Chances are, the Chinese food that you have been getting from the takeout joint down the road is probably not all that authentic. While there are some obvious similarities in names and ingredients, you may be surprised to discover how different true Chinese cuisine can taste when compared to what many of us have grown up with. There are also so many more options than the standard, greasy, late-night dishes that we tend to think of, such as General Tso’s chicken and drunken noodles.
Chinese food is incredibly varied, which should come at no surprise, given that the country’s populace consists of nearly a fifth of the entire world’s population. It is also a huge geographic region, about the same size as the United States. It would be unfair to think of American food as just consisting of Southern biscuits and gravy and hush puppies, and China is no different. Western Chinese food, for example, tends to be quite spicy and consist of a lot of meat, whereas the cuisine typical of Eastern China is much lighter and sweeter, and includes many seafood dishes.
Below we’ll note some great dishes that will be the perfect foray into the delicious and varied cuisine that the country has to offer. Keep in mind that this will be a relatively easy introduction, and will not include some of the regional dishes that may require more of a…required taste, such as bird’s nest soup, thousand-year-old eggs or chicken testicles. That said, this sampling can be a wonderful way to take a small step outside of your comfort zone, beyond your local delivery place, and learn more about the fantastic cuisine that comes out of this large and diverse country.
Go to China for work or vacation and whether you are sitting down for a meal in a fancy restaurant or just walking past local street food vendors and you will likely see—and will certainly smell—barbequed meat. Char siu, which literally means “fork roasted”, is a popular Cantonese dish that typically includes pork, or sometimes duck. The sauce, made with honey and five-spice, is absolutely delicious and not to be missed. Enjoy on its own, or with rice and cucumber.
Meat and Vegetable Wontons
Who hasn’t had a delicious meat or veggie-filled wanton dumpling? These are both a classic and a staple for much of China. The dough is simple, made from just water, flour, egg, and salt. The filling will typically consist of a pork and shrimp mixture, with various spices including garlic and green onion. The dumplings are usually steamed, and enjoyed on their own as an appetizer, or included a simple broth soup. While it may not sound all that exciting, try a wonton at a traditional Chinese establishment, and it will taste like nothing you’ve had before!
You can try to pronounce this long and complicated name or refer to these delicious buns by their more simple shorthand: Bao. The term “xiaolong” refers to the traditional bamboo basket that the dumplings are steamed in. The name is very literal, translating to “small basket buns”. This is a dish typical of the Jiangnan region, specifically Shanghai. The dough is much breadier than the aforementioned wontons, and are classically stuffed with pork. You can eat them on their own, although they are traditionally enjoyed with soup. Just take a bite to open up the bao, and then, using your chopsticks, dip into the broth, and enjoy.
While this is something that you might not typically see on a run-of-the-mill Chinese take-out menu—at least, not by this name—it is a staple for many Chinese households. The biggest difference that you’ll see between dishes will be in the noodles. Look for a place that makes them handmade. The local populace takes pride in their noodles and many have their own recipes, so if this sounds like a dish you’d like, be sure to try it in a few different spots.
Kung Pao Chicken
Now, this is a name that you probably recognize. And with its sweet, sour and spicy flavor, chilli pepper and deep-fried peanuts, what’s not to love? However, if your experience with Chinese cuisine thus far includes a delivery driver, you likely haven’t sampled the real deal. In China, chicken thighs are typically used, which makes the dish richer and tenderer than using chicken breast. This is a classic Sichuan dish, which means that in order to be authentic it must be made with Sichuan peppercorns. Ground black pepper could never impart the same taste and fragrance that has made this dish so well known and loved around the world.
Hot and Sour Soup
Here is another menu item that you’ve surely seen and have likely tried. However, in many places, hot and sour soup can be pretty disappointing, consisting largely of lackluster broth and a few sad mushrooms and pieces of tofu. As with many soups, the difference is in the base. By using Chinkiang vinegar, you impart the sourness that this dish is known for; white pepper is responsible for the kick. You might be surprised to hear that no chillies are used to put the “hot” in this classic recipe.
Next Stop: Authentic Chinese Food
There are so many reasons to go to China, though food is certainly at the top of the list! And while this article is nowhere near comprehensive, the dishes listed above will give you a great introduction to the country’s expansive and varied cuisine.
Outside of China, you might have a difficult time finding an authentic place to try the food as it would traditionally be prepared. If you are looking for an authentic Chinese food experience, look for a place that doesn’t specialize in too many different things: if they serve pizza and pasta alongside of their spring rolls and Chow Mein, then the cooks are probably not all that worried about authenticity. Another good option would be to ask a Chinese friend for a restaurant recommendation. Either way, use this guide as a map to explore and enjoy!