A country as huge as China doesn’t have one national cuisine. Instead, styles vary by region with Cantonese (Guangdong) cooking most familiar to us in the UK. Northern cuisine, like Peking duck in Beijing, is filling and hearty. Southern, including Cantonese, is the most exotic, with varied dishes like dim sum and the use of unusual meats like dog, snake, and turtle. Eastern cuisine, including the food of Shanghai, is rich, sweet, and sour, with a lot of seafood. And Western cuisine, including Sichuan, tends to be bold and spicy, with classic dishes like kung po chicken.
Beijing’s most famous dish is glazed with syrup and slow roasted until it turns a glossy red-brown colour. The crispy skin is so good that authentic eateries dish up more skin than meat, sliced in front of you by the cook. Wrap your duck in a thin pancake, smother it with hoisin or sweet plum sauce and add cucumbers or onions.
A religion in Hong Kong, dim sum consists of bite-sized portions, usually steamed, served in bamboo baskets and shared. There are thousands of dim sum delicacies available, including pork buns, spring rolls and shrimp dumplings. Going for dim sum is known as yum cha, translated as ‘to drink tea’, which is traditionally served with the meal (or vice versa).
Like a Chinese version of fondue, Mongolian hotpot is a communal meal centred on a large pot of simmering broth, into which a variety of uncooked meats and vegetables are dipped, cooking them on the spot. Eaten for over a thousand years, it is believed to have all kinds of restorative effects on the body.
Street food might be a little less common than it used to be, but we still think the route to experiencing the real China is through your stomach. Follow your nose to back alleys and markets, letting your taste buds discover slippery dumplings, pan-fried noodles, stuffed rice balls, grilled kebabs, warm wonton soup, and tea eggs, hard-boiled in green tea and soy sauce. In Beijing, Wangfujing night market has all these delights, not to mention some more unusual and acquired tastes, like skewered scorpions. Be careful to only order street food from vendors whose food is clean, fresh, and cooked right in front of you.
Follow clouds of steam to find these much-loved stuffed buns, crammed with an endless choice of different fillings. The steamed dough might be filled with beef with ginger, mushrooms and diced tofu, carrot and coriander, pork, or chicken. Buy a selection and tuck in before they get cold.
Found throughout China, watch street vendors make this crispy pancake by cooking the batter on a hot skillet, cracking an egg on top, scattering it with spring onion, and rolling it up crepe style for a tasty portable snack.
Known as Shengjianbao in the rest of the country, these more-ish fried buns are a Shanghai classic. Filled with pork and gelatine that forms a salty liquid inside the bun, they really do melt in your mouth. Garnished with spring onion and toasted sesame, they taste best just out of the pan, just be careful not to burn your tongue.
Tourist hotspots like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong can be expensive but, as ever, it depends where you stay, where you eat and what you do. On average, a three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant could set you back 120 Yuan Renminbi, with a domestic beer about eight Yuan Renminbi. In the shops, a 1.5 litre bottle of water might cost around five Yuan Renminbi.