Wondering what Chinese dishes you should try in China? There are way too many options on a Chinese menu and you probably won’t like many of them. For this reason, I’d like to share 16 Chinese dishes that are popular among Chinese and safe for foreigners to eat for your trip to China.
If traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the local language weren’t intimidating enough, imagine how stressful it is looking at a restaurant menu that is only Chinese characters!
Lucky for you, China is a top food destination and there is so much to enjoy there.
But with all the food options in China, it helps knowing what tastes best, so that you’re not going choosing restaurants entirely based on whether or not they have picture menus.
That’s why I’ve compiled a list of 16 popular Chinese dishes to help you plan what to eat in China.
These dishes are also incredibly foreigner-friendly and include so much more than your typical sweet and sour pork, Peking duck, spring rolls, and all the other general dishes you’ve probably already heard about.
We’ll break down the suggestions by meal type:
Let’s dive into what’s on the menu because my mouth is watering just thinking about all the delicious food you’re going to enjoy!
Popular Chinese Foods for Breakfast
I was never one for breakfast and I often skipped it until I moved to China.
Every day on your journey should begin with a good meal and here are some tasty foods you can try for breakfast in China.
Chinese Steamed Buns | 包子 Bāozi
Although the English translation for baozi may not sound particularly appetizing, this food is delicious and perfect for busy mornings when you don’t have time for a proper breakfast but still need to eat.
The key to enjoying Chinese baozi is to know which is most delicious as there are so many different kinds. In fact, what makes baozi delicious is the type of stuffing at the center of the steamed bun.
So below is a list of my favorites and you can show this list to any baozi restaurant or stall in China to help you order at a Chinese restaurant:
- Beef Baozi: 牛肉包子 | niúròu bāozi
- Pork with Napa Cabbage Baozi – 猪肉白菜包子 | zhūròu báicài bāozi
- Napa Cabbage Baozi with Scrambled Eggs: 鸡蛋小白菜包子 | jīdàn xiǎo báicài bāozi
- Soup Baozi: 灌汤包子 | guàn tāng bāozi
It’s also good to know that baozi is much more delicious when you dip it in Chinese vinegar mixed with pepper.
Also use caution when buying baozi as some restaurants don’t pay enough attention to hygiene, which increases your risk of getting food poisoning.
If the restaurant gives you any sort of impression that you shouldn’t eat there, then don’t!
Chinese Burritos/Pancakes | 煎饼 Jiānbing
While jianbing best translates into pancake, this food looks more like a burrito packed full of delicious ingredients and flavor.
Like baozi, Chinese pancakes are great for eating on the go and are commonly sold by street vendors in every major Chinese city.
They are also always fresh to where the Chinese pancake chef will spread the pancake mix on a circular cast-iron grill upon ordering.
From there, you’ll see the mixture of ingredients come together that include eggs spread over the pancake, cilantro, scallions, and a crunchy wonton in the middle.
A sweet and spicy layer of hoisin and chili sauces also enrich the flavor of the Chinese jianbing.
Each Chinese pancake chef may also have their own secret ingredient. While studying at Beijing University, my favorite jianbing place even filled their pancakes with diced chicken, which was a fantastic touch.
Chinese pancakes are also super cheap making them not only a delicious breakfast but can also help you travel China on a tight budget.
油条 | Yóutiáo or Fried Breadsticks
Fried breadsticks are another tasty breakfast item to try on your trip to China.
This food is made by taking premade dough rolled out into breadsticks and frying them in a wok full of hot oil.
As you have probably guessed, fried breadsticks can be quite oily. But don’t let that throw you off as they are delicious.
The best way to eat Chinese breadsticks is to dip them in a hot bowl of Chinese soy milk, or dòujiāng (豆浆) in Chinese.
早茶 | Zǎochá or Dim Sum
Dim sum makes for a great breakfast for travelers looking to enjoy a meal at sitdown restaurant. You’re also in for a real treat if you’re into buffets with lots of different options to choose from.
With Chinese dim sum, parades of waiters push around carts filled with bamboo steamers. Each steamer has a different dish fresh from the kitchen.
When you see something you like, simply wave down a waiter with a cart and pick whatever dish that tickles your fancy.
As its Chinese name implies, dim sum wouldn’t be complete without selecting some good tea (the 茶 character in the name means “tea”) . So I’d do some research prior to eating dim sum on teas and what would complement the dishes best.
Popular Chinese Dishes for Lunch
Like with breakfast, the Chinese are particular about having a good lunch every day.
So in keeping with that tradition, I’ve shared my favorite Chinese dishes that are bound to fill you up and satisfy your palette.
