20 Chinese Foods You Need To Try At Least Once

More people reside in China than in any other country in the world (via Statista). Coupled with the fact that China happens to be among one of the largest countries by area, it's safe to say that Chinese food is far more illustrious than the orange chicken that many in the U.S. associate it with — a culinary invention that is entirely American thanks to Panda Express (via NPR).

Even within the culmination of what is considered to be Chinese food as a whole, are various regional Chinese cuisines, each influenced by varying climate, terrain, and its people (via China Highlights). The simple, salty, and vegetable-less foods like clear broths come from the regions of Northern China; light and seafood-heavy dishes like dim sums come from eastern provinces; and the west eats more halal food due to a Muslim and Tibetan influence in the region. The hot, spicy, and fiery red foods that are synonymous with Sichuan cuisine are mostly eaten in Central China. Such is the diversity of Chinese food.

Chinese cuisine is vast and its dishes plentiful, but if you were to narrow it down and couldn't figure out where to begin, this list goes over 20 Chinese foods that you should try at least once in your lifetime — if not a thousand times more.

Xiao Long Bao

There are a great deal of steamed dumplings in Chinese cuisine, each more delicious than the other. Xiao long bao, however, The Culture Trip reports, has been deemed by the Shanghai government to be a protected national treasure since 2006. Xiao long bao was invented by a certain restaurant owner Huang Mingxian who, baffled by the sheer number of steamed buns in 19th century Shanghai and their popularity, set out to make one that would stand apart from all others. So, he made a pork-based broth, turned it into a jelly using gelatin, stuffed the solidified broth cubes inside delicate buns, and steamed them. The result was a small bao that would burst into warm soup when poked into, which is supposed to be slurped quickly, and best eaten hot off the steaming basket.

Because the slightest incision can result in a soupy spill all over your plate or leave you with burning hot liquid in your mouth, xiao long bao eating requires you try and employ a particular tactic. First, gently transfer the bun into a spoon and then carefully take a small bite off the top of the dumpling (via Thrillist). Let the steam from the liquid soup inside cool down, slurp away all the soup, and then pop what's left of the dumpling into your mouth.

Peking Duck

Peking duck when brought whole to a table looks like a food delicacy that belongs more in one of the many portraits of feasts and banquets thrown by mid-century kings and queens. It turns out, the roasted duck has long been a favored dish of Chinese emperors. The Qianlong Emperor of China is even said to have eaten eight Peking ducks over the span of two weeks at some point in 1761 (via National Geographic).

A well-known Chinese food today, the roasted duck is much sought after perhaps for its glossy brown and crisp skin, widely considered to be the best part of the entire dish. The traditional method of roasting a Peking duck involved hanging ducks over burning wood in brick ovens, which required chefs to be attentive to the needs of the roasting duck. Now, the roasting is often left to an oven. The roasted duck is then sliced using a special knife called pianya dao (via The Manual), and a single duck can produce as many as 100 trimmings under a skilled chef. The trimmings are accompanied with thin pancakes in which the duck can be rolled into alongside leeks, cucumbers, pickled vegetables, and a sauce.

Jianbing

Each country has a beloved breakfast item that it can call its own: France has croissants and coffee; the UK has its full English; and China has jianbing, a breakfast crepe bought fresh off a street vendor. As legend goes, a Chinese army at some point in history found itself robbed of all belongings, including cooking vessels and food items (via Food Republic). Left with a mishmash of ingredients, the army made a thin batter from wheat and water, spread it like a crepe on shields placed over a fire, and put what ingredients they could find on the crepe.

Today, street vendors in China — and eateries like the Jianbing Company in Brooklyn — layer a beaten egg onto the crepe, sprinkle in a mix of cilantro and green onions, layer fermented vegetables, bean curd, and chili, and cover the fillings in hoisin sauce (via Atlas Obscura). Often, a crisp cracker called baocui is added for crunch. Jianbing is then wrapped, rolled, sliced, and served just as morning hunger pangs begin to take over.

Tang Yuan

Tang yuan, or yuanxiao as it goes by in Northern China, is a sweet dish of rice balls with rich symbolism in Chinese festivities (via BBC Travel). Each year, the Chinese celebrate a two-week-long Chinese New Year, which ends with the mesmerizing Lantern Festival. While families gather to light lanterns, they also gather to eat delicious Chinese foods, in particular tang yuan — a colorful dessert of bite-sized chewy rice balls that symbolize harmony and reunion. In fact, when spoken out loud, the sound of the word tang yuan sounds the same as "tuán yuan," which is the Chinese word for reunion.

