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Forget what you know about western-style Chinese food and iconic takeaway boxes. True Chinese cuisine is as diverse and varied as the country itself, and is a reflection of its many thousands of years of history and culture. For curious travelers, a trip to China would not be complete without tasting the diverse flavors of its world-famous cuisine.

Traditional Chinese food is a delicate— almost artistic— balance of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter. Each of your senses will come alive with every dish you sample. From the famous Peking duck to dumplings, noodles and lesser-known Tibetan delicacies, in this article we look at the 12 best foods from China’s most beloved cities: get ready to taste the 12 best foods in China!

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12 Best foods to try in Beijing

1. Peking duck (Beijing roast duck)

Slices of meat in a wooden container, rolled dough, sauce and chopsticks
Peking duck has been prepared since the imperial era and is considered a national symbol of China

Roast duck, a famously Chinese dish and definitely considered one of the best foods in China, is a must-taste when on a tour in Beijing. Each duck is prepared by pumping air between the skin and meat before adding a glaze to the duck’s skin. The duck is then roasted with distinct tree branches, such as pear or date, for a fruity flavor.

  • Tip: Beijing roast duck is best eaten with delicious side dishes and sauces such as sweet plum sauce, scallions or garlic paste.

2. Shuan yangrou (Beijing mutton hot pot)

Water boiling in hot pot, vegetables, sauce and slices of meat
Hot pot became popular among the emperors in China during the Qing dynasty

The absolute best dish to eat during a Beijing winter is a soothing hot pot. This ancient dish is made by cooking mutton and various other meats, vegetables and sauces using soups inside copper or aluminum pots. The sauce, usually a mixture of sesame seed oil, chili oil, flowers from the Chinese chive and minced scallion, plays a very important role in the flavor of the dish.

  • Tip: Noodles are generally left to be boiled towards the end of the meal. You can also use rice cakes instead of noodles.

Best foods to try in Shanghai

3. Braised jumbo sea cucumber with shrimp roe

Meat completely braised with sauce
Only around 40 varieties (out of more than 1700!) of sea cucumber are used for cooking. Photo by Idalingi [CC BY 2.0]

This seafood delicacy is certainly an interesting dish to try during a trip to Shanghai. The sea cucumber is prepared by soaking it in clean water to soften the inside. Then it is cooked in a stew rich with flavors including soybean sauce, shallot and shrimp roe.

  • Tip: Make sure you dip it in the glaze properly as braised sea cucumber in itself is fairly bland. This dish is an acquired taste for some people!

4. Yangchun mian (Yangchun noodles)
This seemingly simple but stunningly delicious dish is a tasty mix of thin noodles broth and seasoning that includes soy sauce, finely chopped green onions and lard. In our opinion, it is one of the best foods in Shanghai. The broth is heated and poured into the bowl with the seasoning while the noodles cook in boiling water. The broth and noodles are placed inside the bowl ready to eat while still hot.

  • Tip: If you do not have lard, sesame oil is a great alternative.

Best foods to try in Xian

5. Liang pi (cold noodles)

A bowl containing soupy flour noodles, onion leaves and sesame seeds
Liang pi literally means 'cold skin' even though it contains no animal products

For an interesting mesh of flavors, try this staple cold noodle dish on your Xian trip. The noodles are made from wheat or rice flour and the sauce combines flavors that are both tangy and sweet. To make the noodles, the flour is first cooked into a pancake and then sliced into strips, unlike typical noodles.

  • Tip: Liang pi is best eaten during the summer since it is served cold and is a filling snack available at many local street vendors.

6. Rou Jia Mo (Shaanxi sandwich)

A wooden basket containing 2 sandwiches
The meat used in Shaanxi sandwich is usually pork that has been stewed for hours in a soup containing over 20 spices and seasonings

This recipe, one of Xian’s best foods, combines pork belly cooked with soy sauce and many spices and wheat bread. Once the pork belly is cooked and soaked in the sauces, it is placed inside the bread to eat like a traditional burger. Alternatively, beef or lamb can be used as the meat for the sandwich.

