Alana’s Top 5 Dishes in China
I knew from the moment I touched down in China I was going to be in for a culinary feast.
From silken tofu and chilli for breakfast with the locals to crispy melt-in-your-mouth Peking duck for dinner, I found myself lost in food heaven.
If you've grown up in Australia and your local Chinese takeout menu is well thumbed with the number 45 special circled, it might surprise you to find that Chinese cuisine is not just beef and black bean or sweet and sour pork - and as I found out, is a food landscape that has evolved over thousands of years.
Here are the top 5 dishes you have to eat in China.
Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings)
Shanghai was one destination I had wanted to visit for a long time for a couple of reasons; the first being my great great grandfather's travels from Shanghai to Australia during the gold rush. I was also keen to experience Shanghai soup dumplings or Xiao Long Bao, as they are locally known.
Savoury and delicious soup filled dumplings which seem to defy culinary possibility, Xiao Long Bao's semi transparent dumpling skin envelope an aromatic filling of ginger seasoned pork, shaoxing wine, and a gelatinised pork stock that melts on cooking. While you can purchase these on just about every street corner in China, the place to slurp and feast is Shanghai. Nan Xiang restaurant in Shanghai’s old town is the best place to get this street snack, although take care not to burn your tongue on the hot soup as you bite through the silky dumpling wrapper.
Liángpí (DIY spicy cold salad)
I love to get lost in the maze of a local food markets, and if you are cruising down the Yangzte River there are plenty of small towns to stop at that will get your mouth salivating.
Tasting and sampling whilst meandering around the markets is a must. My top tip? Be careful not to overlook any of the more unusual looking items, as they will almost always taste delicious. My favourite dish is liángpí , a do-it-yourself spicy cold salad. Market vendors decorate their countertops with plastic trays piled with shimmering seaweed, julienned carrots, glass noodles, tofu and more - just choose what you want, hand it back to the vendor, watch as he adds the spice of salt, sugar, sesame seeds, chilli oil, vinegar and a fistful of coriander, and enjoy.
You may think you have had great peking duck before, but nothing can prepare your taste buds for the explosion of flavours and textures that a REAL peking duck will give you. As the most famous dish from Beijing, it is prized for the thin, crisp skin that simply melts on the tongue. It is a real theatrical experience to see the cooked duck being wheeled out to the table and presented to the diners. The chef will then carve the duck right in front of your eyes, expertly slicing beautiful portions of meat, and ensuring each piece has a little crispy skin. The four-story restaurant of Quanjude in Beijing is an institution - and the secret to the best Peking duck experience is to order it the traditional way, with pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce.
Whilst on the topic of ducks, one thing the Chinese do so well is eat the whole animal, nose to tail, so that nothing goes to waste. On the recommendation of a friend, I recently tried duck’s tongue and was pleasantly surprised. A flavour comporable to chicken and grilled calamari, it is very palatable, and is recommended for those who wish to try something daring, but can't stomach the idea of spiders or snake's heart. Order with your Peking duck.
Mei Di Su (sweet pastry with black bean and sesame)
Just like myself, the Chinese enjoy their sweets, and no matter where you go, you are bound to find stalls or shops selling cakes and pastries stuffed to the brim with all manner of delicacies. If you are looking for a sugar hit lauded by the locals, then head to Jinxi, an ancient water town just out of Shanghai. Here you will be able to treat yourself to the sweet flaky pastry dessert mei di su. Created by pounding black bean paste and sesame seeds and wrapping up in pastry, this sweet treat is then baked and served fresh from the oven. You won't be able to stop at just one.