- With 1.3 billion people and 56 ethnic groups, China has one of the most complex and diverse cuisines in the world.
- Dozens of different regional cuisines are drastically different from one another with different flavour profiles, ingredients, and cooking methods.
- On a recent six-week trip to China, I tried to eat as many different dishes in the country as possible, tasting everything from Peking Duck to Shaanxi fried squid.
I’m not ashamed to call myself a foodie. The term has become wildly overused, abused, and then derided in recent years, but I take it to mean someone who is genuinely interested in the world’s multivarious cuisines.
Think less latest brunch spot for avocado toast – though there’s nothing wrong with that – and more hole-in-the-wall family-run joint.
You can imagine, as I was planning a six-week trip to China to report on the tech industry and travel for Business Insider, the thing I was most excited for was the food.
Chinese food is considered to be one of the most complex and diverse cuisines in the world by chefs, food critics, and travellers. Americans, and the rest of the West, tend to think of China as one monolithic place, but the opposite is true. China is comprised of over 1.3 billion people, 23 provinces, 56 ethnic groups, and at least as many different cuisines. Libraries-worth of books have been written simply on China’s food.
Each cuisine has different flavour profiles, hallmark ingredients, and cooking methods. Sweet and sour is a common taste in Shanghainese cuisine, while Szechuan food is known for its extensive use of the numbing peppercorn of the same name. Steaming is extremely popular in Cantonese cuisine, while a number of western and northern regions boil dishes in a “hot pot.” As you can probably guess, none of those hot pots taste remotely similar.
The cuisine is so diverse and specific that it is not uncommon for a particular county or town to be famous for a single dish that is not made anywhere else in the country.
During my time in China, I tried to eat as widely as possible, eating the same dish twice only if absolutely necessary. Still, I found that I had barely scratched the surface.
Needless to say you, can forget about Americanized dishes like lo mein, General Tso’s chicken, and egg rolls, because those items have only a tangential relationship to actual Chinese food.
Here is everything I ate in six weeks in China:
I flew into Hong Kong in southeastern China. Hong Kong is known for having a robust street food scene. I started with a beef skewer cooked in chilli-garlic sauce. The vendor also sold more adventurous skewers like squid and pork intestines, but I was just getting warmed up.
Cantonese food (i.e. Hong Kong and neighbouring Guangdong province) is typically associated with siu mei, or rotisserie roast meats. This roast goose is marinated in soy-garlic sauce and served with peanuts. Its skin is crispy and the meat is juicy.
On the second day of my trip, I headed to Macau for the opening of the MGM Cotai, a swanky new casino-resort. At Five-Foot Road, I ate Szechuan cuisine, known for its spicy, garlicky flavours and the use of the numbing Szechuan peppercorn.
A classic Szechuan dish is dan dan mian, noodles in a spicy sauce of chilli oil, minced pork, and scallions. The numbing Szechuan peppercorn tingles on your tongue as you eat the noodles.
Next, I had lunch at Chun, a restaurant at MGM Cotai that takes classic Cantonese dishes and elevates them with modern twists. This fried shredded oyster mushroom was a house specialty. It was like the thinnest, crispiest onion rings I’ve ever had.
The highlight of the meal for me was this crispy-fried pork spare rib. It was covered in a batter and then dipped in honey and pepper. I’m still dreaming about this.
The meal ended with a high-end take on fried rice. It had duck liver and bits of Wagyu beef in it. It was very rich tasting, but without the oiliness that one usually gets in fried rice served at Chinese-American take-out joins.
When I returned to Hong Kong, I headed for a traditional Cantonese breakfast of congee with shredded salt pork and “century egg,” or egg preserved in clay and quicklime. The strong, salty, pungent egg is perfect with the bland congee. The dish is often served with fried dough sticks for dipping. It’s a heavy breakfast.
The next day, I headed to Sham Shui Po, a working class neighbourhood on the Kowloon peninsula, across the water from Hong Kong Island, to try a number of local specialties. The pineapple bun is a popular breakfast item. It’s called that because it looks like a pineapple, not because it tastes like one. It’s actually only made with sugar, eggs, butter, and lard.
It’s usually served with nai cha or milk tea, a combination of black tea and evaporated or condensed milk. It has a very sweet flavour. The drink is popular all over Asia as Hong Kong-style milk tea and is typically served at the city’s cha chaan teng, similar to “greasy spoon”-style diners in the West.
It’s often called “pantyhose tea” or “silk stocking tea” because of the large sackcloth bags used to filter the tea.
Another popular cheap breakfast is cheung fan, or Hong Kong-style rice noodle rolls. It is made of thin, wide strips of rice noodles covered in hoisin sauce, sesame sauce, and roasted sesame seeds. When served at dim sum, the dish often comes filled with beef, shrimp, or pork.
