Chinese food is amazing, both in its variety and flavourfulness, as it changes from province to province, region to region and even a little between neighbouring villages.
Many people back home think of Chinese food in terms of sweet and sour chicken or rice and fried noodles, but it is of course a lot more varied. (BUT, yes, we actually had some sweet and sour chicken on our trip, which tasted yummy and a lot like at Austrian-Chinese restaurants 😄) You can eat insects, donkey, dog, scorpion or snake while in China, but of course you don’t have to. You actually have to go looking for these as they are not really part of the staple diet. Neither do you have to eat rice every day, if you don’t want to. Chefs even identify eight distinct Chinese culinary schools that can further be subdivided into regional varieties.
Very, very generally speaking, we learned that people in the colder north eat more noodles, dumplings and steamed buns, while people in warmer southern China eat more rice and vegetables. That makes a lot of sense when you consider that rice is grown in the milder south and wheat in the colder north.
Chinese food has a long and rich history, due the many of cultures and geographies that make up China. All over the country having a meal is a very important and enjoyable part of social life. Tradtionally a meal consists of several shared dishes (at bigger restaurants at a round table with a turning plate in the middle) and individual bowls of rice. The advantage is, the bigger your group the more different dishes you get to sample, which is a big contrast to the “this is my plate mentality” in Europe.
If you enjoy eating, you will have a lot of fun munching your way through the country. Half the fun of travelling in China is the amazing food. If you are one of those people who like researching restaurants and reading reviews on i.e. Google maps, you unfortunately are out of luck in China. However, if you can read Chinese, there is Dianping, essentially the Chinese version of yelp. Their app has mouth-watering fotos, average price per person and will even show you what the most popular dishes per restaurant are.
Anywhere you go there will be a local speciality food, (you can check out this English website: spoonhunt.com) just ask at your hotel, your guide or anyone who speaks English, we generally found that most Chinese people throuroughly enjoy talking about food. Here are some of the meals and food groups we particularly enjoyed on this trip:
Most social food: 火锅 Hot Pot or Chinese fondue
Everybody sits around a large steaming bowl of soup, sometimes divided into two different flavours, and throws ingredients into the pot (which are subsequently lost and eaten by someone else). One of the most fun aspects of this DIY meal is fishing for your food and asking if other people have found it.
The best origin places for hotpot are Sichuan (where it is tongue numbingly spicy), Hunan (where it is also spicy but so that you can still use your taste buds) and Beijing, where the pot has a chimney in the middle. But you can find hot pot everywhere in China. We had a fish hot pot, where the chopped up fish was so fresh that the pieces kept twitching on our table, Tibetan yak meat hot pot and running hot pot on our last evening, where you could take ingredients on sticks from the little conveyor belt and throw them in your own personal little pot.
过桥面 Over the bridge noodles, Yunnan
These are Yunnan most famous dish. If you eat them for the first time you have to watch the locals closely, as you will first get little bowl or boxes filled with raw pieces of meat, fish and tiny eggs; a separate box of thick rice noodles and assorted greens and only then you get a bowl of seething hot soup, into which you throw your ingredients. The whole meal has a very entertaining do it yourself factor.
刀削面Dao Xao Mian, knife carved noodles
At some point in history one Chinese emperor forbade the people of Shanxi to use any kind of knives which was a problem as their noodles had to be cut somehow. So they developed a method where the noodles are carved from a large piece of dough and then fly into the pot to be cooked. So these noodles are super long and fresh in your bowl. Great places to try them are Datong and Pingyao in Shanxi province.
安多面片Anduo mianpian – Tibetan noodles from Anduo. We discovered these by accident on a very cold evening in Shangrila. The short square noodles cooked with tomato, minced yak meat, squash, paprika powder, garlic, red onion and red peppers and were so delicious we went and ate them 3 days in a row.
Best breakfast food
大米粥 damizhou or 小米粥 xiaomizhou is rice congee or millet congee. The Chinese language is very visual at times. Da mi (literally big grain) is rice, while xiao mi (small grain) is millet. Both are cooked with lots of water until the starch comes out and you get a thick porridge-like consistency. Great stuff when its cold.
包子Baozi and 馒头 mantou are steamed filled buns and steamed bread. You can find these stacked on most street corners in metal or bamboo steaming containers, filled with anything from mushrooms, different kinds of meat, vegetables, egg yolks, sweet been paste to potatoes. Think Chinese hot sandwiches.
糌粑 Tibetan Zampa is a mixture of roasted barley flower and Tibetan butter tea, has a delightful nutty flavour and is very filling. It is a Tibetan stable food and makes for great breakfast.
油条 Youtiao and 豆浆 soy milk – the literal translation of youtiao is oil band and that is what you get- a long piece of freshly fried dough that you can soak in soy milk or tofu pudding. Very yummy.
Awesome (not so) sweet treats
红枣 (hongzao) Chinese red dates are smaller, redder and drier than Arabian dates. They are great in yoghurt, milk or tea. A great combination were red dates stuffed with raisins and local walnuts in Shanxi.
月饼 Moon cake is a round cookie-dough-like pastry pressed into a form filled with different things like sweet sesame, sweet peanut paste, red beans. Some have egg yolks. The are traditionally eaten around the moon festival in autumn.
My new personal favourite is 鲜花饼 xianhua bing or fresh flower cake in Yunnan. It is a flaky round pastry stuffed with fresh rose or jasmine petals and a sticky date mass. You can find it in almost every street in Dali or Lijiang as well as in Kunming bakeries. If you are curious about the taste (go to Yunnan J 哈哈): I found a recipe on nomadicteaparty.com
Dumplings 水饺 in any form: some of the best dumplings you can eat are made by Taiwanese chain restaurant 鼎泰丰 DinTaiFeng. Their branches can be found in the big major cities in China and abroad. Make sure to try their 小笼包 (xiaolong bao).
Any kind of seasonal fruit. China is a huge country and in the south especially there will always be a fruit that is in season. Most interesting fruit we have seen this time around in China: the melon-tomato fruit in Yunnan (we forgot its name, sorry, and it would not come up at google so far)