Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers
Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Regional Classics From Across China
China is a vast country with incredibly diverse regional cuisines shaped by local ingredients, culinary traditions, and cultural influences. While many around the world are familiar with mainstream Chinese dishes like General Tso's chicken or chow mein, there is a whole world of authentic Chinese cuisine waiting to be explored by intrepid foodies.
One essential stop on any food-focused tour of China is Sichuan, located in the country's spicy southwest region. Known for numbing peppers and tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, signature Sichuan dishes showcase the province's bold flavors. Kung Pao chicken, composed of tender pieces of chicken, peanuts, vegetables, anddynamic chili peppers, is a classic example. Mapo tofu, a soft tofu dish cooked with ground pork and fermented black beans in a fiery chili-laced sauce, is another must-try. And for adventurous eaters, Chongqing hot pot envelops diners in an sensory experience where they cook ingredients like thinly sliced beef, tripe, fish balls, and vegetables in a bubbling vat of red chili broth right at their table.
Heading north, the wheat-based noodles and Islamic lamb dishes of China's Silk Road show the intersection of cultures in dishes like Lanzhou beef noodle soup. Slippery hand-pulled noodles swim in a rich, hearty broth with melt-in-your-mouth slices of braised beef and aromatic spices. Xi'an, the start of the ancient Silk Road, gives us another classic: biang biang mian, chewy noodles topped with a mixture of pork, vegetables, and chili oil.
Venturing east, Shanghai's cuisine revels in its multicultural influences. Xiaolongbao,soup dumplings with delicately thin skins filled with hot pork broth and meat, delight diners with their craveworthy contrasts of temperature and texture. Shanghai-style fried noodles, or sheng jian mantou, are another specialty, with crispy bottoms and chewy centers soaked in a soy and mirin sauce. And sweet, sticky rice balls filled with black sesame or red bean paste are a perfect way to end a Shanghai-style meal.
Down south, Cantonese dim sum offers a delightful diversity of small plates and snacks meant for lingering over tea. Fluffy char siu baos filled with sweet barbecue pork, translucent shrimp dumplings, and crispy-bottomed egg custard tarts are just a few reasons to pull up a seat. Cantonese food also gives us flavorful classics like ginger scallion lobster,where the sweet crustacean is expertly cooked in a bath of caramelized ginger and aromatic scallions.
The Beijing region delivers imperial cuisine fit for an emperor. Peking duck, one of China's most famous dishes, features crispy duck skin wrapped with scallions, cucumber, and sweet bean sauce in thin pancakes. Another regal Beijing specialty is zhajiangmian, wheat noodles topped with minced pork fried with fermented soybean paste. The rich umami flavor makes it easy to understand why this hearty noodle dish was a staple in palace kitchens.
China's remote western provinces also deliver rustic flavor journeys. Xinjiang lamb kebabs, with tender chunks of lamb interspersed with peppers and onions on metal skewers offer a taste of China's Muslim influences, while Liangpi cold noodles from Shaanxi province use stretchy rice noodles, pickled vegetables, chili oil and aromatic spices to craft cooling summer street food.
What else is in this post?
- Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Regional Classics From Across China
- Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Spicy Sichuan Specialties That Bring the Heat
- Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Cantonese Dim Sum Delights to Savor
- Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Noodles Galore - Ramen, Lo Mein and Beyond
- Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Eclectic Fusion Creations Blending East and West
Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Spicy Sichuan Specialties That Bring the Heat
Sichuan cuisine is all about incendiary flavors that ignite taste buds and ramp up the culinary excitement. The spicy heat comes courtesy of tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and face-tingling chili peppers, two ingredients that this southwestern Chinese province is famous for. Sichuan cooks harness these fiery ingredients along with assertive seasonings like black beans, ginger, and garlic to craft dishes that are adventurous eaters' dreams.
While more timid diners may shy away from the intensity of Sichuan spice, I urge everyone to try these celebrating-living flavors that are meant to rouse your senses and blow away boredom. The key is starting slowly with milder Sichuan dishes and working your way up the Scoville scale as your tolerance increases. A warning though - Sichuan cuisine can become seriously addictive!
