Guest post: Chinese food: The good, the bad and the ugly

Photo by Becca Seigel

Photo by Becca Seigel.

I’m going back to China in 10 days, and this guest post makes me crave the chili-covered fresh water crab on a stick and other spicy delights I discovered in Hunan province on my first trip.

Allison Michelle Dienstman takes us on a tour through China’s ten most delicious (and sometimes bizarre) dishes. It all depends on your perspective, of course, for what you classify as the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Chinese cuisine is distinctive and regionally inspired. Tasted on its native soil, you can really appreciate its depth and variety: from imperial dishes to exotic delicacies, this country has everything. While living in China, I experienced first-hand the country’s rich cuisine culture, filled with unique and, at times, unusual edibles.

For many Westerners, familiarity with Chinese food remains limited to fried rice and egg rolls. Yet the variety of Chinese food comes as numerous as the people. Culinary styles range from one region to the next due to factors such as available resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques, and lifestyle. One region may favor the use of heavy garlic and shallots over chili and spices, while another prefers seafood over other meats and fowl.

Let’s take a tour of China’s regional favorites and oddities that will leave you hungry for more.

The Good…

The giant soup dumpling puts all other dumplings to shame. Photo by  jamesjyu,

The giant soup dumpling puts all other dumplings to shame. Photo courtesy jamesjyu.

  1.  The dumpling that will change your life

The mighty soup dumpling, a local specialty of Shanghai, should be on the top of the list of things to eat in China.  A gelatin made from pork stock is chilled into a solid and worked into dough as a filling. Upon steaming, the stock melts and the soup is slurped through a straw.


Catfish stew; spicy, delicious and full of flavor. Photo by Allison Michelle Dienstman.

  1.  Can’t resist catfish!

Hands down, one of the best meals in China is served in the western province of Guizhou. After you choose a live catfish from a tank, the fish cooks in a large pot of steaming noodle soup at the table. Using chopsticks, each diner takes pieces of fish and ladles of noodle soup into their own bowl and mixes it with their choice of herbs and spices.

  1.  Duck fit for a king

Originally served to China’s Imperial Court in Beijing, this duck goes through the elaborate preparation of being lacquered with molasses, pumped with air, filled with boiling water, then roasted over an open fire. The duck is brought out whole and thinly sliced. It is typically served with a thin crepe, sliced green onions, and Hoisin sauce.


The real deal kungpao chicken cooks into an intensely fragrant, citrus-like ambrosia that produces a tingly-numbing sensation in the mouth. Photo by Alexandra Moss.

  1.  The real kungpao

You might think you know it, but you haven’t had it like this. Kungpao chicken, a classic dish from Sichuan province in central-west China, features diced chicken marinated in chili oil. The meat is then flash fried with chili peppers, peppercorns, and peanuts or cashew nuts until golden brown.


While the hot pot continues to simmer, ingredients are placed into the pot and cooked at the table. Photo by

  1. Chinese fondue

Hot pot consists of a simmering metal pot of stock at the center of a dining table. Traditional hot pot includes thinly sliced meat, leaf vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings, noodles and seafood that cook in the broth. It is often mixed with a blend of delicious condiments including chive flower paste, Hoisin sauce, soy sauce, chili peppers, and sesame oil.

The bad…


“To put it bluntly, ice cream should not taste like corn.”, says Allison. Photo by Becca Seigel.

  1.  Ice cream on the cob?

Corn, green tea, red bean, wasabi, and even green pea – ice cream flavors in China take a much different turn! Perhaps they make up for it with other common flavors such as mango, lychee, and banana.

  1.  The nasty bits

The Chinese have no fear when it comes to eating what many diners in the West would avoid — in fact they’re often considered the best bits of all. Restaurants commonly serve deep fried chicken feet, pig ear, pig snout, and duck tongue.

…And the ugly

Photo by  striving to a goal,

Cicadas make an interesting homemade snack for resourceful Chinese. Photo by Striving to a Goal.

  1.  Cicadas

Chinese society greatly values gastronomy and a willingness to eat virtually anything edible. Once I sat outside at a local park in Shanghai observing two Chinese men as they gathered cicadas from a tree. I turned to the men and asked in Mandarin, “Why are you collecting these insects?” He casually responded, “To eat them!”


Scorpions, crickets, and silk worm pods: just a few examples of the unusual edibles found in China. Photo by 5oulscape.

  1.  Scorpions

On another occasion, while walking through Beijing’s famous Wangfujing district, my friends and I came across a stand selling creatures on sticks including live scorpions, silk worm pods, starfish, sea horses and large crickets. These are dipped and fried in hot oil, providing a savory and very crunchy snack.

  1. And bees … oh my!

Even posh restaurants in China offer an array of fried insects as a delicacy.

A friend eating a fried honey bee while I look on in shock! Photo by Allison Michelle Dienstman

A friend eating a fried honey bee while Allison looks on in shock. Photo via Allison Michelle Dienstman.

When it comes to China, whether good, bad, or ugly, nothing is off limits. The immense variety of and, at times, bizarre cuisine in China reflects the resourcefulness and depth of a culture that has survives over three millennia.


Allison Michelle Dienstman (photo via the author).

American born, but a citizen of the world, with a commitment to life experience, Allison Michelle Dienstman is a lover of language, travel, music, cooking, dance, and spirituality. Allison graduated from the College of William & Mary with a B.A. in Chinese Language and Literature and minor studies in Spanish and Italian. Currently, she works as a freelance writer and marketing strategist for various projects. 

For more of Allison’s writing, visit her professional website,, or visit her She’s on Facebook at OliveVintage and Twitter @Olive_Vintage


3 responses to “Guest post: Chinese food: The good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Yes, I need to understand Chinese language from different perspectives, food, festival, culture etc. The listening and speaking are not difficult personally, but the reading and writing are really hard as Chinese characters are a form of ideogram.

    Finally I took the live online lesson to learn it by tuition of native-Chinese teachers (eChineseLearning).
    As a result, it is good. If interested on Mandarin, I suggest to have a try.


    • I still crave the duck cooked in chili and duck blood I had in Hunan … and to think I was initially uneasy to try it!
      Any advice for Jianxi and Fujian provinces ? :-)


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