This article was originally published in Higher View, the inflight mag for China Eastern Airlines. I picked the dishes with Western visitors in mind, and lots of personal favourites, admittedly.
Dan Dan Noodles, Chengdu
The secret weapon of Sichuan cuisine is the fruit of the prickly ash, the famously numbing Sichuan peppercorn. In this noodle snack (the name ‘dan’ referring to the shoulder pole Chengdu street vendors once used to carry their mobile kitchens) they’re freshly ground and added liberally to a spicy sauce of chilli oil, sesame paste and preserved vegetables, together with minced pork, fried peanuts and scallions. When everything is evenly mixed with the yellowish egg noodles, the results are tantalizingly fragrant, with a lingering peppercorn-numbness you’ll crave again and again.
Try it at: Take your pick of the noodle shacks to the southeast of Wuhou Temple
Peking Duck, Beijing
Beautifully bronzed duck, a steamer of papery pancakes, julienned veggies and sticky soybean sauce. Yep, it’s the Imperial banquet dish Beijing gave to the world, and it tastes better in the capital than anywhere else. After all, tens of thousands of ducks are prepped, roasted, carved and gobbled up daily in the city’s many ‘kaoya dian.’ The key to Beijing’s signature quacker is the skin, which, after cooking over a fruitwood fire in hung ovens, should be brittle yet yielding. Getting there requires much labour and skill; the best roasters take years to master their art.
Try it at: Duck de Chine, 1949 – The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti North Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing (+86 010 6501 8881)
Shengjian Bao, Shanghai
Shengjian bao, a much-loved morning staple on the streets of Shanghai, is, in the mind of this eater, China’s premier dumpling. These crisp-bottomed, pork-filled dough pockets are cooked on a wide, flat pan, the bottom-facing ‘knot’ frying to a golden crunch as the gelatin in the filling – a little touch of gastronomic magic - liquefies into a rich, meaty consommé. The trick is to nibble a hole in the side and slurp out the soup without scalding your face (trickier than it sounds). Sticky, sesame-seed smiles all round.
Try it at: Yang’s Fry Dumpling, 269 Wujiang Road, Shanghai (+86 021 6136 1391)
Red-braised Pork, Changsha
Most famously the best-loved dish of a certain Mao Zedong, this calorific pork-fest is a masterclass in how Chinese chefs turn base fat into gold. Cooked properly, the hefty cubes of pig belly (mostly fat with a little lean meat attached) should melt unctuously in the mouth. The braising liquor, spiked with whole spices like star anise and cassia, and flavoured with Shaoxing rice wine and soya sauce, is reduced to a sticky-sweet, caramelized sauce as the meat cooks. Best eaten over plain white rice, to soak up all the delicious juices.
Try it at: Huogongdian, or ‘Fire God Palace’, is beloved by locals, with several locations around town (+86 0731 8556 8303)
Beggar’s Chicken, Suzhou
One of countless Chinese dishes with a whimsical legend attached, this one goes that a hungry beggar managed to land himself a chicken, but lacking both cooking utensils and condiments, had no way to prepare it. So he wrapped his bird in lotus leaves, packed it in earth, and baked it in a fire. Surprise, surprise – tender and delicious! Sure, it might look a little rustic, but after hours of slow cooking the meat pulls away from the bones in moist shreds, and tastes more, well, chicken’y, than any chicken you’ve had before.
Try it at: Take a wander up Taijian Lane, Suzhou’s most famous food street, and seek out Wangsi Restaurant (+86 512- 6522 7277)
Fried Goat’s Cheese, Dali
A culinary anomaly in a nation that favours bean curd over milk, this authentic goat’s cheese, made by the mountain-dwelling Baizu ethnic minority in China’s western province of Yunnan, would give a French chevre a run for its money any day. Fried in strips and often served layered with smoky, home-reared bacon, it’s a veritable tapas plate of a dish most newcomers to the Middle Kingdom would never have expected. Best washed down with a glass of fiery plum wine.
Try it at: A Da Yin Restaurant, 165 Yu'er Road, Dali Old Town
Nang Bao Rou, Urumqi
The Central Asian cuisine of Xinjiang – roast mutton, baked breads and dairy products – first spread into China via the Silk Route. This gut-busting dish sums up what it’s all about. A round, oven-baked ‘nang’ flatbread is drowned in a rich tomato-based stew of slow-cooked, cumin-coated mutton ribs and vegetables. Big enough for several to share, by the time the meat is gobbled up, the bread is saturated with the warming, gravy-like sauce. One bite and you can almost picture the camel trains crossing Xinjiang’s shifting sands.
Try it at: Marwa, 99 Huang He Road, Urumqi
Rou Jia Mo, Xian
Roujiamo, quite possibly the only food whose name, when uttered correctly, sounds a bit like a James Bond actor (think about it), is the best-loved street snack of Xian. Sometimes called the ‘Chinese hamburger’, this blue-collar bite consists of juicy pork stewed in spices and sandwiched, together with a few sprigs of fresh coriander, between a crisp, unleavened flat bread ‘bun’, called a ‘mo’. Most often sold from roving bicycle kitchens, it’s an economic and satisfying snack on the go.
Try it at: Fan Family Roujiamo Restaurant on West Avenue, dead centre of the old walled city.
Chongqing Hot Pot, Chongqing
You like it hot? This bubbling cauldron of lava-hued broth, peppered with stubby, cherry-shaped chilli peppers, will challenge even the most hardcore of spice fiends. The pot is set over a heat source in the centre of the table, and diners eat by dunk and dip. Raw beef, pork and lamb is sliced molecule-thin so it cooks in mere seconds, along with fresh veggies, leafy greens, tofu, noodles, and most anything else. A raucously sociable way of eating, Hot Pot sessions often go on for hours; be sure to order enough cold beer to keep the fire at bay.
Try it at: Xiao Tian’e (Cygnet Hot-Pot Palace), inside the hotel of the same name, 78 Jianxin North Road, Chongqing (+86 023 6785 5328)
Cantonese Steamed Scallops with Garlic, Guangzhou
Cantonese chefs are masters of balancing delicate flavours and textures, as this dish shows. Plump scallops, lightly steamed and served on the half-shell are topped with finely minced garlic, rice wine, shallots and delicate twirls of glass noodles. The combination of the ingredients when steamed creates a zingy, mouth-watering sauce that balances the pearlescent freshness of the scallops. Deceptively simple, the success of this dish rests upon timing, cooking temperature and execution.
Try it at: Xin Li Zhi Wan Restaurant, 50 Shamian South Road, Guangzhou (+86 020 8121 6188)