Kung Pao Chicken is many travelers' first foray into the wonders of Sichuan cooking. Tender morsels of chicken stir-fried with peanuts, vegetables, and dried red chilies make this classic dish very approachable. The sweetness of the chicken balances beautifully with the gentle heat from the chilies. Once you have a few Kung Pao Chicken dishes under your belt, level up to Chicken with Exploding Peppers. This aptly-named dish ratchets up the heat by using fresh green chilies to provide fiery bursts of flavor. The chilies are balanced by cooling cucumber and wood ear mushrooms. Just be ready for the pleasurable peppery pain!
Mapo Tofu is another gateway dish for novice Sichuan diners. Soft tofu cubes are draped in a luxurious sauce made from fermented broad beans and chili oil. The tofu's silkiness cools the palate against the sauce's slow burn. Dan Dan Noodles also provide an accessible introduction, with their umami-rich sauce made from chili oil, black vinegar, and soy paste coating chewy wheat noodles. Once your tongue is primed, amplify the delicious damage with Spicy Crispy Beef. Wok-seared shards of beef get caked in a devilishly hot chili-sesame sauce that clings to each crispy morsel. Feel the burn!
Now we come to the king of Sichuan spice - the mighty Chongqing Hot Pot. This interactive dining experience assembles a bubbling cauldron of red chili broth seasoned with tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and aromatics. Diners cook their own ingredients like thinly sliced beef, pork, fish balls, tripe, and vegetables in the volcanic broth, letting the heat tenderly infuse each bite. Go slow with the dipping at first, because the waves of warmth from the chilies hit you a few moments after tasting. Part of the fun is testing your limits - how many ladles of that lava-like broth can you handle? The array of dipping ingredients also allows you to modulate the heat. Cooling choices like tofu, fish balls and napa cabbage provide relief when your tongue needs a break from the inferno.
Many restaurants also offer a "Half and Half" option with mild broth on one side and spicy on the other. This allows diners to tailor the experience to their personal tolerance levels. Don't be afraid to ask for some chili oil on the side to really turn up the heat! And be ready for the euphoric sense of accomplishment you get from making it to the bottom of the hot pot - you survived and now have bragging rights! Just beware of the spice sweats you may experience the morning after...
Beyond its spicy personality, Sichuan cuisine also seduces you with flavor complexity and textural variety. Chili peppers are just part of a symphony of tastes that may include fermented black beans, lip-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, nutty sesame paste and warming spices like star anise and cinnamon. Creative cooking techniques like wok-searing, cold tossing, and dry frying maximize taste and textures from ingredients both familiar and surprising.
Fish-fragrant eggplant, for instance, relies on a melange of garlic, ginger, rice vinegar and chili bean paste to coax sweet creaminess out of the nightshade vegetable. Mouth-watering Chongqing Chicken fries bone-in chicken until crispy and then simmers it in a sauce containing over 20 spices and herbs - the taste will stop you in your tracks! And for Dandan Noodles, slippery wheat noodles get coated in an intricate sauce made from chili oil, Sichuan peppercorns, vinegar, soy paste and minced pork. With each bite, you'll detect something new.
Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Cantonese Dim Sum Delights to Savor
In my book, Cantonese dim sum is one of life's greatest simple pleasures. These bite-sized delights encompass a kaleidoscope of tastes, textures, and colors that I find irresistible. For me, a leisurely weekend yum cha (dim sum) brunch with friends and family is soul food at its finest. When I need comfort, har gow dumplings filled with plump shrimp provide a hug from within. The variety of little plates constantly stimulate the senses, while the relaxed, convivial atmosphere makes me smile. Cantonese dim sum is a choose-your-own-adventure for the taste buds - an eating style I wish was popular all around the world!
While there are many types of Chinese dumplings, my heart belongs to delicate Cantonese har gow, those translucent white dumpling wrappers folded around fat shrimp like edible purses. The way they glitter from the cornstarch in the dough makes them look like Levian jewels. That first bite releases an ambrosial broth as the shrimp filling bursts with briny sweetness. The flexible skin has just enough chew while remaining paper-thin. Har gow are the litmus test of a dim sum chef's skill. Limp wrappers or mealy shrimp mean subpar dumplings. But when you bite into har gow with perfect bouncy shells hugging moist, springy shrimp, you know you've found a quality dim sum restaurant. Be ready to order a few extra rounds!
