So you’re traveling to China. You’re probably wondering, what do people eat in China? They can’t possibly eat the same items I pick up from my neighborhood Chinese restaurant in those cute little take out boxes. It is true that many of the foods in China are very different from what we are used to getting at home. (Though surprisingly, orange chicken is actually an authentic Chinese dish, but so much better in China than that gooey sweet stuff we have at home.) Through a lot of research, some great food tours in China, and a little bit of happenstance, we ate the following 10 top foods to try when traveling in China.
Xiaolongbao Soup Dumplings (小笼包)
Xiaolongbao are the Shanghai version of soup dumplings. Xiaolongbao are smaller and more delicate than other varieties of soup dumplings and are enjoyed for breakfast. Soup dumplings are made by wrapping a cube of solidified meat stock and meat into a thin delicate dumpling wrapper, pinching the top, and then steaming them in traditional bamboo steam baskets. Soup dumplings can be purchased at multiple places along the streets of Shanghai. To eat soup dumplings, take a small bite of the bottom, cool it down by blowing into the hole you created, dip into or pour vinegar over the top, pop into your mouth, and enjoy. Dumplings in China are served with the vinegar that tastes best with that particular type of dumpling.
Jianbing is both a popular breakfast treat and evening snack. The first time I saw jianbing being made it looked far too rich and filling for my taste. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Luckily, during our shanghai breakfast food tour our guide convinced us to try this burrito looking treat. Jianbing is a typical snack found in the western regions such as the Hunan province. The making of jianbing is a multi-step process. First batter is poured on a hot surface to create a large thin crepe. An egg is cracked onto the crepe while it is still cooking, quickly scrambled, and spread over the crepe. Pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and green onions are sprinkled over the top, after which the crepe is loosened from the hot cooking surface and folded in half. Fermented bean paste is spread over the top followed by a sprinkling of dried chilis. A fried wonton sheet is broken in half and placed on top, and then the jianbing is rolled up and cut in half. For having so many ingredients, jianbing is surprisingly light and the flavor combination is not to be missed.
Peking Duck (北京烤鸭)
Beijing is the capital of China and sometimes called Peking. Beijing or Peking is where the famous Peking duck originates. You simply haven’t experienced Beijing unless you have partaken in a Peking duck dinner. Peking duck in some form has been a staple in imperial cuisine since the 1300s and became what it is today during the Ming Dynasty. A meal of Peking duck is very ritualistic. The crispy roasted whole duck is presented to diners before being expertly carved and sliced tableside. The thin slices of meat, always with the crisp skin, are placed onto round thin pancakes along with julienned cucumbers, scallions, and hoisin sauce, rolled up, and eaten. One of the most famous places to dine on Peking duck in Beijing is Quanjude, a restaurant that is over 150 years old. The flagship restaurant is near Qianmen Square, but while hiking the Great wall of China our guide suggested the Hepingman location (reached by taking metro line 2 to the Hepingman station and exiting at C2). While dining at Quanjude does not require formal attire, it is a very formal experience. Our waitress helped us choose our accompaniments and side dishes and demonstrated for us how to properly assemble and eat our Peking duck.
Imperial Cuisine (御膳)
Peking duck is not the only type of imperial cuisine that can still be experienced in China. There are restaurants devoted to serving Imperial cuisine in high style. Imperial cuisine consists of a variety of dishes that were cooked in the Emperors’ kitchens. As there is so much good and inexpensive food throughout China, I wouldn’t suggest dining out on imperial cuisine often during your travels to China, but it is a niche of traditional food in China that should be experienced. We experienced imperial cuisine in Beijing at Tiandi Yijia, a restaurant in the shadows of the Forbidden City. Tiandi Yijia has traditional carved furniture, ornamental trees, and a central water feature. Imperial cuisine dishes include items like foie gras with sake and sea cucumber.
Chinese Hot Pot (火锅)
Hot pot is a meal probably more familiar and comfortable to travelers. Most of us can find hot pot in our home towns, and it is also somewhat similar to that 70s fad, fondue. Hot pot restaurants are very modern and hi-tech, many times found in Chinese shopping malls. None of this should downplay the importance of hot pot to Chinese food history. Chinese hot pot has been around for more than 1,000 years and is believed to have originated in Mongolia. Chinese hot pot consists of a pot of stock, which can be basic or kicked up a notch with spices and other ingredients. On the side are served thinly sliced raw meats, vegetables, noodles, and pretty much anything else you can think of that can be dumped into a bubbling pot of steaming broth. We had our Chinese hot pot experience at a hot pot restaurant in Hongyi Plaza near Shanghai’s Bund. The wait was incredibly long, so we knew we were in for a treat. At each table was an electronic tablet where diners place their orders for the flavor(s) of broth they want plus all of their accoutrements. There were pictures but everything was in Chinese characters. Luckily one busser spoke excellent English and walked us through the process. Within minutes we were ordering our meats, veggies, and beverages like pros. Hot pot is pretty much all you can eat for a certain price within a certain time limit, with a few different levels of pricing from which to choose, so come hungry.
