I have a confession to make. I miss Chinese food…
No, not the Chinese food that you can pick up at your local Chinese take-away chain, but the real authentic food in China, that is so dramatically different from the Western version, that it’s not even worth a comparison. I admit, I was spoiled living in China, not only because the tiniest hole-in-the-wall restaurants served incredible dishes for only 20RMB ($3), but because I had the luxury of trying authentic home cooked dishes from diverse regions of China on a weekly basis.
In Shanghai, it was common for every expat and every middle-class Chinese to enlist the help of an Ayi (阿姨 or “aunty”), someone who would help out with the cooking, the cleaning, and the general upkeep of the house. While some expats took it to the extreme and hired an Ayi to be their live-in help, we only invited an Ayi for weekly home cooked meals and an occasional clean. We hired help from a reputable agency that had a rotating roster of Ayi’s from all over China, so our Ayi’s and their cultural backgrounds varied from week to week. They were all amazing ladies that made delicious meals! Sometimes, we requested specific dishes, but other times we let them surprise us with traditional dishes from their regions. Every meal was a feast and I looked forward to our Ayi’s cooked meals on a weekly basis!
As I reminisce about the delicious meals in China, I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you. If you are planning a trip to China, make sure you try at least a few of these, and if you are lucky enough to have a large Chinatown in your hometown, you can try your luck with ordering some of these dishes.
1. Peking Duck (北京烤鸭)
Peking duck is a Beijing special roasted duck with Peking sauce. An item found only in restaurants, but luckily one of the easier items to find on a menu outside of mainland China.
2. BaoZi (包子)
BaoZi is a steamed bun that was often a staple on-the-go breakfast for locals. It’s usually filled with pork or other meats (don’t ask what kind, no one really knows), but sometimes comes in a vegetarian option with cabbage only. They are found in every corner shop, gas station and the like. It’s cousin JiaoZi (饺子) is a more traditional dumpling with meat or vegetable filling. This one is more of a restaurant meal, although can often be found sold by street vendors.
3. Hot Pot (huǒguō or火锅)
Think of it as a Chinese fondue, minus the cheese. The meal consists of a big pot of broth ( which can be spicy and not spicy, vegetarian and non veg, or come in dozens of other varieties) and raw ingredients (meat, veggies, and other weird and wacky things) that get dipped into the broth for a few minutes and are then consumed immediately.
4. Fried Green Beans with Shredded Pork (干煸四季豆)
This is made with garlic, ginger, chillies, and fried with pork in chicken bouillon and oil. One of my favourite dishes, a frequent choice with our Ayi’s.
5. Shredded Cabbage (手撕包菜)
This is a staple Hunan dish, often stir fried and served with shredded or sliced pork. It’s covered in oil and seasoned with garlic, onion, chili, vinegar, and soy sauce. Another Ayi favourite, easy and quick to make – a great addition to any meal!
6. Stir Fried Green Pepper with Pork Slices (青椒炒肉丝)
It’s a dish of Fujian origin that is lighter and fresher tasting than some of the other stir-fried vegetables. Marinated in rice wine, soy sauce and corn starch, it’s a great option for lunch or dinner.
7. Tomato Scrambled Eggs (西红柿炒蛋)
This dish is sometimes served as typical scrambled eggs, but more often made as a soup. Sounds a bit weird and probably doesn’t look overly appealing but it is absolutely delicious. It’s an easy staple dish that my Chinese housemate and our Ayi’s loved to make.
8. Sweet and Sour Pork Ribs (糖醋排骨)
This dish has no relation to the sweet and sour dishes you may be accustomed to at Chinese restaurants outside of China. Made with black Chinese vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and sweetened with sugar, the ribs are often coated in sesame seeds for some extra flavour. Watch out, in China you’ll be hard pressed to find these without bones.
and now time for dessert…
9. Caramelized Bananas (拔丝香蕉)
This dish is exactly what it sound like – bananas deep fried in sugar. Maybe not the healthiest dish you can have in China, but definitely one of the most delicious.
10. Candied Fruit on a Skewer (冰糖葫芦)
This is a popular snack sold by street vendors in Beijing and Shanghai. A variety of fruit covered in a sugar glaze, sometimes also covered in chocolate, caramel, and sesame sprinkles.
There are hundreds if not thousands of other dishes you will find in China, this is merely a sample of my favourites to help you get started when ordering your first meal at a real Chinese restaurant.