Although tang yuan can sometimes be prepared with a savory filling of walnuts, peanuts, and minced meat, more often than not it is filled with a sweet paste of sesame seeds or red bean, lard, and sugar. The rice balls are either steamed or fried and served swimming in a ginger, sugar, and water syrup sprinkled with osmanthus flowers (via Week in China). Even the round shape of the balls, the pink or red-tinted color of the dough, and the bowl in which they are served are all interlinked with joyous symbols associated with the beginning of a new year. It is also believed that the rice balls should be eaten in pairs of two — a sign of good luck!

Congee

If you're ever in need of food that is comforting for both the body and the soul, think of it as the perfect occasion to swap chicken soup for a warm bowl of congee. Congee goes by several names in Asia but in China, it is the very definition of Chinese comfort food. Tobie S. Meyer-Fong, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, told The Washington Post that the first food babies taste in China is often congee and that the porridge-like bowl is eaten by everybody — seniors with trouble chewing, those down with a stomach bug or really, anybody even just nursing a hangover.

Congee is usually made from rice but can sometimes be replaced by other grains because the dish serves a dual purpose: that of being a comfort food as well as being a dish that can help stretch limited groceries in dire times. Depending on the stock of the pantry and the luxury that it offers, rice can be boiled in water, milk, or coconut milk, cooked with chicken, eggs, or herbs, and can be served plain or with accompaniments like meat, seafood, pickled veggies, and a salted duck egg (via Post Magazine).

Biang Biang Noodles

While rice predominates foods that have come from the southern regions of China, wheat-based items like noodles and dim sums are staples in foods of Northern China, thanks to a stark difference in terrain, climate, and agriculture between the two regions (via China Highlights). This is why you've likely tried plenty of noodles from Chinese takeouts already, but it is biang biang noodles that should be next on your list.

The word biang, much like hiss and bang, is onomatopoeic (via BBC Travel). It doesn't exist in official dictionaries and yet, it is used as a name for a noodle popular in China. In reality, biang biang noodles are made by hand-pulling long ropes of dough and smacking them against counters. The sound that the noodle creates upon being smacked is "biang," hence the name biang biang noodles! 

The chewy wheat noodle is wide enough to be closer to a belt than a noodle in appearance and is often so long that a single noodle is enough for one serving (via Taste). It tends to come dunked in hot chili oil along with a leafy vegetable like bok choy.

Tea Eggs

At this point, it feels like we already have done everything with eggs that we could possibly do. We bake them, fry them, poach them, pickle them, and use them in all sorts of cooking — there's only so much more that an egg can do to surprise you. But these tea eggs just might do the trick. A popular choice of snack in parts of Southeast Asia, tea eggs are often sold by street vendors at markets and can even be found at convenience stores (via South China Morning Post).

Tea eggs have an intricate marbled appearance which forms after a sizable investment of time. First, an egg is hard-boiled and cracked, following which the egg is left to slowly cook in a liquid of soy sauce, tea leaves, and spices such as cinnamon, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. After several hours of cooking — days even — the liquid's color and flavor infuses the egg making it very flavorful and leaving behind a marbled pattern on the egg once it is shelled. Per The Kitchn, tea eggs are often eaten as is or topped on a bowl of another Chinese food to try on our list: congee. Because eggs are considered to be a symbol of fertility in Chinese culture, tea eggs are often served at Chinese New Year festivities.

Nian Gao

Chinese New Year celebrations see the preparation of a wide array of delicacies, each with a symbolic meaning of its own. Nian gao — a sweet and sticky cake made from glutinous rice flour — is mostly eaten during Chinese New Year celebrations as a symbol for growth and prosperity (via Taste). According to folklore, nian gao is served to effectively shut the mouth of the Kitchen God present in all households (with the help of the rice cake's stickiness) to stop him from making any complaints about you to the Jade Emperor at the end of the year (via China Highlights). Nian gao pretty much prevents you from being on the Jade Emperor's naughty list.