One of the most treasured Hong Kong specialties is “bamboo pole noodles,” called so named because they’re made with a centuries-old technique where the noodle-maker kneads the dough by balancing on a giant bamboo pole. The resulting thin noodles have a bouncy, elastic texture. It’s a dying art.
Pork and chives-filled dumplings are one of the most basic dumpling types in China. If you’ve ever eaten in a Chinatown, you’ve probably had the dish. In the Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong, many shops still make each dumpling by hand.
Hong Kongers love their sweets (though Asian-style desserts and snacks are far less sweet than European or American ones). Dou Fu Fa (sometimes spelled doufuhua) is a soft, silky tofu in a lightly sweet soup covered with ginger sugar. It’s served cold in the summer and lukewarm in the winter.
I finished up my Sham Shui Po tour by stopping at a family-run bakery for almond biscuits, a classic snack in Hong Kong and Macau. The cookies are small, round, and crumbly, but packed with a smooth, creamy flavour.
That night, I headed to Fook Lam Moon, one of the most famous restaurants in Hong Kong. It is often called “the cafeteria of the wealthy” for its rich and famous clientele. The meal started with the restaurant’s famous crispy pork belly and pork “char sui.” It was paired with a classic cold appetizer of wood ear mushrooms in a slightly sweet, tangy black vinegar sauce. Chinese cuisine has a wide range of liangcai, or cold dishes, which are served at the beginning of the meal to stimulate the appetite.
This baked crab shell was stuffed with crab meat from freshly shucked local flower crabs. It was also stuffed with onions and then topped with seasoned breadcrumbs. It’s like an ultra-luxurious version of a crab cake.
Fook Lam Moon’s most famous dish is the famous crispy chicken. It’s a classic Cantonese dish that is extremely difficult to do right. The perfect Cantonese crispy chicken was crispy paper-thin skin and juicy, tender meat. Fook Lam Moon does it right.
Next up was sauteed seasonal vegetables with crab roe. The asparagus was crunchy and al-dente (overcooked asparagus is awful) and large enough to pick up the delicate roe, which had a rich umami flavour and soupy texture.
I finished dinner with fried rice that was as classic Cantonese as it gets. It had plump shrimp, tender pieces of char sui pork, and rice that wasn’t oily. Fried rice is often served last in Chinese cuisine so you don’t ruin your appetite for seafood and meat.
If there’s one constant to Chinese cuisine (and one might say all Asian cuisines), it’s noodle soup. Just about every region has its own version. Hong Kong’s comes with braised beef brisket and “Hong Kong”-style noodles, which are very thin egg noodles.
Macanese food, or food from Macau, is dominated by Chinese and Portuguese influences, due to its colonial history. For this Macanese noodle soup, you choose the soup base and then a variety of toppings. I chose fish balls and Macanese fish.
After Hong Kong, I headed to Wulingyuan, a small mountain town in the southwest province of Hunan. The cuisine there is known for being dry and spicy with a liberal use of chilli peppers (but not Sichuan peppercorn), as well as numerous dried, cured, smoked, and preserved ingredients. Rice noodle soup, congee with preserved veggies, and a variety of side dishes like corn and shredded potatoes are a typical breakfast.
Braised beef over rice is a popular dish in a number of regional Chinese cuisines. The spicy Hunan version tastes very different from the Shanghainese version.
In Wulingyuan, a popular street food is skewered fish, veggies, and meat cooked over a grill. You simply pick which items you want, from squid to mushrooms, and they grill it up.
I went for shrimp, squid, green onions, and lamb. I also got a side of rice stir fried in a wok. Everything tasted hot, dry, spicy, and garlicky. This was one of my favourite meals in China.
One of China’s biggest ethnic minorities is the Tujia, who live in the Wuling mountains. Their cuisine, which I tried while staying in Wulingyuan, is marked by a mix of spicy and sour flavours. This fermented spicy tofu had a pungent, sour flavour. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but I found it addicting. The other dish is glass noodles topped with fish roe.
The Tujia restaurant recommended this dish of stir-fried shredded bamboo shoots and pork belly. It came in a sizzling pot and had a smoky, savoury flavour.
Stir-fried eggs and tomatoes is a common Chinese comfort food. Most regions have a version of it. Huangshi fried small fish is a dish of small anchovy-like white fish that have been battered and fried whole. It’s a tasty appetizer.
On my last morning in Wulingyuan, I had a Hunanese version of hot and sour sweet potato noodles with ground pork. The clear noodles were springy and chewy, with a totally different texture than most noodles I’ve ever had.
