In this intro to the broad range of authentic Chinese foods, we’ll cover the top food categories with the popular dishes to try for each one, plus, their Chinese names so you can order with ease.
Chinese cuisine is one of the world’s top cuisines featuring a diverse range of dishes from various regions and ethnic groups in China. It has a long history, exquisite technology, rich variety, numerous genres, and unique styles. It is also the crystallization of thousands of years of culinary activity.
There are many varieties of Chinese dishes, so so many, and generally, they are best classified firstly by region and ethnic group, such as the Eight Major Cuisines of China, each having unique characteristics in cooking styles, ingredients, and final texture, look, and taste. Continue reading about the cuisines of China.
To introduce Chinese foods we can also categorize by type of dish of which there and numerous variants, so let’s explore.
Types of Chinese Food
With a brief intro, and top dishes to try, the categories are Soup, Noodles, Stir fry dishes, Hot pot, Roast meats, Fish and Seafood, Vegetable dishes, Tofu dishes, Bing (flatbreads), Mantou & Baozi (steamed bread), Pastry, and Desserts.
Soup (汤 – Tang)
Soups are an essential and large part of overall Chinese cuisine. They are highly regarded not only for taste but also for nutrition along with soup (decoctions) widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Most Chinese soups are meat-based broths, many are slow-cooked bone broths, with varied end taste profiles covering sweet, sour, spicy.
Popular Chinese soup dishes
Noodles can be made from numerous starches with the most common being wheat noodles aka miantiao (面条) and the next being rice, aka fen (粉). Noodles have a history in China of over 4000 years and the variations of noodle and broth are immense, to say the least. Wheat noodles are historically common to northern China and rice noodles to southern China.
Stir fry dishes (炒菜)
In Chinese cooking stir-frying reigns supreme and whilst simple it has several styles and utilizes time-learned skills to bring out the flavors in different ingredients without nutrient loss.
Hot Pot (火锅)
Hot pot, or huǒ guō, is an ancient Chinese practice that is wildly popular today in Chinese society with hot pot restaurants everywhere you’ll go. Region to region, there are unique styles and ingredients according to the character of the area.
Roast meats are especially popular in southern China having their own category, Siu Mei. Xinjiang BBQ stalls are popular nationwide and especially so in western China.
River fish and Seafood Dishes (河鲜与海鲜菜)
Seafood is, as you’d expect, hugely popular in the coastal provinces. Fish is popular, and symbolic nationwide. Techniques and dishes vary from province to province.
Vegetable Dishes (蔬菜)
Super fresh vegetables are at the core of the Chinese cuisine experience and play a role in almost every dish whether combined with a starch or protein along or solely as a vegetable only dish. The range of daily fresh vegetables available at markets across China is large and diverse mating well with cooking techniques that retain nutrients and reveal flavors. More about vegetables in China.
Tofu Dishes (豆腐)
Tofu, or dòu fǔ, is Chinese creation dating back to the Han Dynasty and is widely used in its three forms of silken, soft and hard.
China, especially northern China, has a large array of wheat flour products with a famous one being Bing (餅) and its numerous variants. More on Bing.
Mantou (饅頭) and Bao (包子)
Mantou is a steamed bun made from a leaved flour dough and when a filling is added it becomes a Bao, or Baozi, of which there are numerous variants from savory to sweet.
Surprisingly, China has an extensive range of pastries in eight categories by method and under 12 genres by region.
Chinese desserts do a superb job of combining natural ingredients with sweetness while retaining nutritional elements.
The flavor genre within China is diverse due to being a multi-ethnic country. Due to differences in geography, climate, property, culture, beliefs, etc., the flavors of the dishes vary greatly. Within Chinese cuisine, there is what’s known as the Eight Major Cuisines which are the most popular and influential. They include Lu cuisine, Sichuan cuisine, Cantonese cuisine, Su cuisine, Zhejiang cuisine, Hunan cuisine, and Anhui cuisine.
Beyond those, there are perhaps hundreds of smaller regional and even village specific cuisine styles and dishes. Read more about the cuisines of China.
Chinese Cooking characteristics
Chinese cuisine emphasizes color, aroma, taste, shape, and nutrition. Symbolism also plays a role.
Color: color can make a dish pop and reflect its nutritional appeal. Sometimes it is set off with some vegetables, tomatoes, onions, etc., in order to achieve better visual effects.
Fragrance: aroma is important but is also acquired. An example being stinky tofu.
Taste: the soul of the dish. It is the product of the combination of the main ingredients and seasonings of the dishes and skill.
Meaning: People have associations or meaningful dishes. Certain dishes are very symbolic may that be representing reunion, such as dumplings.
Shape: paying attention to the chef’s skills of presentation.
Nurturing: its the belief of many Chinese that medicine is not as good as food, and the nutritional elements of a dish are highly considered.
More on food in China
- The Complete Guide to Authentic Chinese Dumplings
- An Introduction to the 8 Famous Chinese Cuisines
- Guide to Authentic Dim Sum Dishes
- Authentic Chinese Food: The Top 20 Foreigner Friendly Dishes
- China’s Top Ten Snack Streets
- Chinese Tea – The Types, Growing Regions, Brewing, Culture
- Traditional Chinese Breads inc. Bing and Mantou
- A Visual Guide to Common Chinese Vegetables
- A Visual Guide to Chinese Fruits
- Chinas Top Food Cities