The preparation of nian gao varies in each region of China. In the north, the cake is usually white or yellow, steamed or fried, and has a sweet taste. In the east, slices of nian gao are often stir-fried and served alongside scallions, meat, and cabbage. In the south, the Cantonese version of nian gao is stickier and darker in color due to the use of brown sugar. In some parts, the rice cake is stuffed with peanuts, dates, seeds, and nuts or with a red bean paste and jujube paste. They can be eaten plain, dipped in egg and fried, steamed in banana leaves, or served with shredded coconut on top.

Regardless of its fillings and variations in flavor, nian gao is a food almost always sold in complete festive gear. The cakes are often wrapped in red cloth and ribbons and packed in plush boxes or hampers with New Year wishes written on them (per Taste).

Douhua

It is said that tofu originated in the Han Dynasty of China when a young prince went about mixing brine and soybean milk in the hopes of creating a food that would immortalize his people (via 196 Flavors). While he may not have succeeded with the immortality bit, his creation — tofu — is certainly enjoyed not just by his people in China, but all over the world by many. Aside from being used in stir-fries and broths, tofu is also eaten as a pudding in China.

A greatly preferred snack, douhua or tofu pudding can be found in various forms across the country (via China Sichuan Food). In its sweet form that is mostly preferred in the south, the silky soft tofu pudding is often served in a sweet sugar, water, and ginger syrup or simply served sprinkled with sugar. In northern China, douhua is served in a gravy of eggs, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. In the heat-loving province of Sichuan, the pudding is dunked in chili oil and served alongside cold noodles in the summer or dan dan noodles in the winter (via Love 2 Chow).

Hot Pot

Hot Pot is a dish designed to be eaten in the company of a group and nearly impossible to eat alone; you could try, of course, but it wouldn't quite be the same. Indeed, hot pot, or huo guo, is more so an eating experience than a dish, at the center of which is a huge pot of hot broth perched over some sort of burner and is accompanied by several smaller plates of dipping ingredients (via Thrillist). Eating involves sharing the ingredients and cooking them yourself in the bubbling stock or broth at the center of the table.

A typical broth is made of chicken, ginger, and aromatics but its Sichuan version can be much spicier with the addition of the region's signature peppercorns and red chilies. Dipping ingredients on the side include all sorts of small foods, such as sliced meats, meatballs and fish balls, noodles and rice cakes, as well as veggies. These ingredients are then accompanied by an equally vast array of sauces.

While the exact broth, ingredients, and sauces you get may depend on the "theme" of the hot pot that you're ordering, the eating process more or less remains the same. Strategically pick your ingredients (keeping the general cook time of each in mind), dunk it in the simmering broth till it cooks, dip it in your choice of sauce, and enjoy. Keep repeating the process till the many plates are empty or till your stomach can't fathom eating another bite of food.

Zhajiangmian

Zhajiang in Chinese translates to fried sauce and that's pretty much the essence of Zhajiangmian (via Bon Appétit). A dish from the northern region of China, and popular in Beijing in particular, Zhajiangmian mainly has two ingredients: a sauce and wheat noodles. The sauce depends on two pastes — gan huangjiang, which is a salty fermented paste of yellow soybeans, and tianmianjiang, a sweet and syrupy paste of soybeans and wheat flour. Together, the pastes are cooked on high heat to make a sauce that is sweet, salty, and umami at the same time. In Beijing, however, often only gan huangjiang is used and the sweet tianmianjiang is left out.

Zhajiangmian sometimes has a third ingredient — fried diced pork (via Red House Spice). Additionally, raw or blanched vegetables like cabbage, edamame, and bean sprouts are added on top for crunch. In northern China, chewy zhajiangmian noodles are often handmade and sliced into strips of fairly thick and long noodles.

Rou Jia Mo

What xiao long bao is to Shanghai, rou jia mo is to Shaanxi. Deemed in 2016 to be Shaanxi Province's Intangible Cultural Heritage, rou jia mo literally translates to meat in a bun and looks like a hamburger or a sloppy joe (via The Woks of Life). In fact, HuffPost even goes so far as to suggest that this Chinese food has been around for far longer than other hamburgers and claims that it may be the world's first.

Dating its origin back to the Qin dynasty of 221 BC to 207 BC, rou jia ma is said to have originated in the Shaanxi province and is a popular snack of choice bought from a street vendor and eaten on the go. The hamburger has two components: a bun and a filling. The bun, or mo, is a chewy and pillowy mix of steamed or baked wheat flour, yeast, and water. The filling, la zhi rou, is usually made from shredded pork belly cooked in spices like ginger, cloves, and star anise.