One of the most amazing things about China is that it’s pretty hard to come across bad food so long as you go to busy restaurants. I had this Szechuan spicy spare rib noodle soup at the airport in Zhangjiajie, a city in Hunan province.
One of the most famous dishes in Shanghainese cuisine is xiao long bao (literally “little dragon bun”). It’s a steamed dumpling filled with pork and soup. Jia Jia Tang Bao is one of the top places in Shanghai to get the dish.
The dish is traditionally served with slices of ginger and black Zhenjiang vinegar.
One variant on xiao long bao are crab-stuffed. Jia Jia Tang Bao’s crab soup dumplings had paper-skin thin and a ton of crab meat, but I found them too flimsy. The soup fell right out.
While roast pork and duck are typically Cantonese dishes, you can find them in most major Chinese cities. This lunch set came with pickled veggies, steamed bok choy, and clear broth. It’s very common for Chinese meals to have a soup included.
In Shanghai, I visited Hema Xiansheng, Alibaba’s grocery store of the future. It has a counter where you can select fresh seafood to be cooked in a variety of methods. I had spicy crab cooked with a number of dry spices, prawns cooked with chillis, and clams cooked with garlic and ginger. It was all very fresh.
While I generally avoid chain restaurants like the plague in the US due to their lower quality (in my opinion), they don’t have the same connotation in China. Restaurants in China usually become chains when they are high-quality. Case in point was Wu Fang Zhi, where I had this sweet and savoury meat casserole dish.
This was one of my favourite dishes in China, but I have to confess to not knowing where it’s from. It was white fish cooked in a spicy and sour soup. If a knowledgeable reader can identify it, I’ll update this.
I was in Shanghai for my birthday, but I was craving spicy food. This Sichuan fish dish is a production in itself. The fish is wrapped in paper and steamed whole in chilli oil. When it’s finished, you add the veggies.
Before leaving Shanghai, I had to have more soup dumplings. Funny enough, the best ones I had were by Din Tai Fung, a highly-regarded Taiwanese chain.
The restaurant specialises in varieties of xiao long bao. These black truffle pork soup dumplings, while not traditional, were unreal.
When I got to Beijing, I made a beeline for Siji Minfu, a restaurant that specialises in Peking Duck. While it’s a newer restaurant and the wait can sometimes be two hours long, it’s a place more popular with locals than tourists. It lives up to the hype.
I started off with fried honey prawns. They were huge and juicy and lightly battered with a honey glaze.
The ducks are cooked in brick ovens over fruit wood in back, then a chef prepares the duck in front of your table. It’s fun dinner theatre.
The duck did not disappoint. Peking Duck is all about the thin crispy skin. When done right, it practically melts in your mouth. This was actually the second course, when the majority of the duck meat was served with spring onions, cucumbers, sweet bean sauce and pancakes. The first course was just crispy skin dipped in sugar and garlic sauce.
After the main duck course, a soup made from the duck bones is served with vermicelli noodles and cabbage. It’s a bit milky and salty.
A classic Beijing street food is jianbing, a type of egg crepe pancake. It’s made of a flour and egg batter that’s topped with fried crackers, pickles, sauces, and a meat filling. It is an explosion of sweet, savoury, and salty flavours with a mix of soft and crunchy textures.
One of the top dishes in Dongbei cuisine, or food from northeastern China, is yutou paobing (fish head stew). It is cooked in a brown, savoury, sweet gravy and served with thin, crispy pancakes. Dongbei cuisine takes influences from Manchuria, as well as nearby Beijing and Shandong province.
Szechuan cuisine is very popular in all regions of China these days. It’s a trendy option for eating out. In Beijing, I had the classic Szechuan dish of fish fillet in spicy chilli oil. If you can’t handle spicy in the US, don’t expect to be able to handle spicy in China.
Another popular Szechuan dish is stir-fried seafood with peppers. This was packed with squid and octopus. Seafood is a major part of a lot of Chinese cuisines.
From Beijing I took a bullet train to Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in central China. As the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, food from Xi’an uses a ton of spices. One of the most popular dishes are meat and seafood skewers covered in cumin, chilli powder, and a bunch of other spices. The flavour is addicting.
Shaanxi food is best known for lamb and pork. This lamb chop was covered in Shaanxi spices and cooked on a charcoal grill.
But you can also get chicken wings cooked on a skewer.
Or potatoes and beef …
… or spicy peppers.
It’s often served with bing, or Xi’an flat bread. But don’t expect much of a breather from the spices. The bing, which comes toasty from the oven at a skewer restaurant, is covered in them, too.
One of the most popular attractions in Xi’an is the Muslim Quarter, where street vendors sell all kinds of foods. There you’ll find tons of street vendors selling food covered in the spice mix. You could also just buy a container for yourself.
