Curious to know what real, traditional Chinese food looks like?
This isn’t that imitation Chinese food you get from the 24-hour Chinese restaurants around the corner from your apartment. I lived and traveled in China for ten months and lived off the real deal, local Chinese cuisine of the cities and villages.
Trust me, there’s more to Chinese cuisine than Dim Sum and Kung Pao Chicken. Once you taste authentic Chinese food, you’ll never want to eat from the food court in the mall again.
These are 15 of my favorite traditional Chinese foods!
1. Spinach Noodles
This dish, known as bō cài miàn (菠菜面) in Chinese, includes handmade noodles from spinach, topped with whatever ingredients your heart desires.
Xi’an, in central China, is known for its noodles, and every self-respecting noodle joint in the city makes their noodles from scratch.
The above serving has a spicy tomato-like sauce and is topped with egg, potato, carrots, beef and chili.
2. Stir-Fried Shaanxi Pasta
It’s easy to find fried rice and fried noodles anywhere in the world. Chǎo má shi (炒麻食) a gnocchi-lookalike, though, is quite different. It’s a little bit sweet, but it’s hot and hearty.
The additional crunchy vegetables provide a delicious juxtaposition next to the soft thickness of the má shi.
3. Barbecue Street Meat Kebabs
Kǎo ròu (烤肉) is the standard serving of meat in China and might be one of the most well known Chinese dishes available. They are heavily spiced and come from both restaurants and street carts alike.
Often cooked over burning coal, these sticks of meat come in many variations. You might find braised pork, lamb, beef, chicken, or even the gizzards and other weird stuff no westerner would happily stick in their mouth.
And yes, I’ve seen tentacles hanging out of peoples’ mouths.
4. Cold Vegetable Dish
Liáng cài (凉菜), which literally translates to “cold dish,” is an assortment of vegetables, tofu and peanuts, served with a marinade or sauce.
The usual suspects are green beans, cucumbers, lotus root and cabbage, amongst a brilliant assortment of whatever else the house thinks bests suits the dish!
5. Stinky Tofu
It smells worse than it looks and it actually tastes better than it smells!
Stinky tofu, aka chòu dòufu (臭豆腐) is often the culprit when entire sidewalks full of people are choked out as they are engulfed in a thick haze of stench. With enough of the right seasoning (you can see they use a lot), this Chinese dish actually ain’t half bad.
Another one of the most well-known Chinese dishes, this is your classic dumpling (jiǎo zi or 饺子), often filled with beef, pork, shrimp or veggies—but never chicken! They can come steamed or fried and, man, do they taste good. Even though they are regarded as a staple of dim sum—which is local to southern China—dumplings are found all over the country.
My favorite way to enjoy these was by dipping them in black vinegar mixed with a chili sauce, which adds a unique bitter, sweet and spicy flavor. In the U.S., standard practice is to dip in soy sauce, but not in China!
7. Mutton & Bread Stew
Yáng ròu pào mó (羊肉泡馍) is a traditional dish of the Xi’an people. Seen here is pào mó served with mutton, though it can also come with pork or beef. Instead of noodles, this stew uses bits of unleavened bread, which soaks up the rich flavor. It’s served with chili sauce and pickled garlic on the side, meant for eating on its own, alongside the stew.
It compliments the flavors, and wards off evil spirits in the process.
8. Chinese Hamburger
The ròu jiā mó (肉夹馍) is the Chinese answer to a western hamburger, though, as a burger aficionado, I take serious issue with the fact that anybody would even call this one. That being said, these rolls are tasty treats.
It’s a homemade, stone-oven cooked bun with juicy braised pork on the inside. The pork is left to cook overnight in a large pot of spices like cardamom and cloves, and by morning, the meat would fall right apart. We called them “ro-ji’s” for short!
9. Cold Tofu and Pineapple Aloe Vera
Seen here is a giant brick of tofu (I know, right?) known as liáng bàn dòufu (凉拌豆腐) which is sitting in a mixed sauce of oil, chili and sesame (among other unknown flavors), topped with green veggies.
The bizarre dish behind it is a serving of pineapple and aloe vera….the very same aloe vera you use to treat a sunburn. Known as bōluó lúhuì (菠萝芦荟), it’s sweet and mushy, which I couldn’t enjoy, but the sugary pineapple underneath was a nice nosh!
10. Yak Meat Dumplings
Though not a traditional food of China, mómo (饃饃) are common in Tibet and Western China. There is conflict over the territory of Tibet, but I did eat these in the People’s Republic of China, so they made the list.
These dumplings rolls were filled with juicy yak meat that burst in my mouth when I bit down. This, here, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten in my life.
And I’ve eaten a lot. About three times every day since I was born, in fact.
11. Sichuan Eggplant
Though I never enjoyed eggplant at home, it quickly became my favorite food in China! Yú xīang qié zi (鱼香茄子) is is a bowl of stir-fried eggplant that tastes more like sweet and sour pork than a vegetable. A little bit of chili and fish sauce can go a long way!
12. Beef Noodles
Beef noodles are a personal favorite, and they can be found in almost every restaurant or household in China. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that niú ròu miàn (牛肉面) is the most traditional Chinese dish there is.
Each restaurant prepares their noodles differently, so eating the same thing never gets boring. Seen here are homemade noodles, topped with a shredded beef and vegetable mixture from one of my favorite local Chinese restaurants in Xi’an.
13. Peking Duck
Just thinking about thin crispy duck skin is enough to make my mouth water.
Originally from Beijing, Peking Duck—Běijīng kǎoyā (北京烤鴨)—is a staple dish of Chinese cuisine. The ducks cooked in an open-air oven for over 24 hours before being served with steamed rolls, spring onions and sweet bean sauce.
If you’re in Beijing, you can expect to wait several hours just to be served at a peking duck restaurant. But having the succulent Peking Duck sliced and served directly at your table is absolutely worth the wait.
14. Phoenix Tail Shrimp
Get your fried food fix with a taste of freshly battered Phoenix Tail Shrimp.
An Anhui specialty, this crispy shrimp dish known as fèngwěi xiāpái (凤尾虾排) is usually eaten as a snack or appetizer. The shrimp is battered with flour and spices before being fried with their tails intact. When the shrimp is served, this delicious China food resembles the tail of a mythical Phoenix, hence the name.
15. Fried Rice
No list of Chinese cuisine would be complete with one of the most classic Chinese dishes of all time—fried rice (chǎofàn or 炒饭).
Although the main ingredients are the same, different regions of China produce different versions of fried rice. Sichuan rice is served with a spicy chili sauce, Canton rice is topped with gravy, and ying-yang rice is made with tomato sauce.
And I love the shrimp in Yangzhou rice. Made with both barbecue pork and shrimp, this version is the most popular type of fried rice in China.
The funny part, though, is that you won’t typically find chicken friend rice in China, which is a popular Chinese food in the States!
Traditional Chinese recipes are very different from the Chinese cuisine you might be used to. Western countries have, unfortunately, changed the cuisine, and turned it into something more akin to a greasy, late-night snack.
Dishes like General Tso Chicken are Americanized versions of Chinese cuisine and have almost no correlation to the Chinese culture whatsoever.
That being said, with the uprising of gourmet and artisanal restaurants, many Chinese menus are turning into something more representative of the authentic experience.
If you ever get a chance to experience traditional Chinese food, I highly recommend you try it!
What’s your favorite Chinese food? Let us know in the comments below!