Chinese Dumplings / Potstickers | 饺子 Jiǎozi
Chances are you’ve either tried or at least heard of Chinese Jiaozi (sometimes referred to as “potstickers” back at home).
Even if you’ve tried it at home before, authentic Chinese dumplings are a dish you shouldn’t miss out on during your trip to China. They also make for a great quick lunch should you be in a hurry.
There are also so many different fillings you can enjoy making dumplings something you can eat over and over during your trip without getting tired of them.
Believe me, the list of different dumpling fillings can go on and on. So I’d bring a dictionary and potentially a good Chinese phrasebook to help you order when visiting a dumpling house.
Yunnan Rice Noodles | 过桥米线 Guò Qiáo Mǐxiàn
After visiting Yunnan, this dish immediately became one of my favorite things to eat for lunch. As a big fan of noodles, the variety of food items to customize the dish make it even more compelling to eat.
How eating this dish works is you receive a tray with your noodles in broth (or sometimes the broth and the noodles are delivered separately) and then pour the remaining ingredients into the soup however you like.
The number of ingredients that come with the meal can vary from restaurant to restaurant, but typically you will have at a minimum some eggs, lettuce, beef or chicken, and other items to improve the soup’s flavor.
Lanzhou Beef Noodles | 兰州牛肉面 Lánzhōu Niúròu Miàn
Thankfully, you don’t need to travel all the way to Lanzhou (in the Gansu province) to enjoy their popular beef noodles. You’ll find restaurants selling this dish all over China.
This dish tends to be pretty simple, but don’t let that fool you!
The hand-pulled noodles and thinly sliced beef soaked in a rich broth with a splash of chili oil is among China’s most popular dishes.
While I consider this primarily a lunch item, you can enjoy these noodles for any meal of the day.
Lanzhou beef noodles are also among the most affordable meals you can purchase in China, which will also help you save money on your trip.
Xinjiang Langman | 新疆拌面 Xīnjiāng Bànmiàn
Should your trip to China bring you to Xinjiang, you’ll be lucky enough to enjoy some of the best foods in China. Among them is a dish known by two different names by two different people groups: Laghman (Uyghur) and Banmian (Hui).
The idea behind this dish is simple. You have noodles and top it with a mix of beef, vegetables, and oil.
Sounds simple, but you have to be seriously skilled at pulling noodles and mastering the secret sauce that covers the dish.
What also makes this a great meal for lunch is the many different mixes of vegetables you can choose from. Having it for lunch also gives you time to work off the sheer amount of carbs you take in from the noodles throughout the afternoon.
Mutton Soup | 羊肉泡馍 Yángròu Pào Mó
While you can get yángròu pàomó in many places across China, it’s most popular (and most authentic) in the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an.
It’s also worth noting that this dish is available in a beef version (牛肉泡馍) if the idea of lamb meat makes you queasy.
This dish combines vermicelli noodles with soft mutton and mini chunks of bread in a hot broth. Not only is this dish tasty, but it’s incredibly filling.
If the small bits of bread don’t make you full, the large portion size definitely will.
Apart from its rich flavor, this dish also reflects Xian’s historical past as the eastern terminus of the Ancient Silk Road. Through the Silk Road trades, Xian experienced a convergence in Central Asian and Chinese culture.
Much of this convergence is reflected in Xian’s cuisine and yángròu pào mó is no exception.
Thanks to high speed trains, it’s incredibly easy to travel between Beijing to Xi’an (or other cities), so you should definitely make this part of your itinerary.
Best Chinese Dishes to Eat for Dinner
Whenever I travel, dinner is similar to the grand finale for my day’s events.
So to make the grand finale of each day of your trip to China special, keep an eye out for these dishes.
Chinese Hot Pot | 火锅 Huǒguō
If you’ve never heard of hot pot, think of it as the Eastern version of fondue (although this is an over-simplification).
When you eat hot pot, you have a simmering pot of soup stock and place ingredients of all different types into the soup until cooked and ready to eat.
Practically anything is fair game to toss into your hot pot with my top choices being sliced beef, shrimp, tofu, mushrooms, quail eggs, wontons, vegetable greens, and many others.
Each region in China also has its unique flavor of hot pot, but the most famous type is Chongqing Hot Pot.
If you have a high spice tolerance, I strongly recommend giving Chongqing Hot Pot a try. The spicy flavors and soup are unparalleled by any other form of hot pot out there.
Just remember to have some cool drinks with you to help with the spice!
