12 Traditional Chinese Foods You’ve Got to Try

12 Traditional Chinese Foods You've Got to Try

Curious to know what real, traditional Chinese food looks like?

This isn't that imitation Chinese you get from the 24-hour buffet around the corner from your apartment. I lived and traveled in China for ten months and got to experience the real deal, local cuisine of the cities and villages. These are 12 of my favorite traditional Chinese foods!

1. Spinach Noodles (bō cài miàn)

Bo Cai Mian, Traditional Chinese Food

Delicious spinach noodles in Xi'an, China

Xi'an, in central China, is known for its noodles, and every self-respecting noodle joint in the city makes their noodles from scratch. This traditional Chinese food dish includes noodles made from spinach, then topped with whatever ingredients your heart desires. The above serving has a spicy tomato-like sauce and is topped with egg, potato, carrots, beef and chili.

2. Fried Mashi (chǎo má shi)

Chao Mashi, Traditional Chinese Food

Greasy and incredibly tasty!

It's easy to find fried rice and fried noodles anywhere in the world. This gnocchi-lookalike, though, is quite different. It's a little bit sweet, but it's hot and hearty. The additional crunchy vegetables provide a delicious juxtaposition next to the soft thickness of the má shi.

3. BBQ Meat (kǎo ròu)

Kao Rou, Traditional Chinese Food

BBQ meat from a street vendor in China

Kǎo ròu is the standard serving of meat in China and might be one of the most well known traditional Chinese foods available. They are heavily spiced and come from both restaurants and street carts alike. Often cooked over burning coal, these sticks of meat come in many variations. You might find lamb, beef, chicken, or even the gizzards and other weird stuff no westerner would happily stick in their mouth.

And yes, I've seen tentacles hanging out of peoples' mouths.

4. Cold Vegetable Dish (liáng cài)

Liang Cai, Traditional Chinese Food

Trying to stay healthy in China 😉

Liáng cài, which literally translates to “cold dish,” is an assortment of vegetables, tofu and peanuts, served with a marinade or sauce. The usual suspects are green beans, cucumbers, lotus root and cabbage, amongst a brilliant assortment of whatever else the house thinks bests suits the dish!

5. Stinky Tofu (chòu dòu fu)

Stinky Tofu, Traditional Chinese Food

It smells so bad, but tastes so good!

It smells worse than it looks and it actually tastes better than it smells! Stinky tofu is often the culprit when entire sidewalks full of people are choked out as they are engulfed in a thick haze of stench. With enough of the right seasoning (you can see they use a lot), this traditional Chinese dish actually ain't half bad.

6. Dumplings (jiǎo zi)

Traditional Chinese Dumplings

Traditional Chinese dumplings. My favorite!

Another one of the most well-known of traditional Chinese foods, this is your classic dumpling, often filled with beef, pork or veggies. They can come steamed or fried and, man, do they taste good. The locals dip their dumplings in black vinegar mixed with a chili sauce, which adds a unique bitter, sweet and spicy flavor.

7. Mutton Stew (yáng ròu pào mó)

Yang Rou Pao Mo, Chinese Traditional Food

Pào mó, with a side of chili and pickled garlic

Pào mó is a traditional dish of the Xi'an people. Seen here is pào mó served with mutton, though it can also come with pork or beef. Instead of noodles, this stew uses bits of unleavened bread, which soaks up the rich flavor. It's served with chili sauce and pickled garlic on the side, meant for eating on its own, alongside the stew.

It compliments the flavors, and wards off evil spirits in the process.

8. Chinese Hamburger (ròu jiā mó)

Rou Jia Mo, Chinese Traditional Food

This is definitely not a hamburger.

This is the Chinese answer to a western hamburger, though, as a burger aficionado, I take serious issue with the fact that anybody would even call this one. That being said, it is a tasty treat. It's a homemade, stone-oven cooked bun with juicy, seasoned pork on the inside. The pork is left to cook overnight in a large pot of spices like cardamom and cloves, and by morning, the meat would fall right apart. We called them “ro-ji's” for short!

9. Cold Mixed Tofu and Pineapple Aloe Vera (liáng bàn dòu fu and bō luó lú huì)

Tofu and Aloe Vera, Two Traditional Chinese Foods

Aloe vera for eating, not sunburns.

Seen here is a giant brick of tofu (I know, right?) which is sitting in a mixed sauce of oil, chili and sesame (among other unknown flavors), topped with green veggies. The bizarre dish behind it is a serving of pineapple and aloe vera….the very same aloe vera you use to treat a sunburn. It's sweet and mushy, which I couldn't enjoy, but the sugary pineapple underneath was a nice nosh!

10. Yak Meat Dumplings (mómo)

Yak Meat Dumplings, Chinese Traditional Food

The best dumplings I've ever had.

Though not a traditional Chinese food in mainland China, mómo are common in Tibet and Western China. There is conflict over the territory of Tibet, but I did eat these in the People's Republic of China, so they made the list. These dumplings were filled with juicy yak meat that burst in my mouth when I bit down. This, here, is one of the greatest things I've ever eaten in my life.

