A beginner’s guide to the rich culinary cultures of China
Originally published on my Medium account.
China, home to innumerable types of food, well or little known to the Chinese people or the outside world. Before you go to China, many must have told you that the food over there is very different from the food in your local Chinese restaurant down the street.
A scene from How I Met Your Mother:
If you’re one of those people who only had fried meat, fried rice, and fried noodles as Chinese food, you will read this article, and you will be amazed by the food in China. And hopefully, you will think about going to China and try the real deals over there.
I have to admit, there are good localised Chinese cuisine in Europe (or at least in Germany). But they are transculturalizeld (I will explain in detail in another article), which means that because of the availability and quality of the ingredients and cooking methods, even the flavour of the dish created by the same person varies depending on where it’s cooked. A local cuisine is a signature for a place. This is the reason. It’s like the Little Mermaid statue being displayed in Shanghai in 2010 — it’s beautiful and everything but I don’t think the little mermaid looks really content sitting in a temporary pavilion of Denmark. Honestly she looked even more sad. Perhaps she just missed home.
I didn’t go to the Denmark Pavilion in Shanghai Expo just to see the Little Mermaid (actually it was my only intention. I mean, what else was in there?!) But I will gladly see her again when I really go to Copenhagen, to her hometown and watch her being sad over there (for a real romantic reason, not because she was missing home!) Same logic applies to those of you who believe you already had the best Chinese food outside of China. Yes, they might be good. But go to see where the food come from and the people who enjoy the food as part of their lives. It’s another exciting reason to go traveling to a strange land.
Depending on where you are going, there are several regional dishes I would recommend for you to try. I just give you my own opinion on what’s fantastic about the unbelievably rich food cultures in the country. (YES, I used “cultures”. Plural.)
It’s a very difficult decision for me to recommend only 10 dishes/food to you in china. There are just too many of them. but if you don’t know where you will go visit yet, this list might give you some idea for planning your first china trip… for food!
The food on this list are all typical for several different regions. Of course you can find them in other regions too, especially if they are very famous, like Peking duck and hotpot. But just remember, if you can go to the home of this food, you don’t just eat it at the neighbour’s.
Kimchi, pork belly cooked with glass noodles in a pot
The cuisine in the northeast in some aspects is similar to Korean food. Such as the food with kimchi in them.
Because of its cold climate and long winter, it was difficult to get fresh vegetables in the old times. People used to preserve their Chinese cabbage and some other veggies into kimchi, or sour vegetables in Chinese. They used these kimchi to create their dishes.
Kimchi with port and glass-noodles in water. Cooked for at least an hour, until the pork absorbed the flavour of kimchi completely in its every tissue. The dish has a lot of intense but also comforting flavour, as well as a lot of calories for you to survive the winter that easily goes down to -30 degrees.
The best and real Peking duck is first sliced into small pieces, and served with green and white spring onion stripes in very thin pancakes (unlike in many transculturalizeld version, where they are served with rice or normal white bread). The most interesting experience to eat Peking duck in Peking (Beijing) is to watch the cook slicing the duck in front of you as a performance. The knife work is just amazing.
Red chilli noodle skins
Home to the middle-north of China, this dish is famous for it’s taste for every season. Noodles are first made and then steamed. Together with especially made red chilli sauce containing ten different types of herbs, the noodle skin has a very special texture in your mouth.
Typical for the muslim minority area in the northwest, the grilled lamb sticks can be found on almost every night market in northern China. Grilled on charcoal and turned constantly for many times, the cook continuously put pepper, chilli, and cumin powder on them. The lamb takes in all the taste from the seasoning and from the soothing smell of the good charcoal. My favourite way to eat grilled lamb-on-stick is to put them in a white flat bread, which contrast the intense taste of the lamb seasoning.
Lanzhou Yak Noodles
Yak soup cooked from the bones at 5 a.m. in the morning. The first bowl is available at 6 a.m. The intensely aromatic soup with hand-pulled noodles which are also typical in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province. The locals have them mostly for quick breakfast and lunch. Because the restaurants close at 2 p.m.
There are seven different sizes of noodles. Be sure to know what you want before ordering. The working process of the restaurant is extremely fast. If you couldn’t decide, just pick “slim”, so that the people lining behind you can get their food without waiting for too long.
Nowadays you can have good hotpot almost in every city in China. But the best is still in Sichuan. The best restaurants have their own recipe in cooking their base sauce for hotpot, which later by adding hot water or sometimes soup in it, becomes hotpot soup. And the variety of meat and tofu and vegetables you can put into the soup is vast. As a beginner, stick to “mildly spicy”. It will already be very hot for anyone who doesn’t live in Sichuan.
Numb, Spicy, Hot
As a “little sister” of hotpot, “Numb, spicy, hot” is little known to the Westerners. In a social perspective, people get together to a restaurant to eat hotpot for a longer meal, but they can even just go alone to a small place to eat “numb, spicy, hot” for a quick meal. Your taste buds can be equally stimulated and satisfied afterwards.
Comparing to hotpot, there are more selection of veggies and tofu products in “numb, spicy, hot” comparing to hotpot.
Cross bridge rice noodles
The dish is served with a large bowl of boiling hot broth and the soup ingredients. The soup is made by chicken, pork bone and seasoning, such as Chinese star anise and ginger. The soup ingredients are served with raw vegetables and lightly cooked meats. Common ingredients include thin chicken, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles. Once added into the broth, it cooks quickly with a layer of melted chicken fat and oil glistening on top. The soup takes a few minutes to cook, and it is then spooned out into small bowls. It resembles in a way some Vietnamese dishes, which is understandable, since Yunnan, the home of this dish, shares border with Vietnam.
Crab Yellow soup dumpling
If you go to somewhere around Shanghai, crabs are something you’ve got to try. But eating a crab in its original form is far beyond the beginner’s level. How to find out why Chinese southerners love eating crabs? Try the crab yellow soup dumplings.
They are like the regular soup dumplings, which you will be able to eat and drink the soup at the same time. But its fillings are made of precious and delicious crab yellow (the most nutritious part of crabs) and pork leg meat. The dumpling skin is extremely thin, which shows the delicacy of the cooking method as well as the delicate manner you will have to adapt to while eating and enjoying it.
steamed vermicelli roll
Steamed vermicelli roll, or Chang Fen known by the locals, is a popular snack food in Cantonese region. Thin, aromatic, smooth and tasty as it is, the snack is served in all teahouses and night markets.
In this dish, rice powder is spread across a multi-layered box or cloth to steam. Afterwards the rice is rolled into a long strip, snipped and served. It is filled with different types of meats such as beef, shrimp and pork, or vegetables, but can be served without any filling. It’s often topped with soy sauce.
This is a food guide for the entry-level Chinese food eaters, which means that they will not get “shocked” by the taste. Many of the food are already known outside of China. They are not too hot and spicy, nor too “abnormal” to a Western stomach. The effect you’re going to get after the first try of them is to be surprised (because they are so different from what you already knew) and amazed (because they are with more flavours and homey emotions that you can feel in your mouth and in your body when you eat them in the home of the food).