Food-Tripping in China: 10 Food Destinations You Mustn’t Miss on Your Next China Holiday
Lots of Westerners think they know Chinese food. You really can’t blame them for it. Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, thanks to the presence of Chinese immigrants in nearly every country.
The thing about Chinese food served in the West is they aren’t always authentic. The dishes you’ll find at a typical Chinese family restaurant in the US or Europe may have Chinese origins. However, their flavors are tweaked to suit Western tastes and sensibilities. Do you think your favorite sweet-and-sour pork or beef stir-fry is popular in mainland China? Think again.
This is why China is such a great food-trip destination. You may think you know Chinese food, but you’ll never really understand what it exactly is until you’ve visited the country where it came from. And you’ll be surprised to know that there are several kinds of Chinese cuisine. Each one is widely different from the other and have subtleties that get lost in translation.
So next time you go on a food trip, make China your next stop. And for an authentic experience of real Chinese cuisine, you have to visit these Chinese food destinations.
China’s great cuisines are well represented in Beijing, the capital city of China. So, if you want to sample China’s regional foods, you’re more than likely to have a taste if you travel to Beijing.
This isn’t to say that Beijing doesn’t have its own goodies. In fact, the Chinese capital city has regional fare that’s not like any other. A great example is Peking duck, that juicy roasted bird with crispy skin. Foodies from all over the world travel to Beijing for a taste of authentic Peking duck.
Jiaozi is another regional food Beijing is known for. These are dumplings traditionally made with pork, leeks, and ginger, though other meats and seafood are sometimes used. Another must-taste on a food trip to Beijing is jing jiang rou si or shredded pork in Beijing sauce. It’s finely shredded pork cooked in a sauce made with sweet beans and served with a side dish of soybean wraps.
While you’re in Beijing, go for the street food. Among the best places for Chinese street food is Wangfujing, a shopping street in Dongcheng District. In Wangfujing, you’ll find some great traditional Beijing street eats like:
- rolling donkey, a sweet roll made of glutinous rice, sweet bean flour, and sticky sweet bean paste
- sugarcoated haws, which are candied fruits on a stick
- street crepes, egg pancakes filled with chopped green onions and flavored with cumin and sesame
- tea soup, a thick soup made with millet flour, flavored with sugar, and garnished with raisins, peanuts, and brown sauce
If you dare to, Wangfujing also has strange street food. Care for scorpion on a stick, for instance? You’ll easily find some in Wangfujing.
If you’ve enjoyed any spicy Chinese dish with red chili oil in the past, chances are the roots of that dish go back all the way to Sichuan, a province in Southwestern China. Sichuan cuisine is one of the most popular Chinese cuisines, and it’s considered one of the country’s eight great regional cuisines.
Where can you eat authentic Sichuan food? Where else but in Chengdu, the heart of Sichuan province? Chengdu was actually recognized by UNESCO as Asia’s first gastronomy city. The city is all about the food, with numerous restaurants and catering companies drawing in tourists and driving the economy. If you like your Chinese fare red and spicy, then you need to visit Chengdu. There, you can feast on dishes flavored with red chili oil and Sichuan peppers, the spice on which Sichuan cooking is based.
But while spice is synonymous with Sichuan cooking, not all Sichuan dishes are tongue-numbing hot. Sichuan cuisine actually strives to create a balance between spice, sourness, and sweetness. Along with red chili oil and Sichuan peppers, you’re also likely to find ginger, garlic, and star anise seasoning your food and creating complex layers of flavors in it. As a saying in that part of China goes, “One dish with one flavor, with one hundred dishes come one hundred flavors.”
So, what can you eat in Chengdu? Here are a few Chengdu dishes that exemplify Sichuan cuisine:
- mapo tofu, also known as pockmarked grandma’s tofu, is tofu cooked with minced pork or beef in a shiny red chili oil sauce and often garnished with vegetables and wood ear mushrooms
- kung pao chicken, a non-spicy Sichuan dish made with fried diced chicken, peanuts, and dry red peppers
- dandan noodles, wheat noodles with minced pork, ground peanuts, chopped scallions, mustard root, and a handful of Sichuan spices and condiments
If you’re visiting Chengdu, don’t forget to pass by Jinli Street, the oldest shopping street in the city that dates back hundreds of years. There you’ll find some fabulous Chengdu street eats like spicy wontons and dumplings, and san da pao sticky rice with sesame seeds, brown sugar, and beans.
