With a culinary landscape rich in flavour and diversity, China’s dishes cover a lot of ground. Audrey Gillan explores the country’s most delicious cuisine
Key ingredient: seafood, pork and meat dumplings, most often steamed and sometimes fried or baked in pastry
Dim sum literally translates as ‘dot heart’ or ‘heart’s delight’. The idiomatic equivalent is, appropriately, ‘hit the spot’ and they’re really hors d’oeuvres, served at lunchtime with tea. Often brought to the table on a trolley piled with towers of steamer baskets, favourites include har gow (crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with shrimp), siu mai (open-topped pork mince dumplings), and fanguo (flat dumplings). Other dim sum stalwarts are taro cake, turnip cake and steamed chicken feet.
Roasted duck, served with diaphanous rice pancakes, cucumber, spring onions, plum and hoisin sauce
This is probably the most famous Chinese restaurant dish. Peking duck actually originated in Jiangsu but was brought to the capital by cooks working in the kitchens of the imperial court during the Ming dynasty. The skin is separated from the meat by blowing in air, then the duck is basted in a soy sauce/maltose syrup mixture before being hung to dry and then eventually roasted. When carved, the skin should be crackly like thin toffee, and the slices of meat tender and flavourful.
Key ingredients: tofu, pork, spices
This dish from Sichuan is made with bean curd in a spicy meat sauce. It originated in Chengdu (the Sichuanese capital) in the 19th century where it was created by an inventive cook nicknamed ‘mapo’, meaning pockmarked-face woman. Tofu (or bean curd) is tossed with pork, Sichuan preserved vegetables, garlic, spicy soya bean paste, sugar and Sichuanese pepper and chillis.
Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings)
Origin: Jiangnan region
Key ingredient: pleated dumplings filled with hot broth, most often chicken or pork
Bite into one of these purses of dough and a flood of umami liquid will flow into your mouth. Xiao long bao have a meatball waiting for you inside after that first hot broth hit. These baozi (steamed buns) are most associated with Shanghai and were invented in the Nanxiang suburb.
Xinjiang Lamb Skewers
Key ingredients: lamb, cumin seeds, chilli, garlic, ginger, pepper
These skewers of cumin-scented barbecued lamb are also known as old Beijing skewers, but they originated in Xinjiang where there’s a majority Uighur population that’s largely Muslim. Vendors fan flames on small street-side grills, while their other hand steadily turns the metal sticks threaded with meat. They’re becoming more popular in restaurants across the world with a focus on regional specialities. In China, they’re an iconic street snack generally eaten accompanied by a cold refreshing beer.
Hainan chicken rice
Key ingredients: chicken and rice
The best bit of this dish is the rice, which is cooked with chicken fat and stock to become silky and unctuous. The chicken is poached whole, plunged into an ice bath to keep the flesh firm and the meat moist, then carved into slices. It’s served with the rice and chicken broth, with dishes of chilli sauce, ginger and scallion sauce and soy sauce. Hainanese chicken rice is also a favourite in countries across Southeast Asia.
Char Siu Pork
Key ingredients: pork with a marinade of sugar, hoisin, bean sauce, garlic, soy and Shaoxing wine
A classic of the Cantonese cooking canon, you see strips of cooked pork hanging on metal hooks in the window of Chinese restaurants around the world. Traditionally cooked over charcoal, but more often roasted in the oven, the meat has a caramel flavour and should be juicy with crunchy skin. Char siu literally means fork roast, because the strips of pork were threaded with long metal forks before being roasted. It’s also used to stuff buns (char siu bao), as well as being an element of a plate of sui mei (roast meats that also include chicken, duck and pork).
Yangzhou Fried Rice
Key ingredients: rice, chicken, ham, pork, mushrooms, egg, spring onion, shrimp, peas, Shaoxing wine, chicken stock
This is one of the few dishes from the Yangzhou region that’s known across the world, often called house-fried rice or fried rice. It’s a fragrant mix of rice jewelled with small pieces of meat, seafood and vegetables — if the egg is beaten in after everything else it should coat each grain of rice.