And I've eaten a lot. About three times every day since I was born, in fact.

11. Sweet and Sour Eggplant (yú xīang qié zi)

Sweet and Sour Eggplant, Traditional Chinese Food

Is it eggplant…or pork?

Though I never enjoyed eggplant at home, it quickly became one of my favorite traditional Chinese foods. This is a bowl of sliced eggplant that tastes more like sweet and sour pork than a vegetable. A little bit of chili and fish sauce (or a lot) can go a long way!

12. Beef Noodles (niú ròu miàn)

Beef Noodles, Traditional Chinese Food

A delicious bowl of traditional beef noodles in Xi'an.

Beef noodles are a personal favorite, and they can be found in almost every restaurant or household in China. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the most traditional Chinese food there is. Each restaurant prepares their noodles differently, so eating the same thing never gets boring. Seen here are homemade noodles, topped with a shredded beef and vegetable mixture.

Traditional Chinese recipes are very different from the Chinese food you might be used to. Western countries have, unfortunately, changed the cuisine, and turned it into something more akin to a greasy, late-night snack. That being said, with the uprising of gourmet and artisanal restaurants, many Chinese food menus are turning into something more representative of the authentic experience.

If you ever get a chance to experience traditional Chinese food, I highly recommend you try it!

What's your favorite Chinese food? Let us know in the comments below!


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48 Responses to 12 Traditional Chinese Foods You’ve Got to Try

  1. The Time-Crunched Traveler May 9, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Great suggestions! I confess I don’t often even know what it is that I am eating in China. But they definitely have some delicious options to choose from.

    • Jeremy Foster May 16, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

      Sometimes it’s just better not to ask questions 😛

  2. qiranger May 13, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    I’ve actually had most of these. Except for the stinky tofu. I’m not a fan of the regular kind.

    • Jeremy Foster May 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

      So maybe you’d enjoy the stinky kind, then! It’s actually not so bad.

      I wasn’t a big fan of tofu when I initially arrived in Asia, but since coming here, it’s become a favorite of mine. Funny how that happens!

  3. Matt Gibson May 16, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    Translations may differ between Taiwan (where I lived and studied Mandarin) and China, but Yang Rou, which you call mutton, is goat in Taiwan.

    Niu rou mian literally translates to Beef Noodle, but in Taiwan the dish is always served as a beef noodle soup. If you want it dry, you have to aks for it as dry (gan de).

    • Jeremy Foster May 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      That’s really interesting. I’m studying Mandarin in central China and “yang rou” is, 100% of the time, mutton. It appears that “shan yang rou” would be goat meat, though. I wonder if the former is just a shortened, colloquial version. I can’t find any information on “yang rou” being anything other than lamb or mutton.

    • Marnie Bryson November 15, 2013 at 4:06 am #

      Well how very informed of you. Jeremy you are a great writer! I laughed loudly in my cubicle when I read the Tibet line. So now everyone is giving me weird looks. Oh, and I’m super hungry now; no matter how much sriracha and soy sauce you put in this ramen….it’s not going to help.

    • Person.Boi April 9, 2014 at 8:22 am #

      I’m Chinese and I’ve never ever had dry beef noodles. The broth is a main factor in making or breaking the dish

    • Mytanfeet April 15, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

      I grew up speaking Mandarin and yang rou is what we call lamb. I just asked my mom (my parents are from Taiwan) and they call lamb and goat differently but it can still be used to call both.

      • Jeremy Foster April 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

        Interesting! Doesn’t that get confusing, though?

  4. Nelieta Mishchenko June 17, 2013 at 12:36 am #

    This looks delicious and now you have made me very hungry!

  5. Chelsea October 5, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    I ate squid on a stick that I bought in a night market when I lived there. It was pretty good! Jiaozi will always be my favorite though. 🙂 Jian bing is great too.

    • Jeremy Foster October 10, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      Oh yeah, the squid on a stick! The local love those–I can’t handle the sight of tentacles hanging out of someone’s mouth!

  6. mtb January 2, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    Re the section on noodles – please note it should “its” N O T “It’s” (which is short for : it is. Whatever happened to sub editors?

  7. Tu Tai March 24, 2014 at 9:19 pm #

    you try 12 Traditional in China not 13

  8. Mytanfeet April 15, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

    Yum yum yum! I’ve had most of these but not mutton stew, that’s a new one. It all looks so good, nom nom. I can’t wait to go back to Asia and eat everything there!

    • Jeremy Foster April 16, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

      Oh man! The mutton stew is a highlight for sure. You’ll only find it in Xi’an, though! It’s a very local dish there, and it’s very, very tasty!!

      • FJ February 20, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

        In Xi’an you also HAVE to get the Liang Pi

  9. SENDY May 4, 2015 at 10:31 pm #

    Hi i love asia too

  10. Suze The Luxury Columnist May 14, 2015 at 10:57 am #

    I love the idea of spinach noodles, though I’m not so keen on the stinky tofu option! Have you tried cooking any of the dishes back at home?

