China is a country with a dizzying array of delicious dishes and one that’s also blessed with a long and rich tradition of street food.
Cooking there is far more varied than you would ever guess if you’ve only experienced it in Chinese restaurants in the West. The Chinese themselves talk of the “Eight Great Cuisines”, eight distinct cooking styles from different parts of the country, and their street food is equally diverse.
There’s so much food to try in China that you could stay there for years without sampling anywhere near everything there is to taste – but to help you get started, here are our top 31 Chinese street foods to look for during your trip to this almost unrivalled foodie’s paradise.
Whenever you’re in need of a snack in the north of China, jiaozi are an ever-present option. They are usually stuffed with pork – but other fillings are possible – and are cooked in towering piles of bamboo steamers. Pour out a small bowl of vinegar to dip them in – and add a little chili sauce if you want to give them an extra kick.
You will often see baozi being prepared alongside jiaozi. These are steamed buns, stuffed with meat or other fillings, and they are a popular option at breakfast time – although you can find them at any time of the day whenever you start feeling hungry. Like jiaozi, they cost very little, allowing you to fill up for next to nothing.
A more elaborate take on the humble dumpling is Shanghai’s renowned sheng jian, something you can’t leave China’s largest city without sampling. These dumplings contain a delicious soup along with the meat filling – so make sure you let them cool before you bite into them or you’ll end up scalding your mouth!
A fixture of Chinese street food throughout the country but especially popular in the north, just look for the smoke rising from the grill and the throngs of customers seated on low plastic chairs. You can expect to see rows of lamb skewers and other meat along with a whole assortment of vegetables being cooked on these street barbecues. They are seasoned with typical Chinese spices along with a generous dose of chili powder and are perfect with a couple of bottles of Chinese beer.
If you travel to any seaside towns like Qingdao in Shandong province, you’ll also be able to try barbecued squid on a stick. The concept is the same as chuanr – the squid is covered in a special seasoning and grilled in front of you. A perfect morsel to enjoy as you wander along the seafront in the evening.
If you find yourself in Hangzhou, look out for soft-shelled crab. They are skewered on a stick and fried in oil, and since they don’t have a hard shell, you can simply eat them whole. Similar versions are available in many other parts of China, and if you see them, don’t pass up the chance to have a taste.
Chinese savory pancake is prepared on a griddle and includes egg, spring onion, hoi sin sauce and chili. They are easy to find in any northern city and are a convenient breakfast food enjoyed by many Chinese on their way to work since they only take a minute or two to prepare. They are most closely associated with Tianjin, making that the best place to try one – although jian bing stands are ubiquitous in Beijing too.
Another typical breakfast food you can find in most places around China is youtiao, a kind of fried dough stick that’s a bit like the Chinese version of a doughnut. You’ll see them being prepared at the front of food shops as pieces of dough are thrown into bubbling vats of hot oil. The dough puffs up into a fluffy stick ready to eat, and they are perfect with a bowl of zhou, Chinese rice porridge, and perhaps a cup of hot doujiang, soya-bean milk.
China is famous for hot pot, a kind of local fondue, and the two main styles are Sichuan/Chongqing hot pot and Beijing/Mongolian hot pot. However, there’s also a street food version known as malatang, and it’s a fun way to get a filling bite to eat while mixing with the locals. You sit around a bubbling cauldron of spicy soup and pick out sticks of food that are cooking in it. Then when you’re ready to pay, you count up the number of sticks in front of you to work out the bill. Another typically Chinese street food experience not to be missed.
Bing tang hulu are the Chinese take on candied fruit, and the most typical one to try is the Chinese haw – although more familiar options like strawberries and tangerines are also available. They’re popular throughout the north, and you won’t have trouble finding them in Beijing – but if you buy one in Harbin during Ice Festival time, you’ll have to go inside to let it thaw first because it will be frozen solid in the -30°C temperatures!
A quick and easy snack that isn’t quite as elaborate as a jian bing, this is simply a small pancake flavored with spring onion. It won’t cost you more than a couple of RMB and makes a tasty snack if you start feeling hungry between meals.
Similar to jiaozi or baozi, xian bing is a type of bread that is stuffed with meat and seared on a griddle. It is a part of the cuisine of Chinese Muslim communities, and as such, the usual meat used is lamb rather than pork. Well worth sampling if you get the chance.
Originally from Shandong province and now found everywhere in China, shao bing is a type of layered flatbread that resembles a flaky pastry. Often containing sweet fillings, this is a popular and inexpensive food that’s commonly consumed for breakfast.
Pretty much what the name suggests – two pieces of bread with meat sandwiched between them. Originally from Shaanxi province and with a distinctly Chinese flavor, this is another snack you should try at least once while you’re in the country.