Char Siu

Char siu simply means barbecued pork but there's a lot that goes into the making of this classic Chinese BBQ food (via South China Morning Post). The first mentions of char siu seem to have appeared in royal cookbooks of the Zhou dynasty when barbecuing and grilling were particularly popular in China. Today, some 3,000 odd years later, char siu is thought to be the very symbol of what comfort food means in Cantonese cooking and one you should try at least once.

Traditionally, char siu pork used to be grilled on skewers. However, with time, char siu's cooking method, the recipe for the pork marinade, and even the choice of cuts have greatly evolved, and today differ from chef to chef. While pork tenderloin is preferred, pork belly, neck, and shoulder can all be used to make char siu (via On The Gas). The pork is marinated in seasoned hoisin and soy sauce, and a final glaze of maltose gives char siu its shiny appearance. Cuts of char siu are then eaten sandwiched between baos, served on top of a rice or noodle bowl, or added to fried rice.

Mooncake

If you've ever taken part in the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, you will have noticed tiny cake-like treats with beautiful decorations and inscriptions on top. These little cakes have a rich history sprinkled with colorful legends and hold great significance for the autumn celebrations. The round cakes have a pastry skin with a paste of jujubes, lotus, or sweet red beans for filling (via Delishably). The filling can also have fruits, nuts, seeds, salted egg yolks, and occasionally, the savory ingredient like ham.

The cakes are thought to be Chinese food symbols of family reunions and happy times. At one point, they were even thought to be perfectly suitable presents for the emperor of the Tang Dynasty to give to visiting nobility, perhaps because of the myths surrounding the mooncake. According to one legend, the Chinese goddess of the moon, who happens to be at the center of the Mid-Autumn Festival, accidentally consumed an immortality potion. Separated from his wife, her grief-struck husband placed her favorite food items in front of the moon in her memory, one of which was the mooncake (via Los Angeles Magazine). As for the Chinese characters stamped on the crust of the mooncake, tales suggest that they were supposed to be hidden messages conveying all sorts of secrets between the people of the Ming Dynasty.

Regardless of the legend behind the mooncake that you think is most believable, when you try one for yourself, remember to cut a mooncake into several pieces and share them while eating. Eating an entire mooncake alone is very much frowned upon!

Shizi Tou

Shizi tou is often referred to as lion's head meatballs (via Week In China). While shizi tou has nothing to do with a lion nor its head, it does get the meatball part right. When emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty was overseeing the construction of the Grand Canal, he chanced upon a valley of sunflowers (via South China Morning Post). Back in his palace, he wanted his chefs to make something edible that would remind him of this sight. Leaving behind all the braising and barbecuing of whole meats that the chefs had known up until that point, they decided to try mincing meat which could be shaped instead. The minced meat was rolled into balls and fried till they became of a golden color reminiscent of sunflowers.

Today, shizi tou is made from minced pork meatballs that are slowly braised using the method of red cooking, till they become tender and flavorful. Usually, the meatballs are served hot alongside Napa cabbage (also known as Chinese cabbage), typically cooked in the same pot using the red cooking method. On occasion, you can also find white versions of shizi tou where the meatballs are braised in a simple broth instead.

Dongpo Pork

Statistics say that China alone accounts for half of the world's pork consumption, with a single person in China eating up to 40 kilos of pork in a year (via The Economist). It comes as no surprise then that Chinese cuisine is also responsible for some of the best pork dishes. Dongpo pork is a dish made from pork belly that is slow-cooked for a very long time in a liquid of soy sauce and Shaoxing cooking wine (via The Culture Trip). The liquids break down the fat in the meat and the result is a pork so tender that it only requires a gentle nudge from a pair of chopsticks to fall apart. Because the pork requires hours of cooking to become so deliciously tender, it is recommended that people reserve their meals at least a day in advance when going to a restaurant that is famous for its dongpo pork.

Dongpo pork may seem like it was an invention born in a Michelin-star kitchen but it turns out the discovery seems to have been entirely accidental. Su Dongpo, an exiled man living in Hangzhou, was simmering braised pork on the stove when he was challenged to a game of chess by a friend. Engrossed in the game, he forgot all about his pork till it was way overcooked. Thanks to his absent-mindedness, the juicy and tender dongpo pork was born, a dish fondly named after its accidental creator (via Chili House).