Chengdu may be the capital of Sichuan cuisine, but you can’t really talk about Sichuan food without mentioning Chongqing. Chongqing is now considered an independent city, but it remains an important center of the Sichuan style of cooking.
Though Chengdu and Chongqing trace their culinary roots to Sichuan, they have developed their own distinct characteristics over the years. Chongqing cuisine is now considered bolder and spicier, with its liberal use of peppercorns, chili peppers, ginger, garlic, wine, and soy sauce in cooking.
Additionally, Chongqing is the birthplace of the ever-popular Chinese hotpot. When eating hotpot, you and your group gather around a large pot, in which a flavorful broth is boiled. The broth can be spicy or mild, depending on your taste and mood. Once the broth starts boiling, you put your desired ingredients in the broth and wait for it to boil again. These ingredients can include a combination of fish, pork, chicken, tofu, and vegetables. You can begin eating once the ingredients in the pot are cooked. Hotpot is the perfect dish to enjoy with friends, especially when the weather is cold.
Of course, hotpot is not the only food you can eat in Chongqing. Chongqing is also popular for its dishes using fish and beef offal. The city’s proximity to the Jialing River means it has a good supply of fish. The people from this part of China take food waste seriously, so they use all the animal parts they can use for cooking.
What about street food? Chongqing actually has plenty of food streets you can check out on a visit to China. Perhaps the most popular of these streets is Haochi Jie, where you can find grilled jiangtuan fish or spicy ma la tang soup that’s similar to hotpot. Another shopping street with great street food is Ciqikou Old Town, where you can find easy fare like fried peanuts and tofu as well as exotic-looking fare like boiled blood curd. If you want the romance of dining street fare by the river, there’s Nanbin Road Food Street running along the banks of Yangtze River.
Datong is the center of Shanxi cuisine, which is considered to be one of the great Chinese cuisine. Shanxi cuisine tends to be slightly salty and oily and features foods made with different kinds of flour, including wheat flour, potato flour, and rice flour. So, if you love Chinese wheat noodles, Datong is the place to go.
Among the most popular noodle dishes from Datong are
- cat-ear noodles – noodles that resemble cats’ ears and are similar to macaroni. These noodles are usually made with bean or wheat flour and served with thick egg sauce, meat, thin slices of tofu, and vegetables
- pea noodles – noodles made with wheat or oat flour and served with peas, minced meat, and a tomato and egg sauce
- yangza soup – a strong-flavored soup made with stewed sheep entrails, vermicelli noodles, shallots, chili, and other spices
There’s more to Datong food than just noodles, of course. Lamb is another common feature of Datong cuisine. One popular dish involves dipping slices of lamb in boiling water for two or three seconds, then dipping the boiled lamb in a sauce made with chili oil, sesame paste, soy sauce, coriander, and other seasonings. Another popular lamb-based dish is sheep chop suey, which includes sheep blood and parts as well as vegetables and spices.
Yellow cake is another regional Datong specialty. It’s a cake made with broomcorn millet flour and either fried or steamed. Fried yellow cake is crispy and dark in color, while steamed yellow cake is light-colored, soft, and fluffy.
Shumai is another Datong specialty, so popular that it has attracted the attention of Chinese royalty a long time ago. Datong shumai is made with minced pork and spices, and wrapped with rice-flour or wheat-flour wrapping paper. Shumai from Datong have a distinct flower form.
If you’re a fan of dim sum, then you should drop by Guangzhou on your China food trip. Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, is the heart of Cantonese cuisine, one of the eight great Chinese cuisines. Cantonese cuisine is also one of the most well-known Chinese cuisines outside of China.
