The sheer diversity of Chinese cuisine is almost unsurpassed anywhere in the world. Every village, town, city, province and region has its own specialties or twists on common recipes. As a result, there are plenty of incredible dishes that I’ve eaten, the names of which I cannot remember and cannot get anywhere else (the cuisines of Yunnan and Guizhou spring to mind).
That just makes pinning down the top 20 Chinese dishes quite difficult! The Chinese dishes included in this article came from a much larger list of dishes hailing from all of the eight traditional Chinese cuisines.
1. Dàpánjī 大盘鸡 (Big Plate of Chicken)
One of the most popular Chinese food dishes from Xinjiang in China’s far west is dàpánjī, which literally means “big plate of chicken”. It consists of chicken and potatoes cooked in a variety of spices served on top of thick noodles. Like the name suggests, this dish is on the large side, so it’s best ordered with a group.
2. Chuàn’r 串 aka Shāokǎo 烧烤 (Kebabs/Barbecue)
Chuàn’r is more a type of cuisine than a particular dish. Also hailing from Xinjiang, it is basically various foods coated in cumin and other spices and cooked on a skewer over a fire. The most common meat is lamb; however I prefer ròujīn 肉筋 (tendons) as they have a little more fat, making the meat more tender. There are also plenty of vegetable and seafood options.
I have many fond memories of sitting on tiny stool next to a dangling illuminated “串” sign, washing down skewer after skewer with a cheap bottle of beer.
3. Nángbāokǎoròu 馕包烤肉 (Naan Bread with Roast Meat)
This Xinjiang food is one of my favorite lunchtime dishes. It translates as ‘naan bread grilled meat’, which is pretty much what it is: lamb cooked with onions, garlic and cumin fried with naan bread. Outstanding!
4. Běijīngkǎoyā 北京烤鸭 (Beijing Roast Duck)
I was lucky enough to spend over seven years in Beijing, and one thing that always amazed me was the sheer variety of excellent Chinese food available (sorry Shanghai, but Beijing wins this round).
The most famous of these amazing dishes is roast duck, or Peking duck as it is more commonly known outside of China. Easily one of the top 20 Chinese dishes, the thing that makes Peking duck special is the wood used in the ovens where the birds are roasted.
The meat comes sliced and served with pancakes, scallions, cucumber and plum sauce. The skin is a delicacy, and, like the head, is usually served on its own plate.
5. Zhájiàngmiàn 炸酱面 (Fried Sauce Noodles)
This Beijing staple is available all over the country, though it tastes best in Beijing. This is definitely one of the least famous Chinese traditional food dishes, but it is popular with locals and foreigners alike.
Served with cucumber, scallions and sometimes yellow beans, it is the perfect dish on a cold winter’s day.
6. Guōbaōròu 锅包肉 (Pot Bag Meat)
Of course, the sweet-and-sour dishes typical of China’s northeastern region are a must! Surely one of the best Chinese dishes of all time, guōbaōròu is made from deep-fried pork served in delicious sweet-and-sour sauce.
7. Règānmiàn 热干面 (Hot Dry Noodles)
I’ve been fortunate to visit Wuhan on more than one occasion and each time I’ve found myself stuffing my face with règānmiàn.
The noodles are coated in a peanut sauce and are incredibly moreish.
8. Sūròu 酥肉 (Crispy Meat)
Often served alongside an epic hot pot (see below), Sichuanese sūròu is usually thin strips of pork fried in a thick batter. However, the batter does not overpower the dish and the meat. You can either eat the sūròu as-is or dunk it in the oil or sesame sauce that accompanies your hot pot.
9. Huǒguō 火锅 (Hot Pot)
One of the most well-known traditional Chinese dishes, Sichuan hot pot is a social dish like no other. Meals go on for hours with round after round of raw meat, vegetables, seafood and beer piling up. This is a dish best enjoyed as a large group.
The most common meat is lamb, although beef is also popular. Thin slices of meat and other items are brought raw and then cooked in a vat of chili oil and water, which ranges from not-spicy-at-all to simply eye watering.
10. Huíguōròu 回锅肉 (Twice Cooked Pork)
One of my favourite Sichuan dishes, twice cooked pork is utterly heavenly! Thin slices of pork are fried once, taken out of the pan, and cooked again with peppers, onions, black beans and fermented soybean paste.
You might need to search for a restaurant that does huíguōròu well, since this dish can sometimes be extremely oily, or the pieces of pork may be cut too thick meaning the crispiness of the meat is lost. Once you find your go-to restaurant, this dish will become a favourite!
11. Làzǐjī 辣子鸡 (Firecracker Chicken)
This is a Sichuan classic, laden with the mouth numbing huājiāo 花椒 peppercorns and fiery chili peppers for which Sichuan cuisine is known. Làzǐjī may leave you reaching for the píjiǔ 啤酒 (beer) often.