Cheong fun

Cheong fun is often referred to as pig intestine rolls in China but it has nothing to do with the animal's intestine (via Young Post). Cheong translates to intestine and the dish is called so because of its appearance. Cheong fun is a simple Chinese noodle made from rice flour but the noodle is so silky, translucent, and tender that it is thought to resemble the intestines of a pig.

The light rice noodles can be eaten plain or dipped in a sauce that is a combination of sesame oil, oyster sauce, light and dark soy sauce, and rock sugar (via Taste Atlas). Cheong fun can also be rolled around various meats like char siu pork or seafood. Certain recipe books of the 1930s from Guangdong mention a breakfast item called za leung wherein a cheong fun noodle was used to wrap around a strip of dough and then deep-fried. The cheong fun batter itself can be made from a mix of rice flour with tapioca flour and wheat starch. Oftentimes the noodles are served as rolls topped with toasted sesame seeds and scallions.

Youtiao

Fried dough in all forms are universally enjoyed all over the world — beignets, bombolini, churros, doughnuts, you name it. China enjoys its fried dough in the form of youtiao. A beloved breakfast item in China you should try, too, youtiao are strips of dough that are deep-fried till they are golden and crisp on the outside with pockets of soft dough and air on the inside (via Serious Eats). They can be eaten alongside a bowl of congee but are traditionally eaten dipped into sweetened soy milk.

Youtiao always has two strips of dough that are pinched together. This is because the two strips are meant to represent two people of the Song Dynasty — Qin Kuai and his wife Madam Wang. The Chinese legend goes that the duo had wrongly framed a well-loved army general Yue Fei for treason which led to his execution. In protest, street vendors decided to cut two strips of dough, attach them together and symbolically throw Kuai and his wife in hot oil. This is also why youtiao goes by the name of yauhjagwai in Cantonese, the word for oil-fried devil (via SAYS). But it turns out, the symbolic burning of two evil characters resulted in a tasty deep-fried snack that has turned into a Chinese food favorite!

Zongzi

Some historians claim that zongzi has been around since well before 278 BC and was eaten as a Chinese fast food of sorts by farmers in China who needed a quick and fuss-free snack in between their days (via Style). Others believe that these steamed rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves came about much later and were offered to ancestors as a food sacrifice in place of animals.

A more popular (and darker) myth goes as such: A famous poet and a minister at court, Qu Yuan, was falsely accused by his companions and left to live a life of exile. The final blow came when his homeland was seized by a rival army which caused Qu Yuan to drown himself in a nearby river. Villagers rushed to his aid on boats with loud beating drums to keep evil spirits away and threw rice dumplings into the river so that the fish would eat the dumplings instead of Qu Yuan.

Whether the legend happens to be true or not is an entirely different matter but the rice dumplings are a popular snack eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival in China (via Travel China Guide). Depending on the region, zongzi can come with sweet fillings of red bean or date pastes or in savory forms with meat in between. Regardless of the filling, zongzi traditionally comes wrapped in bamboo leaves, but can also be steamed in other leaves, such as reed or banana (via Serious Eats).

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Tanghulu

Similar to a candied apple, tanghulu is a dessert, candy, and snack all mixed in one. A Chinese snack easily available pretty much anywhere in China, tanghulu is made out of fruits covered in sugar, rows of which are skewered onto a bamboo stick (via On The Gas). Some say that the candied confection dates back to the royal household of the Song Dynasty. A royal concubine fell ill with a strange sickness when a physician recommended she eat a few hawthorns — a type of sweet berry thought to have various health benefits in traditional Chinese medicinal practice — every day. And the only way she could eat hawthorns every day was if they were dipped in sugar and sweetened.

While hawthorns are still the preferred fruits to make tanghulu, strawberries, apples, and grapes are equally good alternatives to try and make tanghulu at home. Make a simple sugar syrup and dip your skewered fruit stick in it while it's still hot. The snack is best eaten as soon as it cools down so that the sugar doesn't become rock hard. Additionally, tanghulu is more popular in the months of winter when the summer heat isn't melting the sugar coating and turning the candied fruits into a sticky mess (via Beijing Tourism).