Arriving in China, eating out can be a challenge, especially if you arent familiar with Chinese dishes, let alone Chinese characters. But, youll notice after being in China for a little while, especially if you hang out with other foreigners, there are certain dishes that show up again and again on the restaurant table. Below are some of my favorites, and Ive found most foreigners like all of these. Give these a try when youre out at a restaurant, and start opening up your palate to more and more Chinese flavors. But dont just take my word for it, explore and find out which Chinese dish is your favorite.
1. Gōng Bǎo Jī Dīng 宫爆鸡丁 or 宫保鸡丁
We in the West know this traditional Sichuanese dish as Kung Pao Chicken. But, its not only in Sichuan where you can find this dish. Nearly all restaurants can make their own variant, yet its constant is pieces of chicken, peanuts, vegetables and chili peppers. Often the vegetable will be green onion, and occasionally carrots will be added in as well. What makes lots of foreigners (and me) like this dish is the Dīng. Dīng here means small piece and refers to the small pieces of boneless chicken in the dish. Many times chicken in Chinese food will not be deboned, which is a source of aggravation and annoyance, to me at least.
Watch out for the small málà peppercorns, which will make your mouth and tongue numb if you crunch on them.
2. Gū Lǎo Ròu – 咕咾肉
If you like the sweet and sour dishes you know from back home, give this a try. Its different from the Westernized Chinese food, but is liked by many the laowai in China. The pork has a semi-crunchy outside, and is made with a sweet and sour sauce. Included in the dish is also pineapples, bell peppers, and occasionally onions. Ive found the size of this dish to usually be a bit smaller than other dishes, maybe just because people always eat it so fast!
3. Má Pó Dòu Fǔ – 麻婆豆腐
Another Sichuanese dish, this one is has tofu as its base, but that doesnt mean this dish is necessarily non-meat. Oftentimes ground up pork or beef is included in the spicy sauce. The cubes of white tofu are floating in a thick sauce that can vary from slightly spicy to mouth destroying, so be wary. If you order this in a Sichuanese restaurant, be prepared for the burn, but if you are getting this at an average run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, it may not be as spicy. This dish really comes to life with rice, so make sure to have a full bowl of white rice (mǐfàn) at the ready.
Vegetable and Non-meat dishes
4. Gān Biān Sì Jì Dòu – 干煸四季豆
Why do we foreigners love Sichuan food? Im not sure, but this vegetable dish is a winner every time. Green beans are fried until they are tender, and sprinkled with some magical goodness that I can only venture to guess at. These beans are salty and spicy, and go great with a Qingdao beer. Vegetarians, watch out as some of the goodies crumbled on top can include meat chunks.
5. Xī Lán Huā – 西兰花
This ones simple. Its broccoli. The broccoli is either steamed or pan-fried, and is always soft and rarely undercooked. Oftentimes theres some garlic mixed in, but this dish is otherwise unadulterated by other flavors.
6. Tǔ Dòu Sī – 土豆丝
This dish is shredded potatoes, and is both sour and spicy, as white vinegar and chili oil are both added. The dish is mostly potatoes, with some slivers of bell peppers or chili peppers added in.
7. Two types Qié Zi – 茄子
Qié Zi is Eggplant, and once you have the following two dishes, youll join the growing ranks of those praising the Chinese for their eggplant cooking. The first, Yú Xiāng Qié Zi, is fish flavored eggplant in garlic sauce. But, before you scrunch up your use at the fish flavor, give this dish a chance. I rarely find anything fishy tasting in it, but it is full of flavor, and mild enough for those who cant handle spicy foods. Hóng Shāo Qié Zi, or Braised Eggpla