I got a whole panfried squid covered in the cumin/chilli spice.
Grilled tofu with Xi’an spices and spring onions is another popular street food in the Muslim Quarter.
After a few too many spicy dishes, I needed to cool down my taste buds. Zeng Gao, a traditional sweet breakfast dish made from steamed glutinous rice and Chinese dates, did the trick.
I certainly wasn’t hungry after all the street food, but I had to try this fried pastry puff filled with sweet beans. It had just come out of the fryer.
Shaanxi cuisine’s most iconic dish is biang biang noodles. It’s extremely long, thick, hand-pulled noodles topped with chilli, pork, and then a variety of vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and greens.
One variant on the dish is Bo Cai Mian, or spinach noodles with biang biang toppings. I preferred this one. The noodles were a bit more al dente and not as unwieldy to eat.
This dish is steamed oysters cooked in ginger, garlic, and green onions. It seemed to be popular in a number of places I visited in China.
A similar dish is made with scallops and topped with vermicelli noodles. It has a very similar flavour profile. The zesty garlic really made both dishes stand out.
One morning I ate at a street food vendor where all the locals seemed to be eating at for breakfast. It was a set meal where you pick a few items. I went for the shredded potato, braised chicken leg, and tofu.
If you haven’t gotten the picture yet, Shaanxi cuisine is renowned for its many types of noodles. This goat noodle soup might have been my favourite. It’s made with long, hand-pulled, spaghetti-like noodles with a spicy meat broth and boneless goat meat.
While Xi’an is known for Shaanxi food, it is a city of 12 million people, so you can find a lot of different Chinese cuisines there. This mala crawfish boil is a Szechuan dish. It’s numbing and spicy and cooked in Szechuan peppercorns and dried chiles.
After Xi’an I headed to Zhangye in the central Chinese province of Gansu. Lanzhou cuisine is heavily influenced by the majority-Muslim Hui people and features a lot of beef and mutton. But there’s also plenty of Szechuan food since the provinces neighbour each other. Here I had braised pork in chilli oil with tofu strips and thick noodles, beef ribs with chilli and spring onions, and spicy and sour preserved fish.
A dish famous in Zhangye is Miao chicken stewed rolls, or braised chicken with mushrooms, peppers, and “flat noodle rolls.” It tasted as though it was cooked with spicy oil and cinnamon, a very unique flavour.
Another interesting dish was this lamb cooked on a griddle at the table with spring onions. I was scraping the last bits off the grill.
While I was travelling to Zhengzhou, the capital of east-central Henan province, I stopped for an ice cream at a road stop. This ice cream, which was flavored with red beans and green mung beans, tasted … interesting — mealy and not too sweet. I wish I had chocolate instead.
One dish I missed in Shanghai was sheng jian bao, small pan-fried buns. They are filled with pork and a gelatin that turns to soup when heated. They have a thicker skin than soup dumplings and crispy on the bottom. I found them at a restaurant in Zhengzhou.
My last stop in China was Shenzhen in southern China. Due to its proximity to Hong Kong, both cities serve Cantonese food. On my first day in Shenzhen, I got a selection of roast meats, including chicken, pork, and duck.
Shenzhen is a great place to try Cantonese dim sum, the Chinese version of brunch with small bite-sized dishes served with tea. A few of my favourite dim sum dishes are (from left) shrimp siu mai, steamed pork buns, and ribs in black bean sauce.
Stewed chicken feet are a dim sum favourite. The feet are deep fried, braised in a garlicky, sweet sauce, and then steamed. Eat the feet by sucking the tender, soft skin off the bone and discarding the bones as you go.
On my last day in Shenzhen, I headed to the Dongmen street food market. It’s packed with vendors selling every kind of Chinese food — a perfect place to end my trip in China.
I started with an order of these sweet braised pork ribs and tail: chewy, garlicky, savoury, and sweet.
I had never seen this egg-wrapped sausage topped with chilli oil and green onions before, but it was tasty.
Next up was one last grilled octopus tentacle. It had a spicy flavour that was a bit milder and simpler than the Shaanxi cumin-chilli spice mix.
I had one last taste of the garlic-ginger-onion steamed oysters. These are like sensory overload on your taste buds, the complete opposite of how we eat oysters in the US.
Chinese cuisines really don’t eat oysters raw. My last dish in China was this quintessential Taiwanese street food — an oyster, egg, chives, and glutinous rice cake. It’s pan-fried.
Even after six weeks in China, travelling all over the country and eating every dish I had time to try, I feel like I only scratched the surface of what the cuisine has to offer. It’s mind-blowing how deep and varied the culinary scene is. Until next time, China.
Dear readers: If I got any names wrong, or you have more info I should add about a particular dish, please email me.
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