THWAK! The thick menu felt like an earthquake when it was put on the table. I looked at it in astonishment; it was the size of a Sears Catalog that I remember receiving when I was a kid!
When I landed in China for my 8 day trip, I was excited for one thing – I wanted to eat all the delicious food in China! And when traveling to China, you normally have a guide who will take you around to all of the important ancient and modern sites, and they will also take you to restaurants to help with ordering among the maze of new and strange foods. I love having a local guide to help me choose what food in China to eat; if I were alone I probably wouldn’t be as adventurous.
However, this first restaurant we went to in Shanghai was gigantic, filled with big round tables and a lazy Susan in the middle. It felt very westernized; maybe it was the Nora Jones music playing in the background. The thick catalog-like menu had pictures and a little English, which was rather helpful, however there was something about this scenario that didn’t sit right with me. These big restaurants are great places to eat and typically the types of places a tour guide will take you to, but I didn’t want to go where all the tourists go. Instead, I challenged my guide in each city to take me to a mix of nicer restaurants and more local establishments; ones where there weren’t pictures or English menus. I wanted to throw caution to the wind. After all, travel is about going local and exploration of new things!
Food In China You Must Try
I quickly learned that dumplings are a staple in Shanghai, little bites of flavorful goodness; but in Shanghai you get something extra in your dumpling – soup. I had my first soup dumpling at breakfast (yes, dumplings for breakfast!). I was startled when I bit into what I thought was a normal dumpling and soup came out and subsequently went all over me! I pretty quickly learned that Shanghai dumplings needed to be eaten with care. Shanghai is known for 2 main kinds of dumplings. Xiao Long Bao, a steamed dumpling made of wheat dough. And Sheng Jian Bao made of a thicker dough, first fried in a cast iron skillet and then steamed. Both are typically made of pork and both have a gelatin soup inside that get’s heated and liquefied when steamed. Dip them in a vinegar soy mixture and try to poke a hole in it first so that you can ‘drink’ out the soup first or at least let it cool before you bite into it! However my favorite way to eat them was with a straw.
In Xian I not only ate dumplings (jiaozi), I learned how to make them. I met Chef Jin who makes about 3,500 dumplings a night. She is like a super hero where her power is to make dumplings lightening fast. If you blink you’ll miss it and you’ll have a butterfly shaped dumpling in front of you. Chef Jin works at the Shaanxi Sunshine Lido Grand Theatre (and in the time it took you to read that title, she made 4 dumplings). Her dumplings are in the shape of butterflies, roses, swans, cabbages, and ducks. However, for teaching purposes she kept the shapes simple and slowed down long enough to show me how to roll out the dough, spread in the filling, and then form them into shapes. Mine didn’t turn out too shapely, which made me conclude that I’d rather eat them than make them.
In my quest for local food, my Shanghai guide took us for traditional breakfast frequented by the fast paced business workers in Shanghai – warm, sweet soymilk, and a fried breadstick. Yon Ho is a fast food chain that started as a street stall in Taiwan and now sells their soybean milk all over China. The drink sort of tastes like what’s left in the bottom of a cereal bowl once all the cereal is gone! It was fun to be the only foreigner in the restaurant and watch a steady stream of young business workers come in and eat before work. A cool (and tasty) view of daily life in Shanghai!
Did you know that you can hear noodles? In Xi’an if you listen carefully you’ll hear why the Biangbiang noodle got its name. They are named after the sound of dough being thwacked on the chopping board so it can be stretched into one very long belt-like lasagna noodle. Not only are they fun to watch being made, but also they are delicious to eat. My guide and I stopped at a local food court inside the old city in Xi’an and saw the noodles being made and then slurped them down in a broth mixture of soy, peppers, and scallions. Slurping is completely acceptable in China!
I also tried the Beijing’s Peking noodle dish. The noodles are long, cylinder shaped, and delicious. However my favorite part was that they bring the noodles, vegetables, and sauce out in separate bowls and it’s up to you to mix the three items together at the table…with chopsticks. It’s a little work, but the taste is worth it!
It might look slightly unappetizing to have a whole duck brought out to your table, but trust me on this and say ‘yes’ to Peking Duck when in Beijing! I went to Da Wan Ju , a small, local restaurant near the Wangfujing night market. This special duck is best known for it’s breeding and roasting process; plus it was once the food of Emperors. You eat Peking Duck with scallion, cucumber and sweet bean sauce with pancakes all rolled up like a taco. However, I’m not sure what I liked the most – the duck breast ‘taco’, or the crispy skin! For pure decadence, try dipping the crispy skin in sugar – the ultimate treat!
If you want to get a little bolder, then try the street food in China! Don’t get scared away by Beijing’s Wangfujing night market, which tends to cater to tourists more than locals. It’s a market with split personalities – it has a bunch of great traditional street food such as noodles, dumplings, and soups, and then it also has creepy crawlies on a stick. It’s definitely worth a visit to see how daring you are! I decided to try dessert there after my Peking Duck dinner; sweet sticky rice ‘pops’ on a stick were a much better choice than the grasshoppers on a stick.
There are plenty of street markets selling food all over China’s cities that are really for locals though, and if you ask your guide, they’ll be able to find one. My Shanghai guide led me to the Chang li neighborhood in Shanghai to try some local street food. Nestled among retail stores, the market smelled of durian, and was filled with businessmen and women stopping to get dinner on their way home from work. The food is cooked up right in front of you, and I suggest you just pick the stand with the biggest line! The other great thing about local street food, it’s cheap; I had a giant noodle and veggie dish for $1.20 USD.
Wait – What About the Fortune Cookies?
If you are looking for those crispy sweet fortune cookies at the end of you meal in China – you’ll be waiting forever. In fact 90% of Chinese people don’t even know what they are. As I’ve written about before, fortune cookies aren’t from China at all; they are from the United States, created in San Francisco.
The food in China was nothing like what I eat in Chinese restaurants in the United States; instead it was infinitely better. And like most things in the world of travel, it’s even better when you can get out and explore the local scene, because it’s all about the journey.
I was a guest of Wendy Wu Tours and USTOA during this trip in China, however all opinions expressed here are my own.