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 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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!”
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.
- And bees … oh my!
Even posh restaurants in China offer an array of fried insects as a delicacy.
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.
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.