Regional Chinese Food

Say hello to pork sandwiches, fried cheese and spicy noodles

Travel through China, and you'll quickly realize that Chinese food is a bit of a misleading concept. China is diverse geographically, agriculturally and environmentally, and each region (and subregion) has a unique and dynamic cuisine; digging into any one of these culinary traditions will likely completely upend any preconceived notions you may have developed in the States.

So back away from the kung pao chicken, the fried rice and the ma po tofu, and dig into regional Chinese specialties. Here are seven dishes to get you started.

① Jian Bing A post shared by NYT Food (@nytfood) on Feb 1, 2017 at 5:30am PST

Jian bing hawkers populate just about every corner in Chinese cities; after all, it's one of the country's go-to breakfast options. The handheld snack features a freshly griddled crepe washed with egg and then wrapped around a crispy cracker, pickled mustard, fragrant herbs, and a swipe of hoisin and chile sauce. It's savory and tart, with a kiss of heat.

② Wanza Mian A post shared by UnTour - China's Top Food Tour (@untourfoodtour) on Dec 27, 2016 at 9:20pm PST

The looming metropolis of Chongqing turns out some of the world's best noodle soups, ones filled with thin, chewy pasta; fiery chiles; and tingly Sichuan peppercorns. Wanza mian tops the noodles with starchy cowpeas (which look like chickpeas but are milder) and ground pork. Be on the lookout for the dry variation, which jettisons the broth but still packs the heat.

③ Sheng Jian Bao

The cousin of xiao long bao, this Shanghainese dumpling packs a pork or shrimp meatball and savory soup into a casing that's then panfried until the thick bottom crisps, adding an ecstatic textural element to what's already a voluptuous bite. Eat it as you would any soup dumpling: Nibble the crackly skin and slurp out the soup before dipping it in vinegar and polishing it off.

④ Lei La Jiao Pi Dan

A mind-expanding example of the breadth of Chinese cuisine, this Hunanese dish is a vibrant blend of verdant and mild green chiles, plus ultra-savory thousand-year-old preserved eggs, mashed into pulp and often served in a molcajete. Unlike guacamole, though, you eat lei la jiao pi dan with a spoon. 

⑤ Rubing

The entire spectrum of Yunnan food could be on this list; the region specializes in dishes like pineapple rice, sliced ham, citrus-imbued chicken salads and fried potato balls. One standout Yunnanese staple is this firm goat cheese that browns and crisps up on a griddle, much like halloumi, and is eaten by the slice.

⑥ Rou Jia Mo

Braised pork or lamb is tucked into a stiff, substantial flatbread for this sandwich, which hails from Shaanxi Province. Though it may sound like a simple combination, the meat is complexly spiced with heady cardamom and ginger (among other aromatics), and stewed for hours until it drools juice into the bread. 

⑦ Da Pan Ji

Pita-like flatbread and skewered lamb dominate the cuisine of the northwest province of Xinjiang, but this dish is the real showstopper. Chicken and potatoes comingle in a fragrant stew of onion, cumin, chile and star anise; once it hits the table, it's not unusual to snip a few lengths of fat, hand-pulled wheat noodles right into the bowl.

Laura Shunk is a food and travel writer and noodle addict who spent a year researching Asia's food culture. Follow her on Instagram at @laurashunk.