20 Traditional Chinese Food Dishes You Need to Try, According to a Chinese-Malaysian Chef

Like Peking duck and char siu

traditional chinese food dishes: mapo tofu in a bowl
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We all have a favorite Chinese spot that we swear by, but you may have already figured that your usual General Tso’s isn’t exactly authentic. Many popular menu items are heavily Americanized (though tasty in their own way). Being one of the world’s most populous countries, China has a varied cuisine that is vastly different from one region to another, meaning expanding your palate to the world of traditional Chinese food can be daunting if you don’t know where to start. We researched classic dishes and talked to an authority on Chinese cuisine to find out the best introductory recipes for newbies.

Traditional Chinese Food Dishes, at a Glance

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Meet the Expert

Bee Yinn Low is the creator of the Asian food blog Rasa Malaysia and author of the cookbook Easy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites from Dim Sum to Kung Pao.

1. Fried Rice

“Rice is a staple in Chinese cuisine,” Yinn Low tells us. “Chinese fried rice is a complete meal that feeds the entire family. The combination of ingredients can be anything from protein (chicken, pork, shrimp) to vegetables (carrots, peas, onions). It’s a wholesome meal for dinner.” It also happens to be simple and quick to make at home, but as Yinn Low advises, “for the best fried rice, leftover rice will be best.” (We know what we’re doing with our take-out leftovers.)

2. Peking Duck

“Personally, I think Peking duck is the best way to eat duck,” Yinn Low tells us of the Beijing dish. “Crispy roasted duck sliced into bite-sized pieces, rolled up in a wrapper with salad and hoisin sauce.” Peking duck is seasoned, dried for 24 hours and cooked in an open-air oven called a hung oven, so it’s not something you can really replicate at home...but it is something we recommend seeking out at a traditional Chinese restaurant. (It’s traditionally carved and served in three courses: skin, meat and bones in the form of broth, with sides like cucumbers, bean sauce and pancakes).

3. Stinky Tofu

The name kind of says it all: Stinky tofu is fermented tofu with a strong odor (and it’s said that the stronger it smells, the better it tastes). Tofu is brined in a mixture of fermented milk, vegetables, meat and aromatics before fermenting for up to several months, kind of like cheese. Its preparation depends on the region, but it can be served cold, steamed, stewed or deep-fried with chile and soy sauces on the side.

4. Chow Mein

“Other than rice, noodles are a mainstay in Chinese cooking,” Yinn Low says. “Just like with fried rice, there are endless variations on chow mein. For busy parents, this is an easy dish to make for the entire family. And if you can’t find traditional Chinese egg noodles or chow mein noodles, you can use cooked spaghetti to make the dish instead.”

5. Congee

Congee, or rice porridge, is a nourishing, easy-to-digest meal (particularly for breakfast). Congees differ from region to region: Some are thick, some are watery and some are made with grains other than rice. It can be savory or sweet, topped with meat, tofu, vegetables, ginger, boiled eggs and soy sauce, or mung beans and sugar. And since it’s ultra-comforting, congee is also considered a sort of cure-all for when you’re sick.

6. Chinese Hamburger

A pita-like bun filled with tender braised pork is not what we ever thought of as a hamburger, but it’s delicious nonetheless. The street food originates from Shaanxi in northwest China, the meat contains more than 20 spices and seasonings and since it’s been around since the Qin dynasty (circa 221 B.C. to 207 B.C.), some may argue that it’s the original hamburger.

7. Scallion Pancakes

No maple syrup here: These savory pancakes are more like a supremely chewy flatbread with bits of scallion and sesame oil mixed throughout the dough. They’re served as street food, in restaurants and in supermarkets both fresh and frozen. Since they’re pan-fried, they have the ideal balance of crispy edges and soft insides.

8. Kung Pao Chicken

“This is probably the most well-known Chinese chicken dish outside of China,” Yinn Low says. “It’s also an authentic and traditional dish that you can find in many restaurants in China.” The spicy stir-fried chicken dish originates from the Sichuan province of southwestern China, and while you’ve probably had the Westernized version, the real thing is fragrant, spicy and a little bit mouth-numbing, thanks to Sichuan peppercorns. If you want to avoid the Americanized copycat, Yinn Low says the O.G. is actually quite easy to recreate at home.

