Compiling this list has made me so hungry as I think about all the wonderful food memories of growing up in China. If you’re planning a trip to China or have an authentic Chinese restaurant near you like we do in Greensboro (Hometown Delicious), these are my recommendations for the best traditional dishes to order. I’m sure many of you have had Westernized Chinese food in the past, but I’m sharing this so you’ll know that things like eggrolls, crab rangoon and General Tso’s Chicken (though delicious) are not a true representation of authentic Chinese cuisine.
Hot Pot (huŏguō)
This smorgasbord of food is set before you to cook in your own hot pot of boiling broth. You can add whatever meat and vegetables you desire and adjust the spice level to your liking. Beware that the sauces and oils can be VERY spicy. You can choose to omit the spicy ingredients if you don’t want to be crying while you’re eating.
Lamb Skewers (Yang Rou Chuar)
You’ll find street vendors throughout China, and many of them selling kabobs are Uyghurs. Since many are Muslim and do not eat pork, they use lamb and chicken for their perfectly seasoned kabobs. In the city where I grew up (Taiyuan), there are whole restaurants that center on perfecting these lamb kabobs and they also serve an amazing mutton soup!
Steamed dumplings (Jiaozi)
One of the staples of every Chinese home! This was one of the first things we were taught how to make when we began our lives in China. Unlike the pre-made dough wrappers you can easily find in the US, the Chinese way is to make their own dough and roll out each circle by hand, then meticulously fill (usually with pork and leeks/green onions) and form each dumpling. They are served with a black vinegar that makes for the perfect combination of flavors.
Bread-like Dumpling (Bao zi)
You may have seen bao restaurants popping up in the US, and they are based on the concept of Bao zi, which is a bready dumpling. It’s similar to Jiaozi, but it’s much thicker and more filling. While I could probably eat about 10-15 Jiaozi for a meal, I’d get full after only 2-3 Bao Zi because of how dense they are. They are usually filled with meat and sometimes vegetables.
Lotus Root Stir Fry (lián ǒu)
Lotus root is something that I think many Americans may not be familiar with because it’s not readily available here. It’s the circular, beige colored root of the lotus flower. As you can see pictured below, it has a unique shape with holes in it. Aside from its clean flavor, I also love is the numerous health benefits of this root. You can find it in many stir fry dishes, and it takes on spicy flavors without being overwhelming.
Street Food Breakfast Pancake (Beijing Jianbing)
Definitely a must try if you’re in China (can also be found in some major US cities as well now). One of my favorite parts is watching them being made! As you can see, they spread out the batter and add a variety of things like eggs, scallions, crackers, meat, and spices, then fold over and add sauces. The end product is below and I can personally vouch for how tasty they are. Maybe not your normal idea of breakfast, but I’m a fan.
Peking Duck (Běi jīng kǎo yā)
The roasted duck is cut into small pieces, and the traditional way to eat it is put into the small pancake with the Hoisin sauce, cucumbers, white onion, and garlic. The tender duck melts in your mouth and this is a great dish to order if you don’t like spicy food because it’s not spicy at all, just filled with flavor.
Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes (fān qié chǎo dàn)
This is my breakfast plate from my most recent trip to China in 2017. At the top, you’ll see a Bao zi, and on the right is the traditional scrambled eggs with tomatoes. This is such a soothing dish for me as I grew up eating this almost every week. The acidity of the tomatoes pairs so well with the eggs and it’s a nice inexpensive option that is often served as a main dish instead of just a side.
Spicy Tofu (Ma La Dou Fu)
My brother travels to China regularly for work, and he describes “Ma la” this way: It is a common way to prepare dishes in China – anything from tofu to seared shrimp, chicken or fish. It is two complementary flavors, the second “la” being a spicy flavor, but it is the “ma” flavor that is difficult to find in the US. It can only be described as a numbing sensation on your tongue, and when combined with the spiciness of red pepper, complements it perfectly.
Thanks for joining me on this culinary adventure through my favorite Chinese dishes. Let me know if you’ve tried any of these or which one you would want to try!
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