Curious to know what real, traditional Chinese food looks like?
This isn’t that imitation Chinese you get from the 24-hour buffet around the corner from your apartment. I lived and traveled in China for ten months and got to experience the real deal, local cuisine of the cities and villages. These are 12 of my favorite traditional Chinese foods!
1. Spinach Noodles (bō cài miàn)
Xi’an, in central China, is known for its noodles, and every self-respecting noodle joint in the city makes their noodles from scratch. This traditional Chinese food dish includes noodles made from spinach, then topped with whatever ingredients your heart desires. The above serving has a spicy tomato-like sauce and is topped with egg, potato, carrots, beef and chili.
2. Fried Mashi (chǎo má shi)
It’s easy to find fried rice and fried noodles anywhere in the world. This 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. BBQ Meat (kǎo ròu)
Kǎo ròu is the standard serving of meat in China and might be one of the most well known traditional Chinese foods 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 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)
Liáng cài, 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 (chòu dòu fu)
It smells worse than it looks and it actually tastes better than it smells! Stinky tofu 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 traditional Chinese dish actually ain’t half bad.
6. Dumplings (jiǎo zi)
Another one of the most well-known of traditional Chinese foods, this is your classic dumpling, often filled with beef, pork or veggies. They can come steamed or fried and, man, do they taste good. The locals dip their dumplings in black vinegar mixed with a chili sauce, which adds a unique bitter, sweet and spicy flavor.
7. Mutton Stew (yáng ròu pào mó)
Pào mó 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 (ròu jiā mó)
This 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, it is a tasty treat. It’s a homemade, stone-oven cooked bun with juicy, seasoned 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 Mixed Tofu and Pineapple Aloe Vera (liáng bàn dòu fu and bō luó lú huì)
Seen here is a giant brick of tofu (I know, right?) 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. It’s sweet and mushy, which I couldn’t enjoy, but the sugary pineapple underneath was a nice nosh!
10. Yak Meat Dumplings (mómo)
Though not a traditional Chinese food in mainland China, mómo 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 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. Sweet and Sour Eggplant (yú xīang qié zi)
Though I never enjoyed eggplant at home, it quickly became one of my favorite traditional Chinese foods. This is a bowl of sliced eggplant that tastes more like sweet and sour pork than a vegetable. A little bit of chili and fish sauce (or a lot) can go a long way!
12. Beef Noodles (niú ròu miàn)
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 it’s the most traditional Chinese food 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.
Traditional Chinese recipes are very different from the Chinese food 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. That being said, with the uprising of gourmet and artisanal restaurants, many Chinese food 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!