Hairy Crab (大閘蟹)
Unfortunately hairy crab isn’t something that can be eaten in China year-round, but if you travel to China during hairy crab season, you are in for a real treat. Hairy crabs are in season in autumn and are prevalent throughout Shanghai. Hairy crab can be eaten plain. We dove into a hairy crab in the ancient water town of Qibao within greater Shanghai, cracking into its shell and biting the legs with our teeth to fish out the tiniest of morsels of crab meat. If you don’t want to do all the work, restaurants also serve dishes featuring hairy crab. One of the best meals we ate in Shanghai was at Hai Jinzi (240 Jinxian Lu near Shaanxi Nan Lu). It’s a place where you walk in, give your order to the lady at the counter who is probably also the owner and who doesn’t speak English (one of our shanghai sidecar tour guides helped us place our order), and give her your phone number so she can call you when your food and seat are ready since there is no place to wait inside. Diners sit at communal tables, shyly smiling at each other as they dig into their feasts. Hai Jinzi’s signature dish is xiefen dan (蟹粉蛋), scrambled eggs with hairy crab roe. This dish is a delicacy, with a sweetness from the crab, and is crazy good. I have also heard tale that hairy crabs are sold in vending machines, though we sadly did not come across this sight. We did however see them being sold in the Shanghai airport, tied up with twine. Tempted as I was, I’m pretty sure live hairy crab wouldn’t have made it through customs.
Chinese Egg Tart (蛋挞)
When you think of Chinese food, you probably don’t really think of many desserts, except for maybe fortune cookies, which aren’t Chinese at all. However, there is a signature Chinese dessert, the egg tart. This little pastry actually originates in Portugal. The Portuguese egg tart is called pastel denata and is a palm-sized dessert consisting of a flaky crust filled with a sweet and smooth egg based custard. Pastéis de nata were introduced into China when Macau was under the rule of the Portuguese government. These egg tarts are so popular in China they are even sold at KFC, the most popular fast food chain in China. The very best Chinese egg tarts are found at Lillian Bakery. There are a few Lillian Bakery locations in Shanghai, but the best is found in the 10 South Shaanxi Road metro station.
Street Food from a Cart
When walking along the streets of China you will probably run into a food cart or two. Inside the Forbidden Palace we encountered a number of roaming vendors selling snacks, including bingtanghulu. Bingtanghulu is a traditional Chinese snack originating from northern China made with candied fruit. Our snack was made with round red fruit called hawthorn or hawberry. Six hawthorn were skewered on a bamboo stick, completely coated with a sugar syrup, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The result is sweet crunchiness on the outside and a somewhat tart fruit interior. Hawthorn bingtanghulu take a little getting used, but are quite good. Be sure to take a good look at the fruit before purchasing, because we did meet some fellow travelers who had a bad hawthorn fruit on a stick experience because their fruit had gone bad. Other street snacks being sold from Chinese food carts include hot sweet potatoes and roasted chestnuts.
Beijing Yogurt (北京酸奶)
Before we traveled to China I would never have thought of yogurt as a popular food to eat in China. But in fact Beijing yogurt (suannai) is a traditional snack seen all over the city. Beijing yogurt is sold at food stands and stores and is served in ceramic jars topped with paper secured by a rubber band. Beijing yogurt is consumed by drinking it with a straw rather than eating it with a spoon and is of a more liquid texture than what we are used to in the United States. The thin consistency of the yogurt makes it a very refreshing snack. Beijing yogurt is served warm or cold, so be sure to choose the temperature you think you will like best. The ceramic jar should be returned to the vendor after enjoying this snack.
If you’re looking for weird foods in China, look no further than the scorpions and other bugs of Wangfujing snack street in Beijin. It might come as a shock to some visitors walking down the street to see scorpions wriggling on sticks and other skewered crunchy creatures such as seahorses, starfish, dung beetles, and grasshoppers. The Chinese have been eating these delicacies for centuries, and some of them are supposed to even provide medicinal benefits. Bug-kabobs are made to order. The skewers are dropped into the boiling oil and fried for a couple minutes before being pulled out and seasoned with a mixture of spices. The result is a stick of crunchy, spicy goodness, as long as you don’t think too hard about what you’re eating. I did stick with the small scorpions, as the big fat black scorpions were a bit much for my first time.