China Menu Survival Guide: 6 Foods You Need to Try
China in all of its vastness can be a little overwhelming. Not only is it populous, it is the world's second-largest country by land area. Its people find pride in its 5,000 years of history and in all of its cultural and technological advances. The languages in China are just as vast as its borders, with dialects abounding in all parts of the country, some mutually unintelligible to anyone other than a native speaker of that particular dialect.
Population, borders, and dialects aside, there is one more aspect of China that always seems limitless: the menu at restaurants.
There is so much variety in Chinese cuisine. Meats and vegetables can be cooked in all sorts of ways, blended with all sorts of spices, garnished with all sorts of add-ins, and complimented by all sorts of sauces. To those of us who did not grow up in China, sometimes the options just seem greater than the distance between our home countries and China itself. We may think we know what we're doing once we learn the words for chicken (鸡肉), pork (猪肉), beef (牛肉), and fish (鱼), but what we don't realize is that those words are always followed by more options for ways of cooking it and serving it than we could even imagine.
For these reasons, ordering at restaurants can be a stressful activity for people who cannot speak Chinese or who have not been acquainted with Chinese cuisine before. To save some stress and strain, I have compiled a short list of some of the foods I have been eating often in Chongqing. Granted, I have only been in this part of China for a month, so there are still many, many foods I have yet to try. Even so, these are foods that I have come to know and love and would recommend to any person looking for something good to eat in China.
Beef Noodles (牛肉面 - niu rou mian）
In class, my students always said that their favorite food was noodles, but I never really could figure out why. It wasn't until I started eating beef noodles more that I realized why they all love noodles so much. When I first started eating them, they were just okay to me. They had a nice flavor and made me full, so they got the job done. But the more I ate them, the more I craved them; something just clicked in my brain that made me obsessed with them.
Beef noodles can be found anywhere you go and are a solid choice for lunch or dinner. I'm sure people even eat them for breakfast here too! You can find them at restaurants or on the street. Since they're so easy to make (it really is just broth, beef, and noodles, and maybe a vegetable like cabbage), they are usually a very good price. I think I pay about 10 RMB on average for a bowl, which equates to about 1.67 USD.
I have just come to love them so much that I get excited whenever I see their picture on a menu! And if you ever find yourself needing a very late-night snack around 4 or 5 am, I can almost guarantee that you will find a 24-hour noodle place with beef noodles ready to serve.
Braised Eggplant (红烧茄子 - hong shao qiezi)
Before coming to China, I never really was a fan of eggplant. I know now that the reason I never found eggplant delicious was that I had never experienced it cooked in a way that catered to my palate.
To make this dish, eggplant is fried ever-so-slightly and served in a warm, red sauce. It is not spicy, but I have come across some varieties that add red chili peppers mostly for decoration. This is one of those dishes that is guaranteed to be served at most restaurants and is guaranteed to make your mouth water every time. I highly recommend it as a vegetable side to any meat dish! And if you are a vegetarian looking to add some good vegetable dishes to your must-eat list, I definitely think I've found you a winner.
Hot Pot (火锅 - huo guo)
In my neck of the woods (Chongqing), hot pot is just about everyone's favorite food, or at least among their top favorites. The way I like to describe it is that it's more than just a meal: it's a festivity for friends. And if there is a single food item that Chongqing people would brand next to their name or get tattooed on their body, it's this one.
There are three sizes of hot pot: small, medium, and large. Unless you're dining alone, medium or large is generally the way to go. A group of four or five people can definitely take on a large hot pot pretty successfully. Depending on the tastes of you and your group, you can select as many meats and vegetables to add into the hot pot as you would like. The hot pot already comes with a few vegetables inside the broth, such as potatoes and lotus root (藕 - ou).
After ordering the meats and vegetables you want to add in, the server will bring the hot pot to your table, where it will be heated with a gas stove that is affixed to the center of the table. You can think of hot pot as you would think of fondue, so at this stage, it is just a big bowl of broth with a few vegetables at the bottom. The gas stove will make the water boil, and once the water is at boiling temperature, you can add the raw meats and vegetables in to be cooked.
