Ah, the sheer vastness of Chinese food! Since China is so big, the food is some of the most varied you can find in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of it has been reduced to greasy takeaway fried noodles and rice that is consumed by ravenous students after a night out. SHAME! But fear not, I am here to right the reputation of Chinese food and give you a glimpse of the foodie wonders it can behold. After this, you will never be able to order Chinese takeaway ever again. Let's have a look, shall we?
I have to start with my absolute favourite food ever, Chinese dumplings. Now, most of us know them as a starter or a side (probably in a portion of 3-4), squeezed into a transparent plastic takeaway container, kind of cold and glistening from oil? That is such a tragic misrepresentation of the awesome dumpling.
First of all, they come in a variety of cooking ways: boiled, fried, in soup, you name it. Secondly, there are different types: there is the classic “Shui Jiao” (boiled) or “Guo Tie” (fried, “pot sticker” in the US); the “Xiao Long Bao” (technically a bun, but more like a very juicy, round dumpling), and the famous “Hun Tun”, or Wonton.
So, a little bit on the history of dumplings. Apparently, the shape was inspired by human ears (not very appetizing, but bear with me). According to legend, a man called Zhang Zhongjing noticed that many poor people in his village had frostbitten ears, and invented dumplings to give to the poor, so that they would have sustenance and warmth (see, even their backstory is awesome). A different theory says that, since the shape of the dumplings resembles that of gold and silver ingots, eating them is meant to bring wealth.
Regardless of whether or not eating dumplings will make you rich, they are a staple Chinese dish that is delicious and versatile. You can pair them with soy sauce or chili sauce, or a combination of both, but my favourite will always be my mother's home-made boiled dumplings dipped in Chinese black vinegar!
In Shanghai, they have a different variety of the traditional fried dumpling called “Sheng Jian Bao". Personally, I didn't find them amazing, since they were quite doughy. But here is a detailed review with restaurant recommendations if you want to try for yourself!
And if this ode to dumplings has given you a craving and you aren't able to travel to China anytime soon, I found a great recipe and how-to for you to make them yourself! Now get on it and see takeaway dumplings pale in comparison.
Now, technically, dumplings are dim sum. Dim sum is the collective designation for small portions of food that together make up a meal. You share them between the whole table. Think of it as the Chinese version of Spanish tapas.
Dim sum originated in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province, but has now spread to all corners of China (and Asia in general). It started off as a snack to accompany Chinese tea, but has evolved into a full-sized meal tradition.
The best thing about dim sum is that the small portions allow you to order many different varieties. I am not going to go into all the different dishes (there are too many!!), but I will outline my favourites:
Of course, dumplings are indispensable when it comes to ordering dim sum. Then, there are Char Siu buns, which are steamed rice flour buns filled with barbecue pork. When well-made, they are fluffy and soft, and the pork inside is juicy and fragrant. Get Cheong Fun as well! They are wide rice noodles filled with shrimp, pork or vegetables splashed with sweet soy sauce. When it comes to vegetables, I always order radish cake. It is made of radish purée pressed into squares with dried shrimp and fried. I love it with a bit of chili sauce on the side! For the more daring among you, there are delicacies such as chicken feet (marinated in soy sauce, or cold with chili and vinegar dressing), or thousand year egg porridge.
Next time you go out for Chinese food, look out for the dim sum, order something you've never tried before, and be surprised (I don't take any responsibility for negative surprises, that's on you)!
Char Siu (or Cha Shao in Mandarin)
Speaking of Char Siu (the barbecued pork in the buns, remember?), it is a wondrous dish all in itself. Although it is commonly known as Chinese barbecued pork due to the savoury and sweet glazing, the spices used to make it are quite different from the Western barbecue spices. Most recipes contain five-spice, soy sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce. Check here for a nice recipe if you want to make Char Siu at home.
Typically, it is served with rice, fried noodles or in a bun. In my opinion, it goes really well with a side of garlic-fried broccoli or pak choi.
No Chinese meal is complete without Chinese tea. Many different types are available, but the most common one served in restaurants is Jasmine tea. Read up on the different varieties here.
There you go, now you know the important things about Chinese food! These are just my favourites, and of course, there are many many more amazing things to eat in China. Go forth and explore!
For a little guide on what to see in Shanghai if you're a tourist, take a look at this post!
Let me know in the comments what your favourite Chinese foods are!