No dim sum experience is complete without siu mai, the other crown jewel of Cantonese dumplings. These open-topped purses cradle colorful chunks of pork, shrimp, and mushroom in wheat starch wrappers. A burst of savory juices floods your mouth at first bite. I prefer siu mai with a higher ratio of shrimp, which provides pleasant pops of ocean brininess. The pork lends mild sweetness while the mushrooms contribute an earthy note. The wrappers steamed to a soft, slippery consistency. Siu mai make delicious companions to har gow - order them in sets and let bliss commence.
Fluffy, fist-sized char siu bao always make me smile, especially when the barbecue pork filling starts drooling out. The sweet/savory pork, kissed by a char siu marinade and tucked into a pillowy white bun, is deeply satisfying. I like to squeeze a touch of Chinese mustard into the bao to amp up the flavor. Do take care when you pick up a hot bao though, as they can squirt steaming juices on you! Part of the fun is getting a little messy while devouring these baked wonders. Go ahead, talk and eat bao at the same time - I certainly do!
For a taste of Cantonese culinary skill, try delicate rice noodle rolls where silky sheets of noodle are wrapped around shrimp, beef or vegetables. Watching the cooks rhythmically shake searing woks to roll and fold the noodle sheets is performance art. Served with drizzles of soy sauce and sesame oil, rice rolls are the soul of simplicity, letting the quality of ingredients shine. Chewy yet soft, they glide down easily between bites of heavier dumplings and bao. I also enjoy the contrast of temperatures, alternating between piping hot rolls fresh from the wok and chilled ones from the fridge. Both have their attractions for this noodle lover!
On visits to Hong Kong, I've become enamored with turnip cakes, delightful squares of shredded turnip combined with rice flour and dried shrimp then steamed like a savory cake. Pan-fried cubes develop appetizing crispy edges encasing a soft, almost creamy interior with a melt-in-the-mouth texture reminiscent of mashed potatoes. But they inexplicably taste like neither turnips or potatoes! The salty umami edge from the shrimp elevates the mild sweetness of the turnips into something incredibly addicting. Turnip cakes are a must-sample dim sum specialty for adventurous appetites. You'll wonder where this carb-heavy treat has been all your life.
And we can't forget dessert! Sweet, sticky rice balls like sesame balls and red bean paste balls close out dim sum on a high note. There's something so playful about their round shapes and cute sizes. As a child, dessert was my favorite part of dim sum. I'd happily pop sesame and red bean balls into my mouth, savoring the contrast between the soft, chewy rice dough and the sweet filling inside. Pair them with a pot of fragrant Chinese tea to aid digestion after all those dumplings!
While I've highlighted personal favorites, the joys of dim sum lie in the sheer diversity of offerings. On any given day, dim sum chefs will prepare dozens of options showcasing different ingredients, cooking methods, and flavors. Part of the fun is encountering new surprises from the roving carts. When in doubt, I just point and take a chance. After all, dim sum are served in small portions meant for tasting, so there's minimal commitment. I've discovered many new loves this way!
Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Noodles Galore - Ramen, Lo Mein and Beyond
Slurping up a bowl of noodles is one of my favorite travel rituals - a chance to experience flavors from around the globe in their purest form. From the enchanting seafood broths of Japanese ramen to the wok-kissed wok hay aroma of Cantonese lo mein, noodles tell the story of a destination through taste. Their diversity shows the intersection of geography, culture, and history in appetizing ways that make this carb-lover smile.
Let's start with ramen, which has become an international sensation yet remains distinctly Japanese. Ramen noodles originated in the mid-1800s when Chinese wheat noodles collided with Japanese broths, evolving into a plethora of regional styles. The slicing of toppings echoes the art of ikebana flower arranging with ingredients arranged to harmonize aesthetics and taste. A sip of the broth hints at culinary influences - rich, creamy tonkotsu shows Southern Japanese love of pork while delicate fish broths mirror Tokyo’s access to fresh seafood.
