Home Asia China Chinese Food Culture: 9 Local Dishes You Must Try

Chinese Food Culture: 9 Local Dishes You Must Try

A bowl of noodles with a pair of chopsticks laid to the left side of the bowl.

Chinese food culture is one of the backbones of international cuisine. Chinese dishes are known for their oomph and unique taste, whether in fine or casual dining. Many Chinese dishes have been developed over hundreds of years – now a living testament to generations of culinary talents.

The role of food culture in China is massive. In fact, dining and etiquette are as much a part of social and political culture as in Chinese food culture itself. In China, traditions such as providing food when hosting guests are seen as polite social etiquette. And, even in dishes, there is an artistic push for balance and ‘harmony of ingredients’.

So, while we’ve established that Chinese food culture is well worth exploring, what dishes should you try? To help you narrow your choices down, we’ve curated a list of nine Chinese dishes you must try.

Hotpot

Hotpots are a staple dish within Chinese food culture. Here, an image shows a hotpot with a thick sauce and a rice bowl in the center.
Hotpot via Pixabay.

While more of a cooking style than a singular dish, hotpot is a staple within Chinese food culture. Hotpot recipes vary from region to region and even household to household – making it a highly personal family dish. Often favored in colder months, the hotpot is a warming treat usually eaten socially. Typically, sharing a hotpot involves a large group of friends or family dining at one table, with the hotpot in the center.

In terms of those regional variations, ingredients do tend to vary. However, usually, hotpot is served broth-like and consists of meat, vegetables, and noodles. Seafood, beef, chicken, lamb, or pork are popular meat additions to hotpot. For vegetables, mushrooms, bok choy, cabbage, tomatoes, and winter melon are popular ingredients. Whatever the choices, these ingredients are cooked in a thick broth in the hotpot. The hotpot dish is then served piping hot and ready for sharing.

If you want to try a hotpot, it is best to look at sit-down restaurants as the dish is traditionally a seated dining experience.

Chow Mein

Chow mein is a key dish within Chinese food culture. This image shows a vegetable chow mein with shredded carrot, cabbage, and noodles in a white bowl.
Chow mein via Pixabay.

When it comes to comfort foods, chow mein is a top-tier contender. The delicious stir-fried noodle dish claims global fame and is widely cooked worldwide.

The chow mein sauce is undoubtedly the magic of the dish. And, while you can buy them pre-prepared, sauces are traditionally prepared from scratch. Usually, this sauce contains a careful mixture of sesame oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, brown sugar, corn starch, and grated ginger. The sauce is then tossed into the noodles and accompaniments to stir fry.

Many different ingredients can accompany the noodles, although it is typically meat or tofu with vegetables. Like a hotpot, recipes vary greatly, and you could find meats like shrimp, beef, pork, or chicken in a chow mein.

Fried Rice

Fried rice is a major dish within Chinese food culture. This image shows a fried rice topped with soy sauce and spring onions on a black plate.
Fried rice via Pexels.

Fried rice is one of the oldest dishes within Chinese food culture. Traceable back to 500AD, fried rice was originally used as a leftover dish – combining random ingredients to minimize waste. However, nowadays, fried rice is well and truly a meal in its own right. Despite being a traditional Chinese dish, fried rice has been adapted and is cooked around the world.

Similar to our last two dishes, fried rice has many variations. Through the nature of its leftover beginnings, its recipe is notoriously versatile and leaves lots of room for culinary creativity. There are a wide variety of protein bases to select from, including meats, eggs, and tofu. In terms of vegetables, peas and onions are popular additions, but most suit the recipe.

Its sauce, though, stays mostly the same and is made from a combination of soy, oyster, and fish sauces. Likewise, recipes tend to stick with long-grained or medium-grained rice, which doesn’t clump as much as shorter grains.

If you want to try Chinese fried rice, it shouldn’t be challenging to find. Fried rice is sold widely across China and in most hospitality venues.

