Are you craving the best Chinese dishes?
We’re not talking about wanting Panda Express at midnight. There are so many Americanized recipes that it can be hard to find the best authentic Chinese dishes nowadays. Whether you have an upcoming trip to China or are just looking to dive a bit deeper into culture, we have found the best authentic Chinese dishes that you need to try.
We’ve hopped around different cities, asked around, and taste-tested amazing dishes that you need to try. China’s diverse cuisine can best be understood through the eight different geographical regions that compose the landscape. One of the best ways to understand a culture is by exploring their culinary scene. Well, we’ve got good news for you. Not only is Chinese food delicious but traveling in this beautiful country can be affordable too (if you plan your trip right).
Here, the diversity of flavors reflects an eclectic blend of social and historical influence. Come along with us as we take you on a journey to explore all that this gem has to offer. While there are some familiar styles on here (aka the popular kung pao chicken), we’ve mixed it up a little with lesser known recipes too. Are you ready? Let’s go.
Understanding the Culture: A Short History of Chinese Cuisine
In order to understand the significance behind the best Chinese dishes, you need to know a little bit about the country’s history. Going back to its origins, we know that Chinese cuisine has spanned millennia. The most popular cooking styles include Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, and Huaiyang. Dishes originating from these regions stand apart from the rest in terms of taste, aroma, and aesthetics.
When you think of traditional Chinese foods, do chop suey and fortune cookies come to mind? If they do, you are mistaken. Both of these foods are modified to meet the trends of American-Chinese dishes. To truly understand authentic Chinese cuisine, you must take a peek inside of past Chinese kitchens. Understanding food preparation in relation to some of the dynasties is a good way to do that.
Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD)
During the early part of the Han Dynasty, noodles were made from wheat dough or millet and eaten by the common folks. In 2005, a 4,000 year-old bowl of millet was found in northwest China. This is the earliest form of noodles ever found which shows that Asians (not Europeans) were the first to invent this dish.
Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 AD)
When it came to diet and good health, the Chinese people explored more sources of food during the Tang Dynasty. This led to a fondness of exotic foods and drinking tea became popular across social classes. It was also during this time that the Chinese people began to trade with their neighbors in Persia and Korea.
Economic and social progress marked the Song Dynasty. Cosmopolitanism resulted in a proliferation of restaurants serving Chinese delicacies. In previous times, only Chinese emperors had the privilege of eating certain meals. Now, the lower classes could enjoy them too.
Here Are Our Picks for the Best Chinese Dishes You Need to Try
1. Sweet and Sour Pork
This recipe has to be one of the best Chinese dishes. When you see that bright orange glaze, you know you are getting the good stuff. And obviously, the recipe offers a sweet and sour taste. Traditional recipes stick to pork but more recent variations accommodate traveler’s tastes by substituting the pork for other meats like chicken and even vegetarian options.
2. Kung Pao Chicken
This Sichuan-style is very popular. If you haven’t tried kung pao chicken before, you are really missing out. There’s no doubt in our minds that this is one of the best Chinese dishes. The most common ingredients include diced chicken, chili, and fried peanuts. Westerners often take this recipe and put their own variation on it with cornstarch, extra veggies, and sour sauce. While this style is certainly tasty too, we recommend sticking with the original if you are looking for authenticity.
3. Ma Po Tofu
Ma po tofu is one of the most popular dishes in Chuan cuisine. Did you know that the history of this recipe can be traced back over 100 years? The word ‘ma’ describes a spicy and hot taste that comes from pepper powder; this is one of a kind (aka unique to this cuisine). Add in the creamy, rich taste of the tofu and it is just perfect to balance the spiciness. After the tofu is added, red ground beef and chopped green onion are added into the mix. This is one of the best Chinese dishes to try if you go for the DIY method.
4. Spinach noodles (bo cai mian)
This dish is popular in central China. Here, every good restaurant makes their noodles from scratch. Spinach noodles (bo cai mian) are made from spinach and then topped off with basically whatever ingredients your heart (or stomach) desires. If you ask us, we’re big fans of the spicy tomato-like sauce, adding in an egg, carrots, chili, and beef. Yum.
Okay, try to wrap your head around this. The history of dumplings goes back over 1,800 years. As one of the best Chinese dishes, it makes sense that they would have a rich cultural history. Widely popular in northern China today, most dumplings are made of minced meat, chopped vegetables, and are wrapped up in a thinly-sliced piece of dough. The most popular fillings include ground chicken, beef, vegetables, minced pork, and shrimp. If you happen to be in China to kick off the New Year, this is one of the day’s most popular choices.
While you can find fried rice just about anywhere in the world, fried mashi is just a little different. Kind of like gnocchi, this dish is quite different. It’s slightly sweet and very hearty. A touch of crunchy vegetables makes all of the difference. Contrasting with the softness of the ma’shi, it certainly is a delicious meal.
7. Chow Mein
Chow mein (stir fried noodles) is one of the best Chinese dishes. This meal consists of noodles, meat, and vegetables like onions and celery. For meat, you can choose from options like beef, pork, chicken, and shrimp.
8. Beef Noodles (niu rou mian)
Niu rou mian can be found in pretty much every household and restaurant across China. In fact, this is one of the best Chinese dishes if you’re looking to try something traditional. Since every restaurant prepares this meal a little bit differently, sampling the dish will never be boring. Homemade noodles are among the most popular types, topped off with a vegetable blend.
While traditional Chinese recipes are very different from the types of food you might be used to, Western countries have changed the cuisine and made it more greasy. With this said, I’m happy to say that there are more gourmet and artisanal restaurants on the rise that are turning back to ways representative of an authentic experience. If you have a chance to experience traditional Chinese food, I highly recommend it.
9. BBQ Meat (kao rou)
Have you ever wondered what the standard serving of meat is in China? Well, now you know. BBQ meat (especially those on skewers) is how Chinese food is cooked up. Loaded with spices, you’ll find these savory sticks both in restaurants and street carts alike. More often than not, they are cooked over coal, evoking a smoky flavor. While the most common meats served up are lamb, beef, and chicken, it isn’t uncommon to find gizzard and other curious things westerners would be hesitant to put in their mouth.
10. Cold vegetable dish (liang cai)
11. Stinky tofu (chou dou fu)
Relax, this isn’t what you think. Sort of. Let’s just say that stinky tofu (chou dou fu) is one of the best Chinese dishes in its own way. While it certainly isn’t the most pleasant smelling dish (aka the tofu is fermented), it tastes really good. This tofu is typically sold at night markets or street stalls as a snack or as a side dish for lunch in restaurants.
Plan Your Trip and Indulge in the Best Chinese Dishes
We hope you enjoyed reading our article of the best Chinese dishes to try. Now, it’s time for a taste test. While you can certainly try your hand at these recipes at home, we recommend the real deal. Even from this simple list, it's easy to see that cuisine is incredibly diverse. The best Chinese dishes are incredibly diverse.
With so many tasty dishes and drinks to choose from, it was hard to narrow down my list to the top favorites. While you’re there, make sure to sample as many dishes as you can. Seek out authentic places to try the dishes. Ask for the local’s recommendations. Or when you’re feeling creative, put your culinary abilities to the test and try to cook up some of the best Chinese dishes on your own. Either way, it's time to visit China.
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