Slurping ramen at cramped counters whisks you away from modern times to Japan's boisterous Shōwa era. Ramen fast became everyday street food sustaining hard-working people. For only a few coins, they could dine on a hearty, soul-warming bowl. This legacy continues today in humble shops serving honest food with passion. High-end ramen restaurants also exist, but I adore the vibe of mom-and-pop shops. Their steamy counters draw lines out the door as patrons queue for seats at the "Ramen Show" where quick-handed cooks orchestrate noodles dancing in roiling broth.
Ramen seduces with contrasts - slippery noodles against toothsome toppings, steaming soup followed by crisp pickled vegetables. Chashu pork belly/chicken provide protein while soft-boiled eggs add luxurious creaminess. Seaweed, bamboo shoots and mushrooms lend pleasant textural variety. But the star is always the layering of broths made from scratch over many hours to develop deep flavor. A superb broth illuminates ingredients, making you appreciate their purity.
Beyond the classics, regional ramen offers food pilgrimages for noodle nerds. Up north in Sapporo, miso ramen is king - hearty pork and niboshi broth coated with nutty miso paste paired with wavy noodles. Down south in pork-loving Kagoshima, creamy tonkotsu broth makes you moan over its lip-smacking savoriness coating chewy noodles. In between lies ramen nirvana!
Over in China, nothing satisfies like a steaming bowl of lo mein. The iconic noodle dish introduces diners to wok hay, the prized smoky flavor that erupts when a hot wok sears ingredients. The wok's round shape and super-hot temperatures facilitate intense stir-frying that seals in juices while creating appetizing charred bits. Cantonese chefs elevate wok technique to artistry, using wok hay complexity to transform simple ingredients like noodles and vegetables into lo mein magic.
Lo mein noodles need a textural balance with some bounce. Fresh Chinese egg noodles offer this wonderfully toothsome chew, absorbing flavors while cooking in seconds. Mixing the noodles with the sauce right in the wok allows them to absorbs wok hay's smoky essence for maximum flavor infusion. Proteins like shrimp, chicken or beef enhance the dish. But the soul of lo mein is in the hand-cut vegetables singing with wok hay. Bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, carrots, snow peas and more all get their chance to solo and harmonize.
Northern Chinese noodle dishes also dazzle, showcasing wheat flour instead of rice. Chewy Lanzhou lamian are just flour and water for density. Hand-pulling creates the signature chew. Glistening beef noodle soup coats fat noodles with savory gravy studded with beef and radish. Spicy dan dan noodles seduce with mouth-watering Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil mingling with minced pork and preserved vegetables. Cold liang pi noodles refresh with tart vinegar dressing. The options for noodle lovers are endless!
Italian pastas echo noodle diversity, from toothsome pici to ethereal angel hair. Italians judge restaurants by the taste of noodles more than anything else. Fresh pasta made that day or dried artisanal pasta speak to pride in food traditions. Sauces cling to noodles, fusing into delicious new entities. Pairing shapes and sauces based on texture and weight showcases Italian creativity. Light seafood sauces coat thin strands while hearty Bolognese sauce persists on dense pappardelle. The variety amazes me!
Beyond Asia and Italy, culinary customs worldwide deliver noodles in stunning avatars. Spicy glass noodle bibimbap in Korea energizes with chili pepper heat. Ashkenazi Jewish chicken noodle soup provides nostalgic comfort. Mexico's sopa de fideo uses tiny vermicelli to soak up complex tomato-chili broth. Spinach and chickpea flour noodles called hawayej feature in Adeni cuisine from Yemen. Turkish manti dumplings conceal beef and spice in delicate dough pockets. From pho to pad thai, udon to orzo, the global noodle fixation fuels my passport!
Around the World in 32 Bites: The Best Chinese Dishes For Global Travelers - Eclectic Fusion Creations Blending East and West
As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, cuisines collide in delightful ways that stimulate global palates. Fusion food celebrates cultural blending by weaving together ingredients and cooking techniques from different regions. When done thoughtfully, fusion dishes form singular new tastes instead of muddied mongrel flavors. Walking through bustling night markets and tasting fusion street food creations offers exciting eating adventures for travelers seeking to discover how cultures can mix in the kitchen.