    • Jeremy Scott Foster May 23, 2015 at 4:20 am #

      I took a Chinese cooking class, actually. It’s pretty simple cooking, you just have to have the right understanding of the cuisine and the basics. To be honest, the spinach noodles are one of my favorites on that list!

      • chinesefood May 19, 2016 at 9:06 am #

        Chinese food menu is what to eat lots, I recommend that you try to eat 12 meals menu Chinese website has offered.

  11. Wayne Seto May 15, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    What a great line up of food! The one great thing that I love about food in Asia as opposed to back in North America, is all those meats on a stick that you can find on street carts!

  12. The Adventure Ahead June 3, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    I love reading posts about traditional foods – it is always neat to see dishes that we have never heard of before. So many interesting things that you would never see on a takeout menu back home. Part of the fun of travailing for us is always trying new foods, as long as they are not too strange… like bugs and such 😉

    • Jeremy Scott Foster June 7, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

      Yeah, I don’t do bugs either! I hope you found some inspiration to try some new Chinese foods!

      • FJ February 20, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

        They do have scorpions-on-sticks in Beijing

  13. Tom Shrill August 6, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    I love Chinese food a lot, and this all looks so good! I wonder if there are any Chinese restaurants near me that cater to parties. And of those that are, how many would make traditional style.

    • FJ March 20, 2017 at 3:41 pm #

      No, you can only find most of these especially in China

  14. yuanyuan August 28, 2015 at 1:46 am #

    chao mashi?? chao NIANGAO?

  15. firly austine September 15, 2015 at 11:07 pm #

    hello jeremy, your post very useful for my homework. Thankyou 🙂

  16. Alex May 26, 2016 at 2:28 am #

    I want to try them. Especially the dumplings.

  17. Susnahlee June 9, 2016 at 1:08 am #

    Great job ! Want to try delicious Chinese food? Then why wait! Try one of the best Korean restaurant in NYC.

  18. Maggie November 9, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

    I’m really wanting to try those yak meat dumplings you listed. I absolutely love dumplings, especially when they’re filled with meat, but I’ve never had yak before. Does it taste anything like beef? I imagine that it probably does since yaks are a similar size to cows.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster November 11, 2016 at 7:46 pm #

      Ohhhhhhh the momo! I’m a dumpling guy, myself, and these were, without question, the best I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve eaten A LOT of dumplings.

      Yak meat is actually delicious. It’s been a little while since I’ve had it, but it’s very flavorful and much like beef—I’m sure you’d love it. The yak meat hotpot they do in this region is pretty scrumptious, too!

  19. Seamus November 14, 2016 at 8:05 pm #

    I love you Jeremy

  20. Chloe March 28, 2017 at 4:18 pm #

    Well,I am from China,but I never tried the Spinach Noodles and the second dishes.Hope I can enjoy them in the future.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster April 6, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

      You might only find the bo cai mian in Xi’an—it’s native to that province. I hope you can try them…they’re one of my favorites!

  21. betty brown May 8, 2017 at 7:45 pm #

    I like eating fried rice

  22. 鼠标 November 18, 2017 at 1:24 am #

    please,in Chinese

  23. 鼠标 November 18, 2017 at 1:25 am #

    I am Chinese

  24. Farhan Sakundirasta Putra January 12, 2018 at 10:51 am #

    I ask permission to download images for my entrepreneur tasks
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  25. Farhan Sakundirasta Putra January 12, 2018 at 10:52 am #

    I ask permission to download images for my school task about entrepreneurship
    may be useful, thanks

  26. Anthony Jones January 13, 2018 at 12:46 pm #

    My favorite dish ever since I visited China ( for 3 months in the summer), has been Sichuan Ma Po Dou Fu, which has mounds of slivered green onion, Sichuan peppercorn and cilantro.
    Also at a Buddhist monastery climbing E Mei Shan, the fermented tofu was amazing. Actually all Buddhist monastery dishes were very remarkable of the ones I visited Some Taoist temples had wonderful food, as well, especially mushroom dishes. Seasonal local greens of any type are not to be passed up.. All dumplings and fresh local fruits.
    While in Tibet, I came to really like anything with yak meat,in any form, including yak sausage, Usually yak tastes similar to beef but has a slight wild game taste, Anything yak or Tibetan, especially the yak butter tea.
    Beijing had some really wonderful breakfast turnip cakes, handmade chunky noodles and short noodles made from Tofu skin tossed in a sesame sauce. I never had a bad meal or dish in China, except for American or Western dishes there.
    Hands down, the best dishes in China were the breakfasts, usually very simple congee or Xi Fan, with sides of pickled vegetables and boiled peanuts, (especially in Sichuan)

  27. T March 3, 2018 at 9:42 pm #

    This is not Chinese food…WRONG! SO WRONG

    • Ken June 26, 2018 at 11:26 am #

      This IS Chinese food. China is so big that there are different regional cuisines. I am Chinese descent from Southern China, and these are not common. But they are Chinese. I’ve travelled China and Taiwan. I cook traditional Hookien and other Chinese cuisines. THIS IS Chinese food. (Just a slight correction, momo is actually Nepalese dumpling, but since it was in Tibet, still…)

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