Many countries tend to have a very specific idea of what Chinese food is supposed to be. It is often represented by fried rice, noodles, dumplings, and sweet and sour pork, and while these dishes are definitely staples, they are not all that Chinese cuisine has to offer. They mostly became popular around the world as a result of Chinese diaspora communities recreating their comfort foods from home, but there are still so many flavors and dishes that are difficult to find outside of China, so here is a quick breakdown of some of the most popular and lesser known dishes to try around China.
Sichuan food is presently one of the most common cuisines in the entirety of China. Originating from the Southwestern region of China, the main characteristic of Sichuan cuisine is the numbing spice that comes from Sichuan peppercorns. Aside from that, the food is also flavored with spices like fennel, pepper, aniseed, cinnamon, and clove, and the sauces are often made with ginger, garlic, and broad bean chili paste. Although spicy is one of the defining flavors of Sichuan cuisine, some dishes may also carry hints of sweet and sour.
The most common Sichuan dishes would be mapo tofu, kung pao chicken, Sichuan hotpot, hot and sour soup, and dandan mian (which inspired the Japanese tantanmen ramen), although one of the lesser known Sichuan dishes outside of China would be the Fuqi Feipian, also known as “husband and wife lung slices”. Don’t worry, there’s no cannibalism involved in the making of this dish; it’s basically just thin slices of beef that are marinated with chili oil. It’s only called as such because the beef slices resembled lungs, and the dish itself was sold and popularized by a merchant couple named Guo Zhaohua and Zhang Tianzheng.
Since Beijing has been the capital of China for centuries, Beijing cuisine is sort of a mishmash of flavors and cooking techniques from the areas surrounding it, with the main influence being Shandong cuisine. The food is often salty and glazed with various thick sauces, and is cooked with techniques like stir-frying, barbequing, roasting, and braising. Aside from that, Beijing cuisine often uses mutton and lamb as their protein.
Peking Duck is probably the most iconic dish in Beijing cuisine, but other popular dishes include zha jiang mian (which inspired the Korean Jajangmyeon), fish head soup, dumplings, and tanghulu.
Some of the lesser-known dishes outside of Beijing include jiang jiang rousi, which are thinly sliced pieces of pork that’s deep fried and coated in sweet bean sauce. There are also various mutton dishes like mutton hotpot and mutton stir-fry with scallions. While potatoes are often associated with Western food, Beijing also has potato dishes like Gan You Tudou Pian, which are wok-fried potato slices, and Tudou Si, which are shredded potatoes.
Like Cantonese cuisine, Shanghai cuisine also puts emphasis on bringing out the original flavors of the food, and any sauce that accompanies the dish is used as a condiment. Sugar is a vital ingredient, since the Shanghainese are known for their sweet tooth. Aside from that, many dishes are also described as “drunken” because of the use of alcohol and spirits in the cooking process. Shanghai cuisine is also meticulous with presentation, as the ingredients are precisely cut and arranged in harmonizing colors, and soy sauce is often used to give the final dish a glossy coating.
Among the popular dishes are sweet and sour pork, Shanghai fried noodles, scallion pancakes, scallion oil noodles, and dou hua (taho). However, you might not have heard of Shansi Leng Mian, which are cold noodles served with hot slices of eel that have been braised in sweet soy sauce. There is also the Gui Hua Lian’ou or stuffed lotus root with osmanthus blossom syrup, which has been called the most impractical street food because of how sticky it is, but the taste is definitely worth getting your hands dirty for. Lastly, there is the steamed hairy crab, which might sound appetizing, but it’s only called hairy crab because it has fur on its claws. Steamed hairy crab is cooked with very little seasoning but is still packed full of flavor.
Fujian cuisine is subdivided into three regional styles: there is the Fuzhou style, which features sweet and sour flavors, Western Fujian style, which is spicy, and Southern Fujian, which is both spicy and sweet. Some overarching qualities of Fujian cuisine is the use of various types of seafood, the use of red rice wine in cooking, the emphasis on soup, and the meticulous decoration of the dishes using sliced vegetables and herbs.
Among the popular dishes in Fujian cuisine are oyster omelet, Hokkien fried rice, stewed chicken with three cups sauce, Bak Kut Teh or pork rib soup, and Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, which is basically a soup consisting of various seafoods like abalone, scallops, sea cucumbers, and shark fins stewed in Shaoxing Wine. It gets its name from a legend where a Buddhist monk caught a whiff of the soup and leapt over a wall to try it even though he was vegetarian. Fujian cuisine also has a version of sweet and sour pork called Lychee Pork, which uses red rice wine in the sauce instead of regular vinegar.
The food in Hong Kong is a mix between tradition and fusion. It’s mainly influenced by Cantonese cuisine, which is the most popular Chinese cuisine around the world because of diaspora communities. Cantonese food is often lightly seasoned because it focuses more on bridging the original flavor of the food. Common spices and seasonings include chives, coriander, ginger, sugar, aniseed, rice vinegar, oyster sauce, and hoisin sauce, but unless the original flavor of the food is bland, barely any seasoning is added to the dish.
Some signature Cantonese dishes in Hong Kong include congee with youtiao and century egg, beef brisket noodles, wonton noodles, chicken feet, hakaw, and steamed rice rolls. Many of them are familiar comfort foods for us, however, there is another side to Hong Kong cuisine that not everyone may know of.
Cha Chaan Teng is an unintentional fusion cuisine that is a product of British Colonial Rule. In a nutshell, it serves Hong Kong’s version of Western food, and popular dishes include noodles with Spam, baked pork chop rice, macaroni soup, deep fried French toast, pineapple bun, and Yinyeung, which is a drink made with both coffee and tea. Some of these dishes might sound strange at first, but they are a unique part of Hong Kong and are definitely worth a try.
Out of all the cuisines mentioned in this article, Macanese cuisine is definitely the most unique. Since Macau was under Portuguese rule for over 400 years, the food there is more Western than Chinese, although there are some familiar Chinese twists in many of the signature dishes, such as using soy sauce and stir-frying techniques.
Some foods to try are the pork chop bun, seaweed pork floss rolls, pork jerky, Portuguese egg tarts, and almond cookies. Some of the less familiar dishes to us would be the Minchi, which is minced beef, chopped potatoes and onions stir-fried in Worcestershire sauce, making it resemble corned beef hash. There is also African chicken, which is the Macanese version of chicken curry, Portuguese seafood rice, shrimp roe noodles, and Macanese chili prawns.
Despite the abundance of Chinese restaurants in the Philippines, the food we have here is only the surface level of what Chinese cuisine has to offer, so which one of these dishes do you want to try?