You probably know that the Chinese food from your go-to takeout spot isn’t actually traditional Chinese food. It’s heavily Americanized (though tasty in its own way). Being the world’s most populous country, Chinese has an array of authentic cuisine that is incredibly varied and vastly different from one region to another. That means expanding your palate to the world of traditional Chinese food can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. We researched classic dishes and talked to Bee Yinn Low—author of the Asian food blog Rasa Malaysia and the cookbook Easy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites from Dim Sum to Kung Pao and an authority on traditional Chinese cooking—to find out what she thinks are the best dishes to introduce you to the cuisine.
“Rice is a staple in Chinese cuisine,” Yinn Low tells us. “Chinese fried rice is a complete meal that feeds the entire family. The combination of ingredients can be anything from protein (chicken, pork, shrimp) to vegetables (carrots, mixed vegetables). It’s a wholesome meal for dinner.” It also happens to be simple and quick to make at home, but as Yinn Low advises, “for the best fried rice, leftover rice will be best.” (We know what we’re doing with our takeout leftovers.)
Try it at home: Fried Rice
“Personally, I think Peking duck is the best way to eat duck,” Yinn Low tells us of the Beijing dish. “Crispy roasted duck sliced into bite-sized pieces, rolled up in a wrapper with salad and hoisin sauce.” Peking duck is seasoned, dried for 24 hours and cooked in an open-air oven called a hung oven, so it’s not something you can really replicate at home … but it is something we recommend seeking out at a traditional Chinese restaurant. (It’s traditionally carved and served in three courses: skin, meat, and bones in the form of broth, with sides like cucumbers, bean sauce and pancakes).
The name kind of says it all: Stinky tofu is fermented tofu with a strong odor (and it’s said that the stronger it smells, the better it tastes). Tofu is brined in a mixture of fermented milk, vegetables, meat and aromatics before fermenting for up to several months—kind of like cheese. Its preparation depends on the region, but it can be served cold, steamed, stewed or deep-fried with chile and soy sauces on the side.
“Other than rice, noodles are a mainstay in Chinese cooking,” Yinn Low says. “Just like with fried rice, there are endless variations on chow mein. For busy parents, this is an easy dish to make for the entire family. And if you can’t find traditional Chinese egg noodles or chow mein noodles, you can use cooked spaghetti to make the dish instead.”
Try it at home: Chow Mein
Congee, or rice porridge, is a nourishing, easy-to-digest meal (particularly for breakfast). Congees differ from region to region: Some are thick, some are watery and some are made with grains other than rice. It can be savory or sweet, topped with meat, tofu, vegetables, ginger, boiled eggs and soy sauce, or mung beans and sugar. And since it’s ultra-comforting, congee is also considered food therapy for when you’re sick.
Try it at home: Quick Congee
A pita-like bun filled with tender braised pork is decidedly not what we ever thought of as a hamburger, but it’s delicious nonetheless. The street food originates from Shaanxi in northwest China, the meat contains over 20 spices and seasonings and since it’s been around since the Qin dynasty (circa 221 B.C. to 207 B.C.), some would argue that it’s the original hamburger.
No maple syrup here: These savory pancakes are more like a supremely chewy flatbread with bits of scallion and sesame oil mixed throughout the dough. They’re served as street food, in restaurants and fresh or frozen in supermarkets, and since they’re pan-fried, they have the ideal balance of crispy edges and soft insides.
Try it at home: Scallion Pancakes
“This is probably the most well-known Chinese chicken dish outside of China,” Yinn Low says. “It’s also an authentic and traditional dish that you can find in many restaurants in China.” The spicy stir-fried chicken dish originates from the Sichuan province of southwestern China, and while you’ve probably had the Westernized version, the real thing is fragrant, spicy and a little bit mouth-numbing, thanks to Sichuan peppercorns. If you want to avoid the gloppy version you get here in the United States, Yinn Low says its actually quite easy to re-create at home.
Try it at home: Kung Pao Chicken
There are two types of baozi, or bao: dàbāo (big bun) and xiǎobāo (small bun). Both are a bread-like dumpling filled with everything from meat to veggies to bean paste, depending on the type and where they were made. They’re usually steamed—which makes the buns delightfully squishy and soft—and served with dipping sauces like soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and chile pastes.
