-try tastes and dining experiences China has in its ample larder.
Savor the hands-on joy of hotpot
Traditional Chinese food is often eaten communally, but hotpot (huoguo) takes the group fun to a new level. Diners cook their own by dunking thin slices of raw meat, vegetables, tofu and other ingredients in a table-top cauldron of bubbling soup. These soups might be volcanically spicy, like Chongqing’s famous sweat fest, austere like Beijing’s sesame-and-lamb shuan yangrou, or even laced with fresh coconut water like a version from Hainan island. Hotpot restaurants are everywhere, proof that DIY dining is for many the most popular way to eat in China.
Where to try it: Pei Jie Hotpot, Chongqing.
Learn Sichuan’s mouth-numbing secret
Over in China’s steamy Sichuan basin, everything from noodles to tofu dishes to bullfrog are served up with a one-two flavor punch known as "mala" – the marriage of chili heat (la) with the tingling, mouth-numbing fragrance (ma) of Sichuan pepper – the dried berries of the prickly ash tree. It’s a seriously addictive combo fundamental to dishes like Chongqing hot pot and mapo tofu, and a big reason why Sichuan restaurants often rank as the most popular of many regional styles in China.
Where to try it: Chén Mápó Dòfu, Chengdu.
Eat Peking duck like an emperor
In Beijing, the best kaoya (roast duck) restaurants are almost molecular in their pursuit of poultry’s holy grail – that perfect union of lacquered bronze skin and succulent meat. Preparation is a long process of drying, inflating, and basting before roasting over flaming fruit wood in open-fronted ovens. The final flourish is watching a chef precisely carve the duck into symmetrical platters of chopstick-friendly morsels, ready to be rolled in wafer-thin pancakes with julienned scallions, cucumber and soybean sauce. Yum.
Where to try it: Dadong Roast Duck, Beijing.
Slurp up soup dumplings in Shanghai
Biting into xiaolóngbāo and slurping out the rich consommé inside is a culinary rite of passage when visiting Shanghai. Cooked and served in bamboo steamers, these bite-size round parcels are traditionally filled with pork (sometimes crab) and a savory jelly, or aspic, which melts during cooking into a delicious soup. It’s this magic trick that sets xiaolongbao apart from other dumplings. Close cousin to the xiaolóngbāo is the shengjianbao, also soup-filled but with a thicker dough and fried on the base for a crispy crunch.
Where to try it: Jiajia Tangbao, Shanghai.
Have a Hunan chili-spiked sweat-fest
Chilies are indispensable in the cuisine of Hunan province, and dishes have a habit of turning up all the flavors – salt, spice, sour, smoke – to 11. Duo lajiao (chopped pickled chilies) is the singular Hunan condiment, added liberally to stir-fries, stews, soup stocks, or, in the case of the province’s best-loved dish, simply dumped in a heap atop the steamed head of a carp. Hunan cuisine is food that will make you beg for mercy, weep for joy, but not be able to stop eating. Just order another beer to put out the flames.
Where to try it: Huǒgōngdiàn, Changsha.
Brunch on delectable dim sum (and tea)
The ultimate brunch feast, dim sum (also known as yum cha) is a parade of delicious small plate dishes, both sweet and savory, which are usually eaten for breakfast or lunch and always with tea. Hailing from Guangdong in southern China, a spread of dim sum might include barbecue-pork-filled buns (chashabao), shrimp dumplings (shuijing xiajiao), egg custard tarts (danta) and countless other treats. It’s the perfect food to enjoy in a group, as the more people you eat with the more dishes you can try.
Where to try it: Tao Tao Ju, Guangzhou.
Taste the exotic flavors of Yunnan province
China’s most ethnically diverse province draws on the flavors of its many minority groups – the Bai, Dai, Naxi and Yi to name just a few – along with influences from its southeast Asian neighbors, to forge a cuisine that feels unique even amid China’s endless culinary diversity. In Yunnan you can dine on everything from edible flowers, ferns and insects to rare mountain mushrooms and even fried goat cheese, all washed down with pu’er, a type of fermented tea once traded for Tibetan ponies along remote caravan trails.
Where to try it: Shípíng Huìguǎn, Kunming.
Ride your culinary camel to the old Silk Road
For centuries in China’s northwest, camel traders crossed the desert sands between China, Central Asia and Europe. These trade routes also facilitated the exchange of ingredients and cooking techniques, influencing the cuisine of the region. In Lanzhou, Hui Muslim chefs – the distant descendants of Arab and Persian merchants – twirl ribbons of chewy wheat noodles before serving them in beef broth. In Urumqi, you’ll find cumin-spiced lamb, rice pilaf, oven-baked flatbreads and matang – sticky cakes made from honey, nuts, and dried fruit.
Where to try it: Mazilu Beef Noodles, Lanzhou.
Find your carb nirvana in Xi’an
While rice reigns in China’s fertile south, further north it’s all about wheat, made into dumplings, steamed bread and best of all, noodles. The ancient walled capital of Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors, is also where you’ll find some of the best rib-sticking noodle dishes. Youpo chemian is one such dish, where chewy ribbons of flat noodles are hand-stretched and served with Shaanxi chili paste, dark vinegar and a splash (po) of hot oil (you), which tops the noodles along with bean sprouts, greens and braised pork. Simply mix and devour!
Where to try it: Tian Xia Di Yi Mian, Xi’an.
Toast your host at a Shandong banquet
Chinese food can be traditionally subdivided into the ‘Eight Great Cuisines’, with Lu cooking – the food from Shandong province – one of the most esteemed. Dishes like sweet and sour carp, braised sea cucumber and cuttlefish roe soup lend themselves to the banquet table and are often paired with baijiu, China’s best-loved booze distilled from grains like sorghum and used as the toast of business dinners and family gatherings. For something less potent, coastal Qingdao is the birthplace of Tsingtao, China’s most famous beer, which pairs wonderfully with the city’s signature stir-fried spicy clams.
Where to try it: Chengnan Wangshi, Ji’nan
Vegetarians and vegans
While finding dishes entirely free of animal products can be a challenge in China, the country has a 1000-year-plus tradition of Taoist and Buddhist philosophers who abstained from eating animals, which means you can often find vegetarian (sushi) restaurants near temples.
These places tend to serve ‘mock-meat’ fare made from tofu, wheat gluten, mushrooms and vegetables designed to look and taste like meat or fish dishes. This can be a rewarding foodie experience, but not necessarily appealing for vegetarians who neither crave meat nor want to be reminded of eating it. Fortunately, there are plenty of conventional vegetarian restaurants in the more international cities of Shanghai and Beijing.