Travel Guide: The Essential Dishes to Try in Chinese Cuisine

A picture of two Chinese food stables: dumplings and soy sauce
Two traditional items of Chinese food: dumpling and soy sauce. Courtesy PureWow

Chinese cuisine is famous the world over, celebrated for its inventiveness, variety, and flavour of each dish. Chinese food is so popular that in many country you can find a Chinese restaurant. One popular Chinese food activity is Dim Sum. Patrons sit while carts full of delicious food are wheeled over to their table. You have free rein to choose as many items as you like.

With such a vast culinary palate, it might be hard to decide which Chinese dishes to try. Do you go for the popular meals, or take the adventurous route and try a little known dish? Do not fear, this article will list some of the best Chinese dishes to try. First, let’s take a quick look at the stables of Chinese Food.

Stable Foods

Rice is one of the foods most associated with Chinese cuisine. It is the country’s major stable food. Chinese people eat rice almost every day and in almost every meal. Rice is such a popular food in China that it’s used in many dishes. Rice is most popular in southern China, where it is primarily produced.

A bowl of white rice, a common food in any Chinese meal
White rice: a stable of Chinese food. Courtesy

Northern China is a wheat farming area. Therefore, people in Northern China eat flour-based food like noodles. Noodles have replaced rice as the popular starch ingredient that accompanies a meal.

Tofu, or bean curd, is food high in protein and calcium while low in fat. It consists of soy milk, water, and a curdling agent. Tofu has long been a stable of Chinese and other Asian cuisines. Soup, salad, and stir-fried dishes all include Tofu. Recently, Tofu has become popular in Western Culture; several vegetarian dishes use it.

Meat and Poultry.

In terms of meat, Chinese people eat a wide variety of animals: pork, beef, chicken, duck, and even pigeon. Out of all those examples, pork remains the favourite meat, appearing in almost every meal. Pork is so common, that Chinese people use it to refer to meat as a whole.

There are many ways to prepare and cook meat. Popular methods include boiling, fry-ing, roasting, and baking. Lastly, Chinese people do not put meat to waste. Every part of the animal can be eaten, whether it be the meat itself, skin, fat, blood, or entrails.


After, rice, vegetables are the second most fundamental part of Chinese cuisine. Chinese people love their vegetables, particularly leafy greens. They also eat a variety of vegetables in every meal. Common leafy vegetables are Chinese cabbage, bok choy, spinach, and lettuce. Like the meat ingredients, Chinese people cook and prepare vegetables in many different ways. Vegetables can be stir-fried , pickled, or eaten raw.

A photo of Chinese Eggplants, a popular vegetable in Chinese cuisine.
Chinese eggplant is a popular vegetable in Chinese cuisine. Courtesy Taste of Home

A popular Chinese vegetable is the eggplant. Called the Chinese Eggplant, they are long and purple in colour. These eggplants are commonly stir-fried with meat or garlic sauce. They can also be pickled or used in a salad.

Flavour and Seasoning

Garlic and ginger are two of the most common ingredients used in Chinese cooking for seasoning or spicing up a meal. They usually are used in stir-fry dishes, soups, or in dipping sauces.

Five-spice powder is common seasoning ingredient. It encompasses all five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. As the name suggests, the powder uses five different spices. The main ingredients are a mixture of star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds. In Chinese cooking, Five Spice Powder is added to stew meat or poultry. It’s also used as a spice rub for roasted foods and as a seasoning for fried foods.

Now that you’ve learned about some of the stables in Chinese food, it’s time to discover some popular dishes that incorporate these ingredients.

Dim Sum Dishes

Spring Rolls

A plate of spring rolls. They are very popular in Dim Sum and other  Chinese meals.
Spring rolls are a popular Dim Sum food. Courtesy Steamy Kitchen

A trademark of Chinese cuisines, spring rolls are deep fried rolls packed with either vegetable or meat/seafood filling. Spring rolls are a popular Cantonese dim sum food which practically everyone loves. If you’re just venturing on your exploration into Chinese food, spring rolls are an excellent starting point.

Cheung Fun

This dim sum meal is also called steamed vermicelli rolls. They can be eaten at any time and at any place, be it at a morning tea house or late night street food vender.