Maybe you’ve heard of or even tried mapo tofu, but Westernized versions of the Sichuanese tofu-beef-fermented-bean-paste dish are usually much less spicy than their traditional counterpart, which is laden with chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns. Fun fact: The literal translation of the name is “pockmarked old woman’s bean curd,” thanks to origin stories that claim it was invented by a, well, pockmarked old woman. It’s got a little bit of everything: textural contrast, bold flavors and lots of heat.
Try it at home: Mapo Tofu
Technically, char siu is a way to flavor and cook barbecued meat (specifically pork). It literally means “fork roasted,” because the Cantonese dish is cooked on a skewer in an oven or over a fire. Whether it’s pork loin, belly or butt, the seasoning almost always contains honey, five-spice powder, hoisin sauce, soy sauce and red fermented bean curd, which give it its signature red hue. If you’re not already drooling, char siu can be served alone, with noodles or inside baozi.
Try it at home: Char Siu
These “fried sauce noodles” from the Shandong province are made with chewy, thick wheat noodles (aka cumian) and topped with zhajiang sauce, a rich mixture of ground pork and fermented soybean paste (or another sauce, depending on where you are in China). It’s sold just about everywhere in the country, from street vendors to fancier restaurants.
“Wontons are one of the most authentic Chinese dumplings,” Yinn Low says. The wontons themselves are made with a thin, square dumpling wrapper and can be filled with protein such as shrimp, pork, fish or a combination, depending on the region (Yinn Low’s own recipe calls for shrimp). The broth is a rich concoction of pork, chicken, Chinese ham and aromatics, and you’ll often find cabbage and noodles mingling with the wontons.
Try it at home: Wonton Soup
On the other hand, soup dumplings are dumplings with the soup inside. The filling is made with a pork stock that’s so packed with collagen, it solidifies as it cools. Then it gets folded into a delicate wrapper that’s pleated into a neat little packet and steamed, melting the broth. To eat, simply bite the top off and slurp out the broth before popping the rest in your mouth.
Less a dish and more an experience, hot pot is a cooking method where raw ingredients are cooked tableside in a giant pot of simmering broth. There’s a lot of room for variation: different broths, meats, veggies, seafood, noodles and toppings. It’s also meant to be a communal event where everyone sits down together and cooks their food in the same vessel.
Try it at home: Chinese Hot Pot
Another dim sum favorite, lo mai gai is a Cantonese dish of rice, Chinese sausage, chicken, mushrooms and other aromatics, typically wrapped in a lotus leaf before steaming. The key to getting a perfectly sticky texture is to use glutinous rice, which contains less amylose (a type of starch) and sticks together (like glue) when cooked.
Try it at home: Chinese Sticky Rice
Hailing from the southern province of Hainan, this delicately flavored poached chicken dish is supremely comforting. The chicken is gently poached in broth, along with rice and aromatics like ginger, scallion and garlic, then served with cucumbers and chile sauce or oil. (The origins are hotly contested, and it’s commonly associated with Singaporean cuisine too.)
Try it at home: One-Pot Hainanese Chicken Rice
The garnishes can vary, but Chinese-style steamed eggplant is distinctive for its juicy, tender texture and sweet flavor. The preparation involves tossing the cooked vegetable in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil. Since eggplant is slightly spongy by nature, it will soak up all the flavorful sauce.
Try it at home: Seasoned Steamed Eggplant
Jiaozi are a type of dumpling that’s filled with meat and vegetables and made with a thinner dough than baozi. They can be cooked a few different ways: boiled, steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried or even served in soup. The tiny, savory parcels are considered a symbol of good fortune, and though most popular during the Lunar New Year, they’re also eaten year-round.
Try it at home: Pan-Fried Jiaozi
These handhelds (chūnjuǎn, 春卷), especially popular in Eastern China for Lunar New Year, symbolize wealth and are named spring rolls because they’re eaten during Spring Festival. Spring rolls are a type of Cantonese dim sum stuffed with vegetables or meat and wrapped in thin dough wrappers, then fried until crispy and golden.
Try it at home: Spring Rolls