During one of my daily strolls through the Beijing hutong where I lived at the end of 2015, passing shops full of food that was, if not mouthwatering, then at least interesting, it occurred to me that Richard Halliburton never wrote about food. I can count on one hand the number of times he specifically detailed a meal, and usually it was not culturally relevant, like when he swam the Hellespont on nothing but a can of sardines.
He went to Morocco and said nothing about tajines.
He went to Israel and never spoke of shakshuka.
And, weirdest of all, he went to China and didn’t describe a single dumpling.
For me, food is a highlight of any journey, and for Richard it wasn’t so much as a footnote. Well, he may have been able to write five books without waxing rhapsodic about food, but I can’t write a word about China without describing the dishes I encountered. So here’s a list of the best foods I ate in China.
The delectable dozen
There are countless style and flavors of dumplings in China (check out this article for a rundown of 36 of them), and I’m not sure how many I tried, but my two go-to styles were baozi and jiaozi.
Baozi are large, doughy dumplings stuffed with a small amount of something tasty, like leeks, beef, or red bean paste. They’re sold on the streets from tall, silver stacks of steamers for just $0.25 each. Two or three baozi would keep me full for hours. In fact, I ate so many baozi that I developed an almost Pavlovian response to the sight of streetside steamers.
Jiaozi are smaller, juicier dumplings, usually sold in portions of ten in a small bamboo steaming basket. They’re crescent shaped and come with soy and vinegar dipping sauces. You can also get jiaozi fried instead of steamed. Oh my god, yum…I suddenly miss China acutely.
No post about Chinese food is complete without mentioning Beijing’s quintessential street food, jianbing. A crepe made of millet and bean flour provides the base. A fresh egg is cracked and fried on top of the crepe, then smeared with hoisin sauce, sprinkled with green onions and
cilantro (yuck), and finally topped with a crispy fried piece of dough called a youtiao. It’s then wrapped up like a rectangular burrito and served piping hot. Yes, please.
3. Moon cakes
Contrary to my usual luck, I actually arrived in China in time for a local celebration, the Mid-Autumn Festival. Moon cakes are to the Mid-Autumn Festival as chocolate rabbits are to Easter—you can’t have one without the other. They consist of a thick, crumbly outer pastry, and a somewhat sweet filling. I tasted moon cakes filled with sweet osmanthus paste, lotus seed paste, and even chocolate cream from France, but my favorite was the one my AirBnB hosts brought me, with a cooked, salted egg yolk inside. As weird as it sounds, it was sweet-and-salty perfection.
4. Candied haws
These skewers of what looked like bright red glazed gumballs caught my eye for a few weeks before I ventured to try one. The red balls are actually hawthorn berries (haws) that have been seeded, skewered, and dipped in melted sugar. The berries have a nice sour zing to them that contrasts nicely with the sweet glaze. They’re seasonal, so if you’re in China in the fall and early winter you’re sure to see them around.
5. Old-style Beijing yogurt
I love yogurt, so I was really excited when I learned that the little white jars sitting out at nearly every shop in my neighborhood were full of fresh yogurt. And by fresh, I mean it’s made daily, then packaged in little ceramic jars, and sent all over Beijing each morning. Just poke a straw through the paper lid, slurp it down while enjoying some people-watching, and leave the jar at the shop where you bought it so it can be reused. Cheap, tasty and environmentally friendly!
6. Peking duck
This is another food you can’t miss in Beijing. Duck is usually shared among a group of people. The meat is served along with small, thin pancakes (bing), slices of scallions and cucumbers, and a sweet bean ‘duck sauce’. You dip the meat, scallions and cucumbers in the sauce, and roll them up in the bing to form a miniature duck burrito. Don’t forget to get a bit of crispy, fatty duck skin in there, too—the flavor is incredible!
7. Bocai huasheng
I might be the first person to put bocai huasheng on a “Best of…” food list, but I’m obsessed with it. This side dish of spinach and roasted peanuts in vinegar is commonly served at family-style meals in China. Something about the peanut flavor with the zing of vinegar I find irresistible. You can bet I’ll be learning how to make this at home.
8. Pumpkin muffins
Ryan and I discovered these delectable treats with a foolproof method: follow the people. When we saw a crowd outside a hole-in-the-wall shop, we decided to join them and see what happened. Homemade-from-scratch muffins made from fresh pumpkin, cornmeal and red beans is what happened, and they were incredible. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find exactly these muffins if you’re in Beijing, but if you find a crowd of people waiting for food, it’s always a good idea to wait with them.
I describe this dish as “build your own soup.” In a malatang restaurant you grab a large bowl and a set of tongs, then peruse a wall of fresh ingredients, adding whatever you want to your bowl. There are dozens of varieties of mushrooms, a mind-boggling array of greens, containers of fresh and processed meats, slices of vegetables, and more kinds of tofu than I knew existed. You then hand your bowl to the lady at the counter, answer ‘yes’ to whatever she asks you, wait a couple minutes for the kitchen to cook your bowl of goodies in a spicy Sichuan broth, then eat your personalized soup while dipping bits of it in a side of peanut sauce.
This dish, which translates as “hot, dry noodles”, is a specialty of Wuhan. I had it on my last day in the city and have craved it ever since. It consists of a bowl of noodles topped with pickled vegetables, garlic, chili oil, soy sauce, and a healthy dose of sesame paste. It’s the sesame paste that makes the dish so distinctive and hearty. A small bowl of this at the train station in Wuhan cost me less than $1 and kept me full for hours longer than I thought possible.
11. Yangrou paomo
Ryan and I wouldn’t have known how to eat this unique soup in Xi’an if it hadn’t been for a detailed Wikitravel article. We clumsily requested the dish at the restaurant counter and were given a basket, a metal token, a dish of pickled garlic, a bowl, and two small, round pieces of extremely hard, unleavened bread.
Following the online instructions (and surreptitiously spying on the other restaurant patrons), we tore the bread up into itty bitty pieces, then handed the bowl of crumbs back to the waitress. Almost miraculously, it was returned to us ten minutes later as part of a thick, delicious mutton soup. Whouldathunk?
12. Biang biang mian
This noodle dish is onomatopoeic: the chefs hand-pull the noodles then whack them on the counter with an ear-shattering “bang bang!” The noodles are thick and wide, almost belt-like, and they’re served with loads of spice and an assortment of vegetables like lima beans, carrots and potatoes.
Also, fun fact: the character for biang biang mian is one of the most complex in the language, composed of 53 strokes.
Huashan is known for this dish, but we though the biang biang mian in Beijing was better!
So there you have it, the top foods I ate in China. Honestly, this list only scrapes the surface. China is nothing if not a foodie’s paradise. But, you ask, what about all the weird things I ate, like donkey burgers and duck feet skin? That’s a whole other post—look for it next week.
What were your favorite foods in China? Share them in the comments below!