Spring rolls

Spring rolls are a classic dish within Chinese food culture. Here a pile of spring rolls sit on a wooden serving plate. On another wooden plate, there is a tub of tomato-based sauce and a few stray tomatoes on the table cloth.

Who doesn’t love spring rolls? Spring rolls are a well-known dish within Chinese food culture. Spring rolls are a popular starter meal in Western countries like the UK and US. However, in China, traditional spring rolls were a snack eaten by themselves. Back in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, spring rolls were made to mark the beginning of spring and were eaten as a celebratory snack. Over the centuries, these rolls developed into the savory treats we know and love today – becoming eaten year-round and worldwide.

Spring rolls are made from a thin, crunchy layer of pastry that encases a filling of vegetables or meat. But, while making spring rolls may look fiddly, the process is quite simple. The dough is mixed with flour, water, and salt, then rolled out as a sheet. For vegetable spring rolls, a selection of vegetables, mint, and lettuce is finely chopped. While, for non-vegetarians, meat such as pork is shredded for the spring roll filling. The filling of choice is then rolled up in dough and deep-fried in oil, leaving a crispy spring roll ready to enjoy.

The likelihood is that you have tried a spring roll in your lifetime. And, if not, sampling one should be relatively easy as you can find spring rolls at many restaurants, takeouts, and street food stalls.

Wontons

This image shows wonton soup, with wontons floating in a thin, broth like mixture with spring onions. The picture is from aerial view and shows the soup in a blue and white bowl with chopsticks laid to the right.
Wonton soup via Pexels.

A wonton is a dumpling that originates from China but is now enjoyed across the globe. Like many of the dishes on our list, wontons are a historic part of Chinese food culture and can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty. Wonton soup is a favorite adaptation of the dish and ‘was enjoyed by the rich, upper class families’. After WW11, wonton soup became more accessible and popular across classes when the economy boosted. Wontons have also made a mark on Chinese breakfast menus and are now enjoyed by many as a first dish of the day.

While wontons can use any meat as filling, typically, you can expect pork or prawn. When making wontons from scratch, the meat of choice is minced and set aside. The dough is made from egg, flour, water, and salt combined in a large bowl. Once the right consistency, the dough is rolled out and cut into squares. The filling is then spooned into the center of the square, still raw, as the small amount of meat cooks quickly with the pastry. How to cook the wontons is up to the chef. You can steam, pan fry, deep fry, or boil wontons, so it depends on the texture and taste you want to achieve. As a general guideline, frying will turn the wontons crispy and crunchy, while steaming and boiling will keep the pastry soft.

If you want to try wontons for yourself, you can buy them at supermarkets, street vendors, cafes, and restaurants. Wontons are such as staple dish within Chinese food culture that it should be easy to find some to try, even outside China.

Kung Pao Chicken

Kung pao chicken is a key dish within Chinese food culture. Here, the chicken is diced into medium chunks and mixed with vegetables in a thick, brown sauce. A pair of chopsticks sit over the bowl horizontally.
Kung pao chicken via Pixabay.

Kung pao chicken was created in the Sichuan Provence in the Qing Dynasty and is a historic dish within Chinese food culture. It was governor Ding Baozhen who masterminded the dish. And, the dish’s name ‘Kung Pao’ comes from the governor’s nickname of ‘protector of the prince’.

Kung pao chicken is a signature bold and spicy dish within Chinese food culture. The dish consists of stir fry chicken, peanuts, and vegetables, served with rice in a thick sauce. The sauce is the magic of kung pao chicken, and traditional versions use classic Chinese ingredients like Sichuan peppercorn and Chinese rice wine vinegar. Soy sauce, sugar, and hoisin sauce are other common sauce ingredients. The result is a balance of a sweet and salty spicy coating, with the chicken and vegetables are stir-fried in for flavor.