  • Tip: If you want an extra kick, have your skewed meat cooked with cumin or chilies.

Best foods to try in Chengdu

7. Mapo doufu

Coriander and chopsticks with a bowl of rice and a bowl of tofu
Mapo doufu can also be found in restaurants in other Chinese provinces, as well as, in Japan and Korea where the flavor is adapted to local tastes

Mapo doufu, popularly known as mapo tofu, is a must-try dish for anyone on a tour in Chengdu. This iconic dish is prepared by mixing pieces of tofu with pork, bean curd, mince, and an often incredibly spicy chili oil. The tofu is cooked under a slow fire to ensure it has an intense (and very tasty!) flavor.

  • Tip: Always have a glass of water by your side when eating this dish as it can be quite spicy.

8. Kung pao chicken

Diced chicken mixed with vegetables and mixed fried rice
Kung pao chicken, a classic dish that originated in Sichuan province, China is also a prominent dish in westernized Chinese cuisine

Another often spicy dish and native to Chengdu, kung pao chicken is prepared by stir-frying diced chicken with peanuts, chili pepper, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, kung pao chicken tops the list of the best foods in Chengdu. The chicken is cut into small cubes and seasoned with soy sauce, salt and cooking oil. The chicken cubes cook in the pan until changing color and the chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts are then added to the pan.

  • Tip: Be careful with Sichuan peppercorns as they tend to be intensely spicy.

Best foods to try in Guilin

9. Mifen (Guilin rice noodles)

A bowl of soupy noodles with meat and vegetables
 Mifen is so popular that it can probably be found within 100 meters of any town or city area in Guilin, China. Photo by Gary Stevens [CC BY 2.0]

This popular snack and one of the best foods in Guilin can be enjoyed at any time of the day. Apart from being relatively cheap, it is also found all over the city. The rice noodles, also known as mifen, are made from rice flour starch and are topped with a variety of meat, eggs, vegetables, gravy and a unique broth for a sour or spicy taste.

  • Tip: Rice noodles are best eaten with popular condiments added to the bowl such as pickled beans and spring onions.

10. Zongzi (Chestnut glutinous rice dumplings)

Yellow colored dish made of stuffed rice on bamboo leaves
The shapes of zongzi vary by region

These dumplings, popular in Guilin, are made by combining glutinous rice and chestnuts with delicious fillings such as pork belly, mushrooms, shrimp and sausage. The glutinous rice and fillings are stir-fried separately before wrapping them together with bamboo leaves. The bamboo leaves are made into a cone shape, tied with grass strands and either steamed or boiled.

  • Tip: It is best to eat these rice dumplings with a hot cup of Chinese tea to ease consumption.

Best foods to try in Tibet

11. Yak jerky
When you visit Tibet, yak jerky is a must-try! The meat provides an extremely nutritious, low-fat and flavorful meal. Yak meat is cut into strips, seasoned and hung out to air dry to make Yak jerky. It is normally eaten dried or boiled but is sometimes eaten raw.

  • Tip: Yak meat is a healthier alternative to beef since it is higher in protein, vitamins and minerals.

12. Tingmo (Tibetan steamed stuffed buns)

Rolled and cooked dough placed a wooden basket
Steamed buns, a local Tibetan dish, are savory, spongy and slightly chewy. Photo by Veronica [CC BY-NC 2.0]

Travelers on a tour to Tibet should make sure to try tingmo (also known as ting momo) easily our pick as one of the best Tibetan foods. Wheat flour and water are mixed together to create the dough, which is then filled with a combination of ground meat, vegetables, cheese and/or tofu.

  • Tip: The steamed buns are best eaten dipped in popular sauces such as soy sauce or a tomato-based sauce.

One of the best things to do in China is sampling the most delicious dishes each city has to offer. Each city has its own gastronomic style and visiting each destination is the only way to taste all the best foods in China. You will discover many other recipes during your trip but start with these 12 to kickstart your Chinese foodie experience!

Published by Kate Haley, updated on May 4, 2021
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