My most eye-opening fusion food encounter happened in Singapore. This cosmopolitan island blends Chinese, Malay and Indian influences, producing Hainanese chicken rice served with Tamil-style curry, laksa spiked with coconut milk and Sichuan peppercorns, and “Peranakan” cuisine marrying Chinese ingredients with Malay spices. But Innovation thrives most at avant-garde restaurants like Candlenut, which honors tradition while embracing the future.
Stepping inside Candlenut's lush interior felt like entering the home of a Peranakan family, with intricately carved woodwork and colorful ceramic tiles. But the food revealed Chef Malcolm Lee's curiosity about global connections. Dishes paid homage to his Peranakan heritage through familiar flavors in surprising forms, like buah keluak ice cream reinventing traditional Indonesian "black nut" curries into edgy dessert.
His Sichuan soft shell crab tantalized my taste buds with its clever East-West bridging. Crispy soft-shell crab contrasted wonderfully with the sauce's numbing tingle from Sichuan peppercorns. Chili bean paste added fermented funk while ginger and black vinegar cut through the richness. The sauces clung to the crab, permeating every moist bite. This imaginative blend succeeded by honoring the integrity of both cuisines, with Sichuan heat and aromatics accentuating the sweet crab rather than overwhelming it. Each culture had a voice, but they sang together in harmony.
Traveling through Thailand, I've experienced skillful fusions honoring Thai flavors while expanding boundaries. At Bo.Lan in Bangkok, Chef Bo Songvisava channels her Thai heritage and formal French culinary training into refined dishes like duck confit laab. Smoky sliced duck confit played beautifully against zesty laab spices and herbs. Crisp lettuce cups delivered cooling crunch to balance the hearty meat. Traditional laab ingredients married French technique, crafting an elegant celebration of old and new.
Australian chef David Thompson also channels Thai tastes at Nahm in Bangkok. But his menu collides cuisines across continents. Spinach and goat cheese ravioli wearing a fragrant panang curry sauce wowed my palate. The curry coated each delicate ravioli pocket, mingling redolently with the spinach filling. Potent kaffir lime leaves and peanuts added crunch while the creamy goat cheese mellowed the curry's bite. Italy met Thailand on a plate!
Thompson's massaman wagyu cheek risotto was equally thought-provoking. Lusciously fatty wagyu sunk into a not-too-rich massaman curry risotto punctuated with peanut, tamarind and cardamom flavors. The Thai elements worked in harmony with risotto's comforting creaminess. Two iconic dishes - massaman curry and risotto - shed their traditional skin to become something genre-blurring.
Tokyo excels at adapting and upgrading foreign foods with Japanese touches. At Afuri Ramen, minor tweaks result in a radically different bowl. Chicken broth replaces pork bones for a lighter body, while elevated toppings like smoked duck, yuzu pepper and nori add umami depth. Wavy noodles cook al dente, and the broth stays low-sodium. Small but impactful changes result in a bowl that dazzles.
Over at Gogyō, ramen collides with Brazilian feijoada stew. The creamy tonkotsu broth gains depth from feijoada's smoky dried meats and black bean flavors. Chunks of tender pork join traditional ramen toppings like nitamago egg, menma bamboo shoots and naruto fish cake. Diners can add chashu pork or butter to enrich the broth. Feijoada's hearty flavors blend seamlessly with ramen. This inventive mash-up channels the best of Japanese innovation and the global pantry.
Tokyo also gives California cuisine a Japanese spin. At restaurant EN Japanese Brasserie, shrimp avocado tartare cleverly swaps creamy avocado for toro tuna to reduce costs. Diced shrimp gets seasoned with yuzu, miso and rice vinegar for a tangy twist on sashimi. Crispy lotus root chips provide crunch. Wagyu carpaccio avoids Italian dressing in favor of a lighter ponzu sauce and garlic chips. EN reimagines California casual through a Japanese lens.