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13 Traditional Chinese Foods You’ve Got to Try

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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’ve lived in China for five months, and these are some of my favorites!

Spinach Noodles (bō cài miàn)

Spinach Noodles (bo cai mian)

Xi’an, in central China, is known for its noodles, and every self-respecting noodle joint in said city makes their noodles from scratch. This traditional Chinese dish includes noodles made from spinach, then topped with whatever your heart desires. The above serving has a spicy tomato-like sauce and is topped with egg, potato, carrots, beef and chili.

Fried Mashi (chǎo má shi)

Fried Mashi (chao mashi)

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.

BBQ Meat (kǎo ròu)

BBQ Meat (kao rou)

Kǎo ròu is the standard serving of meat in China, and might be one of the most well known traditional Chinese foods available. They come from both restaurants and street carts alike and they come heavily spiced. Often cooked over burning coal, these sticks of meat come in many variations–lamb, beef, chicken, and even the gizzards and other weird stuff no westerner would happily stick in their mouth (yes, I’ve seen tentacles hanging out of peoples’ mouths).

Cold Vegetable Dish (liáng cài)

Cold Vegetable Dish (liang cai)

Often eaten with noodles, liáng cài (which literally translates to “cold dish”) is an assortment of vegetables, tofu and often 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!

Stinky Tofu (chòu dòu fu)

Stinky Tofu (chou dou fu)

It smells worse than it looks and it actually tastes better than it smells or looks! 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 dish actually ain’t half bad.

Dumplings (jiǎo zi)

jiaozi

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.

Mutton Stew (yáng ròu pào mó)

Mutton Stew (yang rou pao mo)

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.

Chinese Hamburger (ròu jiā mó)

Meat Sandwich (rou jia mo)

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. We call them “ro-ji’s” for short!

Cold Mixed Tofu and Pineapple Aloe Vera (liáng bàn dòu fu and bō luó lú huì)

Tofu and Aloe Vera (dou fu and lu hui)

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 some green veggies. The really 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 treat!

Tibetan Yak Meat Dumplings (mómo)

Tibetan Yak Meat Dumplings (momo)

I’m not saying Tibet is or isn’t a part of China, but I did eat these in the People’s Republic, so they’re making the list. Though not a traditional Chinese food in mainland China, they are very common in Tibet. 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.

Sweet and Sour Eggplant (yú xīang qié zi)

yu xiang qie zi

Though I never enjoyed eggplant at home, it has quickly become one of my favorite things to eat in China. This is a bowl of sliced eggplant that tastes more like sweet and sour pork. A little bit of chili and fish sauce (or a lot) can go a long way!

Beef Noodles (niú ròu miàn)

Beef Noodles (niu rou mian)

Beef noodles are a personal favorite, and they can be found in almost every restaurant in China. Each one does their noodles drastically different, though, so eating the same dish never gets boring. Seen here are homemade noodles, topped with a shredded beef and vegetable mixture.

About the Author: Jeremy Foster

Born in America, Jeremy, an IT specialist by trade, packed up his belongings and left home on an open-ended trip to Australia. Years later, he's still on the move and exploring other countries. He is now a mobile cocktail bartender and the head writer for travelFREAK! You can usually find him on either side of the bar, acting wanky and pretentious about booze.

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  • The Time-Crunched Traveler

    Great suggestions! I confess I don’t often even know what it is that I am eating in China. But they definitely have some delicious options to choose from.

    • http://www.travelfreak.net/ Jeremy Foster

      Sometimes it’s just better not to ask questions :-P

  • qiranger

    I’ve actually had most of these. Except for the stinky tofu. I’m not a fan of the regular kind.

    • http://www.travelfreak.net/ Jeremy Foster

      So maybe you’d enjoy the stinky kind, then! It’s actually not so bad.

      I wasn’t a big fan of tofu when I initially arrived in Asia, but since coming here, it’s become a favorite of mine. Funny how that happens!

  • http://www.facebook.com/xpatmatt Matt Gibson

    Translations may differ between Taiwan (where I lived and studied Mandarin) and China, but Yang Rou, which you call mutton, is goat in Taiwan.

    Niu rou mian literally translates to Beef Noodle, but in Taiwan the dish is always served as a beef noodle soup. If you want it dry, you have to aks for it as dry (gan de).

    • http://www.travelfreak.net/ Jeremy Foster

      That’s really interesting. I’m studying Mandarin in central China and “yang rou” is, 100% of the time, mutton. It appears that “shan yang rou” would be goat meat, though. I wonder if the former is just a shortened, colloquial version. I can’t find any information on “yang rou” being anything other than lamb or mutton.

    • Marnie Bryson

      Well how very informed of you. Jeremy you are a great writer! I laughed loudly in my cubicle when I read the Tibet line. So now everyone is giving me weird looks. Oh, and I’m super hungry now; no matter how much sriracha and soy sauce you put in this ramen….it’s not going to help.

    • Person.Boi

      I’m Chinese and I’ve never ever had dry beef noodles. The broth is a main factor in making or breaking the dish

    • Mytanfeet

      I grew up speaking Mandarin and yang rou is what we call lamb. I just asked my mom (my parents are from Taiwan) and they call lamb and goat differently but it can still be used to call both.

      • http://www.travelfreak.net/ Jeremy Foster

        Interesting! Doesn’t that get confusing, though?

  • http://nelietatravellingadventures.blogspot.com Nelieta Mishchenko

    This looks delicious and now you have made me very hungry!

  • Chelsea

    I ate squid on a stick that I bought in a night market when I lived there. It was pretty good! Jiaozi will always be my favorite though. :) Jian bing is great too.

    • http://www.travelfreak.net/ Jeremy Foster

      Oh yeah, the squid on a stick! The local love those–I can’t handle the sight of tentacles hanging out of someone’s mouth!

  • mtb

    Re the section on noodles – please note it should “its” N O T “It’s” (which is short for : it is. Whatever happened to sub editors?

  • Tu Tai

    you try 12 Traditional in China not 13

  • Mytanfeet

    Yum yum yum! I’ve had most of these but not mutton stew, that’s a new one. It all looks so good, nom nom. I can’t wait to go back to Asia and eat everything there!

    • http://www.travelfreak.net/ Jeremy Foster

      Oh man! The mutton stew is a highlight for sure. You’ll only find it in Xi’an, though! It’s a very local dish there, and it’s very, very tasty!!

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