The entire chicken is chopped into small pieces and then fried with the aforementioned huājiāo and a frightening amount of chilis. The result is a spice-fest of crispy chicken that will have you licking the plate clean.
12. Gānguō 干锅 (Dry Pot)
Another Sichuan classic, gānguō is more of a style of cooking as opposed to a single dish. This method uses similar ingredients to hot pot but is stir-fried instead.
Gānguōtǔdòupiàn 干锅土豆片 (dry pot sliced potato) is particularly excellent.
13. Zhǐbāoyú 纸包鱼 (Paper wrapped fish)
This Sichuan dish is not very well-known among foreigners, but it is mouth-watering.
A whole fish is rubbed in a mixture of ginger, onions, salt, sugar, and cooking wine, then wrapped in paper and roasted. Meanwhile onions, red and green chilis, ginger, garlic and picked beans are fried together. Hot pot base, celery and water are added later. This sauce is then poured over the fish. Mushrooms and potato are added, and the whole thing is left to cook.
14. Gānbiānsìjìdòu 干煸四季豆 (Four-season beans)
This Sichuanese staple is the first real Chinese dish I ever learned how to make! The foundations of this dish are the three core ingredients found in a large number of Chinese dishes; 葱姜蒜 (cōng jiāng suàn, or "onions, ginger and garlic").
The string beans are friend in oil until almost cooked. They are then removed and the oil left in the pan is used to fry the onion, ginger, garlic, huājiāo and chilis, before the beans are returned to the pan for another quick fry.
Occasionally you may find this dish made with minced pork.
15. Xiǎolóngxīa 小龙虾 (Crayfish)
Also known as crawdads, langoustines, and many other names, these small lobsters are a real delicacy. This very popular Sichuan dish is a favourite for people across China. The crayfish are cooked in chili oil, ginger, garlic and fermented bean paste, among other things.
Don gloves and aprons and enjoy!
16. Xiǎomiàn 小面 (Little Noodles)
This Chongqing classic is an absolute must-try and is easily found all over China.
Wheat noodles are served in a very spicy soup laden with chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, peanuts, soy sauce and preserved vegetables.
A work of art!
17. Jiǔgōnggé 九宫格(Nine-quadrant hotpot)
While the differences between Chongqing hotpot and Sichuan hotpot are subtle, both regions will argue as to which is the better hotpot. Sichuan hotpot is made up of two different soup bases, one spicy and one not. Chongqing hot pot is single soup base divided into nine quadrants so you can cook certain ingredients in different sections.
Be warned that wēilà 微辣 (the lowest level of spice) is still very spicy, especially to people not used to Chongqing spice-levels.
18. Xiǎolóngbāo 小笼包 (Soup Dumplings)
One of Shanghai’s most notable food exports, these little delights come in a huge variety of flavours and sizes.
The mistake many people make is to just bite into the dumpling like a savage. This will usually lead to a burnt tongue, as the soup inside is very hot. The correct way to eat them is to place them on a spoon and use your chopsticks to break a hole to let to soup flow out. Then drink the soup and eat the dumpling.
19. Chángfěn 肠粉 (Rice noodle rolls)
A meat and/or vegetable filling wrapped in a rice noodle sheet, this is a common dish in the Guangdong region of China. Much of the flavour comes from the filling and the soy sauce it’s cooked in. The most common fillings are shrimp, beef or pork.
20. Shāolà 烧腊 (Cantonese BBQ)
Hong Kong’s hawker centers are home to some of the best food in China. You will find classic Cantonese fare including shāolà 烧腊, aka Cantonese BBQ. The most common meats are duck, goose, chicken and pork. You typically will choose the number of meats you want, which are then served with rice and a small soup.
Most poultry versions are served with the skin on, which helps to keep the meat juicy and flavourful. Pork dishes are chāshāo 叉烧, strips of pork with the same marinade found in Cantonese pork buns or shāo ròu 烧肉 crispy pork belly. It may not be the best for your cholesterol, but the taste is worth it.
21. Jiāoyánxiā 椒盐虾 (Salt and pepper shrimp)
Prawns with the shell are fried in a light batter with chilis, scallions and ginger with hearty amounts of salt and pepper. Although some westerners are not fans of prawn dishes where the prawns are not shelled, the shell here is what the batter holds onto. Without it, the prawns would have little flavour.
22. Ròujiāmó 肉夹馍 (Meat in a bun)
When I first tried this Xi’an classic back in 2008, friends described it as a Chinese a hamburger, a fitting if somewhat strange description.
The meat consists of pork belly cooked with rice wine, soy sauce and spices. This meat is then stuffed inside a pan-fried bun.
An absolute must!
One thing to bear in mind when trying these popular Chinese food dishes is how much of a difference being able to read Chinese will make to your eating experiences in China. Not only is it easier to order food, but you also have a greater understanding of what on the menu will taste good. You have a greater understanding of how things are cooked and how flavors combine. Also you can pick out a decent restaurant from a mile away!
Post contributed by Rich