If you spend any time in Beijing, head to Gui Jie – Ghost Street – one of the capital’s most lively eating streets. The local specialty is crayfish served in a spicy and numbing sauce, but make sure you arrive early because the most popular places always have huge queues at the busiest times.
Chou doufu is an acquired taste and can be thought of as the tofu equivalent of blue cheese. The tofu is left to ferment before being deep-fried, creating an odor more akin to refuse than something you’d want to put in your mouth. But then smother it in sauce and try a few mouthfuls and you may find it soon grows on you. And if not, at least you can say you’ve given it a go!
A snack that’s popular across Asia but that many Westerners have problems with at first. The idea of chewing on chicken’s feet might seem a little strange to begin with, but there’s nothing wrong with them – you might think there’s not much meat on them (which there isn’t), but they’re a tasty snack nonetheless. So, like stinky tofu, don’t knock them until you’ve tried!
Tea eggs are a wholesome snack that most people will enjoy. They’re simply boiled eggs that have been cracked and soaked in a tea and soy mixture, giving them a distinctive mottled brown color. You can pick them up by the roadside pretty much anywhere, and they’re a great option for anyone who can’t deal with some of the more exotic items on offer in China.
A classic across Asia and around the world, if you’re feeling hungry but unambitious, you’ll always be able to find a plate of fried rice. It might not be the most glamourous of options, but it’s a reliable stomach filler when nothing else takes your fancy.
Like fried rice, fried noodles are not exactly the most adventurous pick, but if you’re looking for something safe for a quick meal, fried noodles are always a great dish to fall back on.
Most people have heard of Japanese ramen, but the original version – and the origin of the Japanese word – is Chinese la mian, which literally translates as “pulled noodles”. This comes from the fact that they are made by stretching out the dough and then folding it back on itself over and over until it is transformed into long, thin noodles. It’s quite a spectacle to watch, and a bowl of la mian is a tasty treat not to be missed.
A heartier noodle dish is dao xiao mian – or “cut noodles”. They are called this because of the way they are cut with a knife from a block of dough, falling directly into the soup to be cooked. This results in a much heavier noodle that’s ideal for warming you up in the cold of the northern Chinese winter.
Another northern specialty, liang pi are sold from roadside carts and are accompanied by pickled vegetables and a spicy sauce. This is a dish that’s more commonly eaten in summer when the daytime temperatures can soar and something to cool you down is more than welcome.
Chengdu is most famous for two things – pandas and food. It’s one of the best cities in the country to visit if you like eating, and while you’re there you’ll be spoilt for choice. If you do make it out there, keep your eyes peeled for tian shui mian, a kind of thick noodle dish with a sweet and savory sauce. Perhaps a little strange at first, but a real treat when you get used to it.
Dan dan mian is another typical Sichuanese dish, this time made with noodles, mincemeat – and lots of chili. It’s one of the most famous noodle dishes from the region and can now be found all over China – but if you’re in the province where this dish was invented, you can’t leave with trying it at least once.
A simple street food staple that has been around forever. Unlike most Chinese snacks, nothing is done to this to alter the flavor – it’s just a whole roasted sweet potato in its skin, which you peel off before eating.
If you visit a temple fair during Spring Festival, among many other delectable treats like barbecued pigeon, you’ll have the chance to sample a range of bugs, including silkworm larvae, scorpions and even huge hairy spiders. Alternatively, when you’re in Beijing, there’s a side alley off the famous Wangfujing shopping street that also sells things like fried starfish, sea horses and other creatures you would probably never imagine eating. Don’t misunderstand, though – these are as weird for most Chinese as they are for you, and it’s all about the novelty. And if you’re feeling brave, you can see which ones you dare to eat!
For those who can’t get excited about eating bugs, a deep-fried meat pie might be a better option. A Chengdu classic of bread stuffed with ground meat, chili and – of course – Sichuan peppercorns – this is a filling snack that’s a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
Another snack to look out for among the huge variety on offer in Chengdu is noodle jelly. The dish is made of corn starch noodles covered in doubanjiang, a type of fermented chili sauce that’s an important element in much of Sichuanese cooking.
If you visit Xian, this is the dish to try, and the best place to find it is in the warren of streets that make up the Muslim quarter. Paomo is a hearty soup containing slices of lamb along with pieces of heavy doughy bread. It’s ideal fare for wintertime – but it’s available and, of course, highly recommended year-round.
If you want something to wash all this delicious street food down with, in the capital look out for jars of suan nai. The literal meaning is “sour milk”, but it is the word used for yogurt – and the stuff sold in the streets of Beijing is the kind that can be drunk with a straw.
Be as brave and adventurous as you can!
China has some of the most delicious food imaginable, but some of it might also be a little strange for Western palates. The best advice is just to jump in and try as much of it as you can while you’re there – that way, while you might not love everything that passes your lips, at least you’ll leave with plenty of culinary stories to tell.