In Guangzhou, you’ll find plenty of restaurants that serve steamed or fried dim sum dishes like dumplings, spring rolls, pork buns, taro cakes, sesame balls, and fruit tarts. Dim sum is especially enjoyed in Guangzhou as yum cha, a morning or afternoon meal where dim sum is consumed with tea. The Cantonese practice of eating yum cha is similar to the British high tea.
Guangzhou is also the place to go if you want to eat authentic versions of Cantonese food that has become popular in the Western world. These dishes include:
- preserved foods like century eggs, Chinese sausage, fermented tofu, and salted duck eggs
- rice dishes like congee and fried rice
- noodle dishes like chow mein, lou mein, wonton noodles, and chow fun
- rotisserie dishes like char siu
- soups like bird’s nest soup and shark-fin soup
What makes Cantonese food so irresistible? Unlike other Chinese foods, Cantonese foods are generally milder in flavor, though slightly sweet. Cantonese chefs also limit the use of seasonings and spices in their dishes to highlight the ingredients’ natural taste. Seasonings and spices commonly used in Cantonese cooking include garlic, spring onions, rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallion oil.
One of the best places to eat in Guangzhou is Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street, where you’ll find many Cantonese restaurants that have existed for generations. Shangxiajiu is also a good place to sample Guangzhou street food like stewed milk tofu, deep-fried dumplings, and lobster rolls.
The city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province is famous for its West Lake, a body of water that has inspired Chinese garden design for centuries. Now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, West Lake has also been the driving force behind Hangzhou cuisine. Hangzhou cuisine is an important branch of Zhejiang cuisine, another one of the eight great Chinese cuisines.
What makes Hangzhou cuisine distinct from other Chinese cuisines is its emphasis on freshness and lightness of flavor. Hangzhou dishes are often seasoned and spiced sparingly to allow its natural flavors to shine. Fish and shellfish caught from West Lake are common ingredients, along with pork and chicken.
Popular Hangzhou dishes include:
- West Lake carp in sweet and sour sauce – poached carp with a sauce made with vinegar and sugar
- Fried shrimp with longjing tea – shrimp cooked for a few seconds in lard and then in boiling longjing tea-infused water
- Beggar’s chicken – chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and roasted in a mud shell
- Dongpo pork – pork belly slow-cooked in wine and served with ginger and broccoli
- Stewed bamboo shoots with pickled grains
One of the best food streets to visit in Hangzhou is Hedong Road. Hedong Road is lined with restaurants and eateries specializing in Zhejiang food, though you can easily find food from other Chinese cuisines there. This street also has night markets and stalls selling grilled street food.
Lanzhou’s location on the northwestern reaches of China has played a huge role in the development of its cuisine. This city, the capital of Gansu province, is close to Tibet and is largely populated by Hui Chinese, who are predominantly Muslim. Thus, Lanzhou’s cuisine doesn’t contain any pork dishes. Its main courses often feature mutton, lamb, and beef.
Mutton and lamb are prepared in many ways in Lanzhou. A typical feast would feature a whole, pit-roasted, one-year-old sheep. But you don’t have to wait for an invitation to a feast to eat lamb in Lanzhou. You can simply stroll at one of the night markets and grab a lamb kebab or two.
Beef is also served in different forms in Lanzhou. A popular beef dish in this city is beef-stuffed cake or qianceng niurou bing, which is similar to the Italian pizza. It involves putting shredded beef and other ingredients on a flat sheet of dough and baking it to desired crispiness.
No mention of Lanzhou food is complete without including hand-pulled noodles. These noodles are what make Gansu cuisine famous. Tourists flock to the numerous noodle stalls of Lanzhou for a taste of these noodles, particularly the hearty and tasty beef noodle soup. Another popular noodle dish from this part of China is long-life noodles or saozi noodles. These are handmade and hand-pulled noodles sliced very thinly and served with lamb, tofu, egg, garlic, and other ingredients.
Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
More often than not, when people think of Hong Kong, their thoughts wind their way towards Hong Kong’s awesome food. Hong Kong is popular as a foodie destination, with its Michelin-star restaurants run by big-name chefs attracting food lovers from all over the world. This place is definitely one of my favorites and I have been here several times.
But if you want to taste true Hong Kong food, there’s only one place to go. That place is none other than the Sham Shui Po District in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Peninsula. Sham Shui Po is known as a place where you can get your hands on some of the cheapest computers and computer parts in the world. But to discerning lovers of Chinese food, Sham Shui Po is where you’ll find family-run stalls that serve authentic, Hong Kong-style Cantonese street food. The street food there is so great that some stalls have earned their very own Michelin stars.
What can you eat on a walking tour of Sham Shui Po? Here are some of the good stuff:
- Dim sum dishes like pork buns and dumplings
- Silky soya beancurd
- Hong Kong-style French toast
- Pineapple buns, which are toasty bread rolls with a crunchy topping designed to resemble pineapples. They don’t have actual pineapples, though.
- Cheong fan, or rolls made with rice flour and doused with a sauce consisting of sesame sauce, sweet sauce, and chili.
Just like Hong Kong, Shanghai is a cosmopolitan city that people visit for the food. And just like Beijing, Shanghai is full of restaurants and street stalls that serve regional specialties from all over China. If you want to go on a Chinese food tour but have limited time to do it, you can simply visit Shanghai and have a fill of China on your stay.
Shanghai has plenty of fancy, Michelin-starred restaurants. But you’ll have a better taste of the city’s culinary delights if you explore its street food scene, especially at night. One of the best places to have a tasting tour of Shanghai street food is the Chang Li Food Market.
Here’s a list of some of the goodies you’ll find there:
- Xiao long bao, which are dumplings with translucent wrappings, made with pork and ginger and served with a sticky gelatin broth
- Sticky rice balls filled with salted duck egg, pickles, dried pork floss, savory you tiao breadstick, and seasonings
- Flaky pancakes with scallions and pork
- Jidan bing, or puffy egg muffins topped with scallions and hoisin sauce
- Wonton dumplings, daintily sized and often served with noodles and broth
Xiamen is one of the most romantic cities in China. Located on the Fujian coast right beside Taiwan Strait, Xiamen is well-known for its arts and music scene, as well as its food. After all, the city is a center of southern Fujian cuisine, one of the Chinese cuisines that became popular outside China.
Fujian cuisine is characterized by its emphasis on the umami or savory taste. Though Fujian food often tastes meaty, it’s usually light and refreshing. Moreover, the cuisine highlights the natural taste of food rather than covering it up with sauces and condiments.
Xiamen’s location near the sea means you can enjoy seafood when you visit there. Many restaurants and food stalls here have dishes that have crab, prawn, squid, sea urchin, and oysters as their main ingredients. A popular example is a dish called gluey noodle soup, a soup so thick it nearly has the consistency of porridge. This soup has clams, oysters, and shrimps, as well as thin noodles.
Xiamen is also a great place to indulge in street food. The best place to taste Xiamen street food is Zhongshan Pedestrian Street, the center of Xiamen commerce. Among the awesome eats you can find there are:
- Fish balls – ground fish wrapped in dough and served in soup
- Oyster omelet – fresh oysters fried with eggs, sweet potato starch, and other ingredients
- Peanut soup – peanuts stewed in sweet broth and commonly eaten with meat buns, vegetable pastries, or fried donuts
- Sandworm jelly – a savory jelly made with boiled sea worm, always served with radish, mustard, garlic, and vinegar
- Spring rolls – a wrap containing a variety of ingredients that can include bamboo shoots, pork, shrimp, oysters, tofu, carrots, and other vegetables. It’s often served with scrambled eggs or sauces
- Zongzi rice – glutinous rice cooked with eggs, pork, and other ingredients, shaped into a pyramid, and wrapped in bamboo leaves
China is truly a great food trip destination. You can’t really know Chinese food until you’ve eaten it in China. So, what are you waiting for? Book your next trip to China today.
Until my next trip. Keep on travelling.