Kung pao chicken is available worldwide for those wanting to try the dish. However, keep in mind that Western versions of the dish vary in recipes. In the US especially, you can expect replacement ingredients and an adapted taste rather than traditional kung pao chicken. For authentic, classic kung pao chicken, we’d recommend sampling the dish in China and, even better, the Sichuan Provence.

Peking Roasted Duck

Here, diced vegetables and sliced ginger sit on a grey plate next to chunks of Peking roasted duck.
Peking roasted duck via Pixabay.

Peking roasted duck is another historic dish for our list and a famous meal in Chinese food culture. The dish is traceable back to the 13th Century when it was sold door-to-door as delicious street food. Over the centuries, the growing popularity of the Peking roasted duck spread the dish across provinces, where it eventually took hold of Beijing. From Beijing, the rest is modern history, and Peking roasted duck became a worldwide recognized dish.

Peking roasted duck is known for its sticky, sweet sauce. And, like kung pao chicken, the secret to the dish is in the mixture and quantities of its sauce. Traditionally, the sauce contains Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, honey, and lemon juice. The ingredients are mixed in a large pan with water and allowed to boil, then simmer – creating that dense, sticky texture. When the sauce becomes syrup-like, it is poured over the duck, which is roasted until cooked. Usually, Peking roasted duck is served piping hot with pancakes, spring onions, and hoisin sauce.

While Peking roasted duck has a reputation as street food, it can be found in sit-down restaurants worldwide. The dish’s popularity in Chinese food culture has spread across a variety of venue types and countries. Because of this, Peking roasted duck should be an easy dish to find if you want to try traditional Chinese food.

Congee

A bowl of congee sits on webbed cloth with crushed vegetables and fried onions as toppings.
Congee via Pixabay.

Quite similar to the Western dish of porridge, congee is a rice porridge and staple dish in Chinese food culture. The dish can come with flavorsome ingredients, such as chicken congee. Alternatively, congee can be served plain with a side dish like pickled ginger or cucumber to add flavor as needed.

Congee’s recipe is simple but effective. Long-grain white rice and meat or vegetable stock are boiled in a large pan. While the rice boils, seasonings like salt, pepper, and ginger are added to the mixture for flavor. Instead of taking the rice off the heat once cooked, you allow the mixture to turn thick and cream-like by letting it continue simmering. The result is a highly adaptable rice porridge to which you can add the flavors of your choice.

Like the hotpot, congee recipes vary from region to region and even between households and individuals. Therefore, we’d recommend sampling as many varieties as you can.

Scallion pancakes

A barbeque fork lifts a scallion pancake from a sizzling pan where others cook.
Scallion pancakes via Pixabay.

When you picture a scallion pancake, you may imagine a savory twist on the Western batter pancakes. However, in Chinese food culture, the pancake is more of a flatbread than a Western ‘pancake’. Instead of batter, the Scallion pancake is made from dough in an ancient recipe that dates back to the 3rd Century.

As the dish’s name suggests, the key ingredient is chopped scallions. After the dough is rolled into flat circles, the scallions are sprinkled into the center. The dough is then rolled into a sausage shape, then a snail shape, to keep the scallions inside. The dough is flattened into a large circle from the snail shape – forming the typical pancake shape.

Another popular street food, you can also find scallion pancakes at cafes and restaurants. Scallion pancakes are a common breakfast meal, so look no further if you are looking for a traditional Chinese breakfast.

What is traditional food in China?

Traditional food in China typically includes carbs, protein, and vegetables. For example, a chow mein has noodles, chicken, and bok choy.

What is China’s most popular food?

China’s most popular food is rice, served as an accompaniment or as the main meal like fried rice.

What is a traditional breakfast in China?

In China, a traditional breakfast has many options but usually includes dishes like dumplings or scallion pancakes.

What makes food in China unique?

Apart from the historic cooking techniques and perfected flavors, the importance of food in Chinese culture makes food in China unique. There is a meaning behind dishes which is passed down through every generation.