Cheung Fun are white sheets of rice starch rolled with various filling. Various meats and seafood like beef, pork, or shrimp are common fillings. The meat and seafood comes vegetables, such as lettuce, scallions, and mushroom. The rolls are steamed until all flavours blend nicely together. Next, cooked peanut oil, soy sauce, chilli sauce, or sesame paste is sprinkled in top of the roll.

Har Gao

Four Har-goa in a bamboo container. This how they are traditionally served at Dim Sum.
Har gao has sticky outside and a juicy inside. Courtesy All Ways Deliscious

Har gao is a stable of any dim sum restaurant in Southern China. They are shrimp dumplings: rice flour wrapper stuffed with shrimp, pork fat, and bamboo shoots. The measure of excellent Har gao is that the inside should be juicy and springy, while the outside should be dry and slightly sticky. These shrimp dumplings are icons of any dim sum meal. You can’t go without it.

No Mai Gai: Sticky Rice Chicken

Rounding off essential dim sum dishes is No Mai Gai, or sticky rice chicken wrapped in lotus leaf. The lotus leaf holds the rice, which has been cooked and then steamed. This gives the rice its sticky quality. Mixed in with the rice is chicken, pork, sausage, and mushroom. Sticky rice tends to be quite heavy and thick in texture. It’s another stable of dim sum; most restaurants will feature this item for you to enjoy.

Rice and Noodles

Chow Mein

This popular dish is named after the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters 炒面. The characters translates to stir-fried noodles. In general, chow mein consists of noodles, meat (chicken, beef, shrimp, or pork), onions, and celery. Chow mein noodles vary; they include rice noodles, flat noodles, and sliced noodles. To cook chow mein, the ingredients are stir fired with brown and glossy soy sauce. This method gives chow mein its trademark salty taste.

Yangzhou Fried Rice

Fried rice recipes are plentiful. However, Yangzhou fried rice is the most popular and the classic version of this dish. The recipe originates from the city of Yangzhou. Many argue that the city’s chefs prepare fried rice the best, which distinguishes the dish from the thousands of Chinese fried rice recipes.

The typical ingredients of Yangzhou fried rice are peeled shrimp, diced ham, carrot, mushroom, baby bamboo shoots, crumbled egg, and corn. Once the ingredients have been cooked, they are stir fried with rice until the colour turns golden yellow. Out of all the Chinese fried rice dishes, this is the one to try.

Chicken Lo Mein

A bowl of chicken lo mein. The dish consists of noodles, chicken, scallions, peppers, and carrots.
Chicken lo mein is a variation of the traditional chow mein. Courtesy Dinner, then Dessert

Another famous noodle dish is Chicken Lo Mein. The dish is made with thin lo mein noodles. Next, Chicken, carrots, mushrooms, and other vegetables are added. To get a thick sauce, chicken broth, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sugar is whisked together and added to the noodles. To get it even more thicker, cornstarch is added.

Meat Dishes

Peking Duck

A serving of Peking duck with vegetables, sauce, and pancakes.
One of the ways to eat Peking duck. Courtesy NYT Cooking

Peking duck, also known as Beijing Roast Duck, is the city’s most famous dish. The dish is not only popular with tourists, but locals enjoy Peking roast duck as well. This meal is so famous that it is called “the first dish to taste in China”.

Duck has always been a traditional meat in China. Peking roast duck has been eaten since China’s Imperial era, especially in the Yuan and Ming dynasties. It was the main dish on imperial court menus for several years. In recent history, Peking duck became a hit with local and international government figures. Former U.S. Secretary of Sate Henry Kissinger was fond of Peking duck, as were members of the Bush Family.

Peking Duck is roasted until the skin achieves a thin and crispy texture. The duck is then sliced into portions. These portions are often served with pancakes, sweet bean or soy sauce, or rice. Once you try this famous dish, you’ll understand how and why Peking Duck achieved its legendary status.

Sweet and Sour Pork

This dish is a stable in Zhejiang, Shandong, Sichuan, and Cantonese cuisine. Sweet and sour pork is also a popular Chinese dish in Western culture. The dish is made up of pork tenderloin (the most tender cut of pork), which is marinaded in egg and starch. The sauce is usually a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and tomato sauce. The meat is then mixed with vegetables like carrots, green pepper, and onions.This mixture gives sweet and sour pork its bright orange colour and delicious sweet and sour taste. The pork tenderloin is soft on the inside and crispyon the outside. Couple that with the sweet and sour sauce makes this meat dish a must in any Chinese meal.