Chongqing Fried Fish | 重庆烤鱼 Chóngqìng Kǎo Yú
Sticking with popular Chinese dishes that originate from Chongqing, you should really try their fried fish.
It may be hard to see in the photo above, but there are two fried fish side-by-side soaking in a tasty broth and covered with extra ingredients.
Chongqing fried fish is in many ways also similar to hot pot. The fish is cooked in a spicy broth and you can order vegetables and other items to also cook with the broth.
But the additional hot pot ingredients shouldn’t distract you away from the fish, which has a sumptuous taste after being cooked from the spicy broth.
Xinjiang Big Plate Chicken | 新疆大盘鸡 Xīnjiāng Dàpán Jī
While I may be biased since I lived in Xinjiang for more than a decade, the popular dish known as Xinjiang Big Plate Chicken is by far among the top best dishes you can get in China.
I’ll also admit that the English translation for this dish is rather silly, but you’re in for a real treat should you find a restaurant with a quality version of this dish.
What’s in Big Plate Chicken?
Well, this dish has a good balance of ingredients that include spicy green peppers, potato quarters and wide-flat noodles all mixed together with the chicken and a particularly spicy red sauce.
The folks behind naming big chicken dish weren’t kidding when it comes to the size of this dish. Even a half order is enough to fill 2-4 people!
Lastly, you’re bound to find really good big chicken dish all throughout Xinjiang. But in other parts of China, you’ll have to do your homework in finding an authentic restaurant that offers this dish.
Chicken, Mushroom and Rice | 黄焖鸡米饭 | Huáng Mèn Jī Mǐfàn
If Xinjiang Big Plate Chicken is hard to find, I want to suggest an alternative favorite chicken dish of mine for you to try. After trying chicken, mushroom, and rice for the first time I was instantly hooked and today I make it almost once a week.
What makes this dish so good is that you stew the chicken and mushrooms for a while after they are fully cooked.
This allows the soy sauce, spices, and juices given off by the chicken and mushrooms to soak in and give the dish a great deal of flavor with each bite.
White rice also serves as a great compliment and staple to make you really full after eating this dish.
Popular Chinese Snack Dishes
One thing you’ll learn about China is that the Chinese are professional snackers. Be sure to fit in plenty of snacks and small meals in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner as you travel!
Sure, you might gain a few pounds, but hopefully these snacks introduced to you below will make you feel that the extra weight is totally worth gaining.
Cold Skin Noodles | 凉皮子 Liángpí Zi
Chinese Liangpizi comes with a large pile of slurp-able wheat noodles and gluten slices soaked in chili oil and topped with sliced cucumber. Just the description is enough to make my mouth water!
Originally from China’s Shaanxi Province in the northwest, you can enjoy this street food in pretty much any day- or night-market and in restaurants across China.
As a cold dish, it also makes for a great snack during a hot summer day.
These noodles are really light, making them the perfect snack in between meals.
Chinese Hamburger | 肉夹馍 Ròu Jiā Mó
Another personal favorite snack of mine is the Chinese hamburger, or “Rou Jia Mo”. The translation is pretty poor, though. Don’t expect your typical combination of lettuce, tomato, and cheese.
Instead, these hamburgers are packed with stewed and shredded beef, lamb, or pork mixed with hot green peppers, onion, and cumin stuffed in between a crispy flatbread bun.
Some markets may also mix in their own local flare.
For example, at one of my favorite places to get a Chinese hamburger, the chefs make it with diced chicken stewed in a hot red spicy sauce.
You’re also going to find these almost everywhere as its easy for street vendors to make and sell these on push carts. But I’d be careful to consider sanitation first before listening to your stomach!
Kebabs | 烤肉串 Kǎoròu Chuàn
Nothing satisfies my taste buds more than a pile of hot fresh lamb kebabs. While Xinjiang is the heartland for the best-tasting kebabs in China, you can thankfully find these kebab stands all over China.
Outside of Xinjiang, you’ll also see different varieties of kebab. In Beijing for example, I had skewers of liver and chicken heart, which were – to my surprise – pretty tasty.
They also make for a quick and easy snack should you be in a time crunch in between sightseeing.
Final Thoughts | Popular Chinese Dishes Worth Trying
Most travelers will think about China for its incredible sights like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and others. For me, though, China is ultimately a food destination.
Yes, go see the historical sights and enjoy the Chinese culture. However, I suggest you also take advantage of all the different kinds of food available to you throughout your trip.
The popular Chinese dishes I shared above are also just the tip of the iceberg on what’s out there. Start training on your chopstick skills so that you’re ready to dig into the local food scene once you land.