In places like Chongqing and Sichuan Province, the default flavor for broth is spicy, spicy, spicy. Chongqing people and Sichuan people can't get enough of spicy food, and both places pride themselves on the level of spice found in their hot pot dishes. If you are like me and cannot handle spicy food well, you can ask to order a hot pot that is half spicy broth and half non-spicy broth, almost like a chicken broth. That way you can still get a little bit of that spicy flavor that people crave while still having the ability to switch back to a more comfortable flavor range.
It takes about thirty minutes to actually order the meats, get the hot pot boiling, and have the first few pieces of meat cook all the way through. Then, the actual eating of the food can take an additional thirty minutes to an hour. Every time I go to eat hot pot with my friends, I end up staying there about an hour and a half. That is why I say that hot pot is something to be enjoyed when you have time and good company, not as a quick meal before your teaching day.
The first time I went to hot pot, one of my school's foreign teachers (who speaks excellent Chinese) decided to order us some meats that can commonly be found in a Chinese person's hot pot but that usually intimidate us foreigners. He ordered us pig brain, which he said is one of the most common things ordered at hot pot restaurants. He also got chicken feet and a kind of intestine, both of which are quite commonly consumed at restaurants all across China. Throughout Chinese history, food was valued as a treasure, so wasting and throwing away food was considered criminal. Thus, consuming all parts of the animal became deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and cuisine.
When you go to eat hot pot, take a lot at what some of the people are ordering around you; I guarantee you will see some animal parts you never thought about eating before. And the next time you go back, you can be brave and bold and try them yourself!
Dry Pot (干锅 - gan guo)
Dry pot is actually similar to hot pot in the fact that everything is cooked in a large bowl, but the difference is that the meat and vegetables in dry pot are added in and cooked in the boiling water before reaching your table. The process is the same of selecting which meats and vegetables you want to add to the broth, but more experienced people actually make sure that everything is cooked before bringing the big bowl out to your table. When the gas stove on your table is turned on, this time it is simply to keep the water warm so that your already-cooked food stays as warm as possible.
One of my school's foreign teachers says that he prefers dry pot to hot pot because of the fact that he knows the meat is cooked all the way through before he bites into it. I also think that I sway more towards dry pot than hot pot for the same reason. Although I will say, the atmosphere feels much more lively and jubilant when you're eating hot pot.
Just like with hot pot, in Chongqing, the default broth for dry pot is spicy. So, if you do not want spicy broth, you can always just tell the sever that you don't eat spicy food (我不吃辣 - wo bu chi la). She or he can then help you select a broth that isn't too spicy.
Fried Eggs with Tomato (番茄炒蛋)
This dish sounds pretty basic, but the combination of fried eggs and tomatoes is just classic. This is one of those dishes that you can order a few times per week and never get tired of. It's perfect with a side of rice and compliments just about any other dish on the table. Especially if you have a hard time stomaching Chinese food or want to stick with something easy and safe, this can be a tasty go-to option. Sometimes green peppers or onions will be added to the dish as well for a little extra burst of flavor. I have never met a single soul who has ever opposed to ordering this dish at any given time, which clues you in on just how much of a winner it is. I eat it at lunch and dinner time, and if I went out to eat at restaurants around brunch time, I would probably order it then too.
Gong Bao Ji Ding (宫保鸡丁) - The Original Kung Pao Chicken
No post about food directed towards visitors to China is complete without good 'ol Gong Bao. This is the original Chinese dish that inspired the making of Kung Pao Chicken in America. It's a stir-fry chicken dish that also contains peanuts, vegetables, and some red chili peppers (for decoration, not for consumption) drenched in a delicious, flavorful sauce. The dish typically matches the foreign palate quite nicely, especially since it is reminiscent of the Kung Pao Chicken we all know and love. The pieces of chicken themselves are much smaller, but meat dishes are typically cut into thinly sliced pieces in China anyway.
Gong Bao Ji Ding can be found at just about any restaurant you visit, which means that it can easily be added to your list of go-to dinners. While it is typically not spicy, in places that rave over spicy food like Sichuan Province and Chongqing, you might get a plate of Gong Bao with a kick every once in a while. The sauce on most Gong Bao dishes typically appears brownish in color, so if you get a plate with a reddish-colored sauce, it might be a good indicator that that particular plate has a spicy flare.
No matter what, this dish will always be a foreigner favorite that is timeless and tasty wherever you go.