This article covers the basic meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – consumed in China. Keep a lookout for future posts, detailing fast food, dining etiquette, alcohol and more!
I’ll tell you all about Chinese meals based on what I’ve consumed over the past few weeks, the best way I know how: by comparing them to American meals.
Bagels are to you tiao as oatmeal is to xi fan, also known as zhou. You tiao are fried savory cruller sticks that are eaten with rice porridge, either whole or chopped up. Zhou, or rice porridge, can be sweet, savory or plain, flavored with foods like pumpkin, red bean, green bean or just vegetables and meats.
A great deal of people buy street food for breakfast and take it to-go, because it’s fast, cheap and made fresh. Certain street foods originate from specific provinces or cities, but commonly consist of savory buns, crispy Chinese pancakes, savory crepe burritos (called jian bing – more on that in a future post), sesame balls and more.
You can also go and buy dinner ingredients from fresh produce stands and markets, where vendors sell everything from Peking duck to quail eggs to lotus roots.
Other vendors bring the produce to you, biking around a huge cart of vegetables or fruits (in this case, watermelon).
Lunch and dinner in China are, for the most part, quite similar. Pretty much all meals are consumed family-style, so that everyone gets a bowl of rice and you just eat from dishes in the center with chopsticks.
Look forward to more on dining etiquette in a future post!
Noodles of every shape and size are tossed with vegetables and a bit of meat in a smidgen of sauce, and they’re sometimes also served in broth.
One popular street food meal, called ma la tang, basically lets you customize your own bowl of noodle soup. You pick all of your ingredients, which often come threaded onto skewers. You pay according to how many skewers you use.
Vegetables include leafy greens, potato slices, mung beans and lotus root. Meats include pork, chicken and fish balls. Noodles include vermicelli, rice and wonton noodles.
Your personal concoction will be boiled until the noodles and meat are cooked through, and then served in a flavorful, clear broth. It comes steaming hot, or tang, to you in a large bowl.
Dumplings are also a very popular Chinese food.
Hun tun, also known as wontons, are a type of dumpling either boiled or fried, generally with a pork, shrimp and/or vegetable filling. Xiao hun tun, or little wontons, are often served in soup. You can flavor your hun tun with soy sauce, dark vinegar, cilantro, chili oil and more.
Jiao zi is another type of dumpling that differs from hun tun in that it has a thicker skin and a longer shape, while hun tun is generally more round.
Short grain white rice is also often consumed with meals, generally served sticky, not stir-fried, as many people believe. More elegant meals tend to forego rice, allowing you to focus on the dishes.
Vegetables are mainly stir-fried, some of the most common being cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes and bok choy. Some, however are deep-fried, such as egg yolk-fried pumpkin.
Most Chinese soups are made with a clear broth, leaving them healthier and simpler compared to those in America. One popular soup is made with seaweed, dried shrimp and green onion, while another is made with tomato and egg.
It’s common to leave the bones on meat when cooking it, because it adds more flavor. Chinese people enjoy meat based dishes such as salted chicken, roast duck, and barbecued pork with a thick layer of fat, in a hoisin-based sauce.
Fish is, for the most part, left intact with the bones in, not filleted. It’s seared and cooked in a rich, clear broth, combined with sliced ginger, green onions and other fragrant vegetables. In Chinese culture, it’s considered good luck to eat the eye. Smaller fish, however, are often deep-fried until the bones become edible.
My China Food Diary continues in a few days in Part 2, which discusses popular drinks, alcohol, fast food and dining etiquette. Stay tuned!