The essential guide to Chinese cuisine

Baozi, photo by Leon Brocard

Every self-respecting foodie-traveler with an interest in China has probably heard about bizarre and interesting dishes like the bird’s nest soup, snake meat or thousand year old eggs, mostly because for a Western palate some of these delicacies are a bit too…adventurous. But what about the basic needs of a tourist who goes to China for the first time? What culinary delights are to be expected? It’s a well known fact that Chinese fast foods and restaurants outside of China often tweak their menus to appeal to more traditional tastes, but in China you get the chance to experience authentic local cuisine. If you are curious about what awaits your taste-buds and you want to make sure that you order something that the Chinese eat day to day (and therefore confirmed to be tasty), here’s an essential guide to Chinese cuisine.

Noodles

Noodles are one of the staples of Chinese cuisine, but this simple word can’t even begin to express the complicated business of making and cooking noodles in China. There are literally hundreds of regional varieties, with different sizes, shapes, ingredients and methods of preparation. As a rule, mian (or mein) noodles are made of wheat, while fan (or fun) noodles are made with rice flour, mung bean starch or other starches. They can be pulled, cut, peeled or kneaded, boiled, deep-fried or stir fried. Noodles served in simple flavored broth, or stir fried with vegetables and/or meat are the safest choice for someone who is not used to Chinese cuisine yet.

Dumplings

Chow Mein, photo by Rex Roof

Dumplings are another essential dish that can be found on many Chinese menus, and which people enjoy every day. Dumplings are just as varied as noodles, and can be found in different shapes and sizes. Jiaozi, steamed or boiled dumplings made of thin dough filled with meat or vegetables. Wonton dumplings, similar to jiaozi, are often served in soup or fried. Xiaolongbao, a type of steamed dumplings, are very popular in Shanghai and Wuxi. Baozi and mantou are bun-like steamed dumplings that tend to be larger and filled with all sorts of mixtures.

Meat dishes

While vegetarian dishes are also a considerable part of Chinese cuisinE (lo han jai, or Buddha’s delight is really popular), the meat dishes definitely rule supreme. Pork and chicken are by far the most widespread ingredients, and most often they are made into stews or marinated dishes served with rice or noodles. Sweet and sour pork, twice cooked pork and dongpo pork are very popular with both locals and foreigners. Kung Pao chicken and Peking duck are two of the most widely known poultry dishes, but of course there are many more – even the feared chicken feet are a popular street food in fact!

Desserts

Mooncake, photo by Jimmie on Flickr

Those who have a sweet tooth will not have to miss any sugary treats while in China, as there is quite an interesting selection of desserts in Chinese cuisine. Although some sweets like the mooncake are available only at festival times, you can still find them in some shops and restaurants. Gao are glutinous rice treats with different shapes and flavors, and other than that, shaved ice desserts and jellies are also eaten with great relish.

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