A photo of a typical sweet and sour pork meal: the pork with peppers and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Sweet and sour pork is a popular Chinese dish. Courtesy Tasty

Char siu

Char siu is roasted barbecued pork that has previously been marinated in char siu sauce. The sauce is a mixture of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine, and anise. Once the pork is cooked, a honey glaze can be added to the top. Traditionally, char siu is served as a sliced appetizer, or shredded and copped as a main meal. This Chinese BBQ treat is a stable of many Chinese restaurants; try it out as an appetizer before the main course.

Mapo Doufu

A bowl of Mapo Doufu, a spicy dish in Chinese cuisine.
Mapo Doufu is a spicy dish. Courtesy The Woks of Life

Mapo Doufu mixes tofu cubes in a spicy sauce containing minced meat, usually beef or pork, and fermented black beans called douchi. This dish’s origin is said to come from a small restaurant called Chen Xingsheng located in Chengdu in the year 1862. The name of the dish is believed to come from the woman cook who created it.

Mapo Doufu has a numbing spiciness and hotness, which comes from the Sichuan peppercorns, chilli oil, and a broad bean paste called doubanjiang. For any spice enthusiast, Mapo Dofu packs the heat and then some.


Hot Pot

A shot of a typical hot pot scene: a large bowl of soup and various vegetable and meat items that can be added to the soup.
Hot Pot lets you create your own soup. Courtesy The Woks of Life

This dish is truly an out-of-this-world experience. Hot pot is a Chinese cooking method in which a pot of soup stock is simmered and then mixed with meat and vegetable ingredients. Basically, you’re making your own soup, cooking the ingredients in the broth. The flavour of the soup varies according the sauce chosen: mushroom, tomato, spicy etc. A classic flavour is peanut butter with smashed garlic and chopped onion dressed in sesame oil.

The act of making your own distinct soup makes Hot Pot a standout of Chinese cuisine, one that everyone should try.

Wonton Soup

This standard of Chinese cuisine is found in many Chinese Restaurants in North America. The soup is comprised of seasoned chicken broth with filled wontons. Wontons are the Asian version of ravioli or tortellini: a pasta folded around spiced meat mixture. The common wonton filling is ground pork. This meat is favoured for its great flavour and meaty texture. However, shrimp, ground beef, chicken, or turkey can be substituted. Next time you’re in a Chinese restaurant, give this warm and hearty soup a go.


Egg Tarts

A collection of egg tarts, a popular dessert item in Chinese cuisine.
Egg tarts are a popular dessert in Cantonese-style restaurants. Courtesy Tasty

Egg tarts essentially small custard tarts encased with a sweet crust. Cantonese-style restaurants usually serve egg tarts, and they are best enjoyed warm. In China, some small shops specialize in egg tarts. Chinese convenience stores sell them pre-warmed as well.

Almond Cookies

These cookies are a popular treat at Chinese bakeries. The cookies symbolize coins and are traditionally eaten on Chinese New Year. It’s said that eating these cookies will give you good fortune in the new year. Despite this tradition, almond cookies are eaten year round. What makes this treat so popular is the distinct almond flavour with the crunch of a cookie.

Sesame Seed Balls

A collection of sesame seed balls. This dish contains a red bean paste.
Sesame seed balls have a tasty red bean paste filling. Courtesy The Spruce Eats

Sesame Seed Balls are filled wth red bean paste: a sweet substance made from red beans. The red bean paste may be a little off-putting, but it actually has a delicious flavour. The paste perfectly goes with the deep fried sesame covered dough. Sesame seed balls are available throughout the year; however, they are most popular during the Lunar New Year season. These glutinous, tasty treats are the perfect dish for afternoon coffee.

An Extensive Cuisine

Chinese cuisine is as extensive as the country’s storied history. From the rice, noodles, meat, soups, vegetables, and desserts, Chinese food is filled with inventive and impressive recipes. For those just embarking on their journey into Chinese fare, it might be hard deciding where to begin. Hopefully, this article provided some dishes to try in China’s celebrated cuisine.

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