9. Steamed Pork Buns

There are two types of baozi, or bao: dàbāo (big bun) and xiǎobāo (small bun). Both are a bread-like dumpling filled with everything from meat to veggies to bean paste, depending on the type and where they were made. They’re usually steamed—which makes the buns delightfully squishy and soft—and served with dipping sauces like soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil and chile pastes.

10. Mapo Tofu

Maybe you’ve heard of or even tried mapo tofu, but Westernized versions of the Sichuanese tofu/beef/fermented bean paste dish are usually much less spicy than their traditional counterpart, which is laden with chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns. Fun fact: The literal translation of the name is “pockmarked old woman’s bean curd,” thanks to origin stories that claim it was invented by, well, a pockmarked old woman. It’s got a little bit of everything: textural contrast, bold flavors and lots of heat.

11. Char Siu

Technically, char siu is a way to flavor and cook barbecued meat (specifically pork). Its name literally means “fork roasted,” since the Cantonese dish is cooked on a skewer in an oven or over a fire. Whether it’s pork loin, belly or butt, the seasoning almost always contains honey, five-spice powder, hoisin sauce, soy sauce and red fermented bean curd, which gives it its signature scarlet hue. If you’re not already drooling, char siu can be served alone, with noodles or inside baozi.

12. Fried Sauce Noodles

These “fried sauce noodles” from the Shandong province are made with chewy, thick wheat noodles (aka cumian) and topped with zhajiang sauce, a rich mixture of ground pork and fermented soybean paste (or another sauce, depending on where you are in China). It’s sold just about everywhere in the country, from street vendors to fancier restaurants.

13. Wonton Soup

“Wontons are one of the most authentic Chinese dumplings,” Yinn Low says. The wontons themselves are made with a thin, square dumpling wrapper and can be filled with proteins such as shrimp, pork, fish or a combination, depending on the region (Yinn Low’s recipe calls for shrimp). The broth is a rich concoction of pork, chicken, Chinese ham and aromatics, and you’ll often find cabbage and noodles mingling with the wontons.

14. Soup Dumplings

On the other hand, soup dumplings are dumplings with the soup inside. The filling is made with a pork stock that’s so packed with collagen that it solidifies as it cools. Then it gets folded into a delicate wrapper that’s pleated into a neat little packet and steamed, melting the broth. To eat a soup dumpling, simply bite the top off and slurp out the broth before popping the rest in your mouth.

15. Hot Pot

Less a dish and more an experience, hot pot is a cooking method where raw ingredients are cooked tableside in a giant pot of simmering broth. There’s a lot of room for variation: Think different broths, meats, veggies, seafood, noodles and toppings. It’s also meant to be a communal dining experience where everyone sits down together and cooks their food in the same vessel.

16. Chinese Sticky Rice

Another dim sum favorite, lo mai gai is a Cantonese dish of rice, Chinese sausage, chicken, mushrooms and other aromatics, typically wrapped in lotus leaf before being steamed. The key to getting an impeccably sticky texture is using glutinous rice, which contains less amylose (a type of starch) and sticks together like glue when cooked.

17. Hainanese Chicken Rice

Hailing from the southern province of Hainan, this delicately flavored poached chicken dish is supremely comforting. The chicken is gently poached in broth, along with rice and aromatics like ginger, scallion and garlic, then served with cucumbers and chile sauce or oil. (The origins are hotly contested, and it’s commonly associated with Singaporean cuisine too.)

18. Chinese Steamed Eggplant

The garnishes can vary, but Chinese-style steamed eggplant is distinctive for its juicy, tender texture and sweet flavor. The preparation involves tossing the cooked vegetable in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil. Since eggplant is slightly spongy by nature, it will soak up all the flavorful sauce.

19. Chinese Dumplings

Jiaozi are a type of dumpling that’s filled with meat and vegetables and made with a thinner dough than baozi. They can be cooked a few different ways: boiled, steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried or even served in soup. The tiny, savory parcels are considered a symbol of good fortune. Though they’re most popular during Lunar New Year, they’re also eaten year-round.

20. Spring Rolls

Spring rolls are a type of Cantonese dim sum stuffed with vegetables or meat and wrapped in thin dough wrappers, then fried until crispy and golden. These handhelds, especially popular in Eastern China for Lunar New Year, symbolize wealth and are named spring rolls because they’re eaten during Spring Festival.


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...