7 Unusual Foods You Will Only Find in China
If you’re planning a trip to China, you'd do well to prepare yourself for the array of exotic foods you’re likely to come across. I spent my summer in China as a camp counsellor and afterwards travelled for 4 months around South East Asia. During this time I tried an abundance of local dishes and cuisines.
When you're in China, you’ll quickly discover some familiar dishes that will be your go-to when you’re struggling for other options. If I have one piece of advice, it’s to get outside your comfort zone. Egg fried rice and chicken chow mein will always be plentiful at your local takeaway when you return home.
So while in China, be sure to embrace the weird and wonderful – try everything from stinky tofu to fried bee pupae. Depending on which regions you travel to, you’ll also notice that different provinces have their own cuisine specialties.
To get you started, we’ve rounded up a few of the most popular and strange-sounding dishes in the Orient.
1. Beggar's Chicken
Beggar’s Chicken is a must-try if you’re heading to Hangzhou. Typically served on a lotus leaf, this tender meat has a savoury aroma, and is often eaten with rice and vegetables. While the meat itself may not seem like an unusual food, the story behind it’s name is what makes this dish truly captivating. The origins of Beggar’s Chicken can be derived from a story of a beggar in Hangzhou. With a chicken to eat, but no equipment other than a knife and fire to cook it, he solved the problem by slaughtering and gutting the chicken, before wrapping it in yellow mud and roasting it, so it appeared somewhat like an oversized potato. When he then peeled off the dry mud, the chicken's feathers also peeled away, and the beggar deemed the meat ready to eat. The modern method of cooking Beggar’s chicken is much more hygienic, but emulates the origins of a classic Chinese cuisine which has stood the test of time.
2. Bamboo Rice
Bamboo rice can be found in regions across China - but especially where there are Dai and Yao minority people. Always cooked until the bamboo is seared, this dish includes rice and pork, and creates a fragrant and wholesome outcome. To try the best Bamboo rice when travelling China, head to the Yuannan province, Guilin, Guizhou province and Taiwan. Perhaps the least unusual food on the list, this dish is one to keep in mind for those with less adventurous taste buds - or as a failsafe option when nothing else seems appealing.
3. Century Egg
Also called ‘the preserved egg’, it doesn’t actually take 100 years to prepare. This dish was created in rural China, after a farmer found some naturally preserved duck eggs in muddy water. He tasted them, and decided to replicate them through manual preservation. It went on to become a delicacy, surviving centuries in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia. These days, chicken, duck, or quail eggs are soaked in a large volume of strong black tea, lime, salt, and freshly burned wood ashes to achieve the same effect. The eggs can be soaked for anytime between seven weeks and five months, to obtain the intended ‘preserved egg’ or ‘century egg’ taste.
4. Stinky Tofu
Often eaten as a popular snack food in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan, it’s no surprise that the smell of this dish is easily recognizable. Particularly for first-time visitors to China, the scent of stinky tofu can be overbearing. Despite the smell, the dish is served from hundreds of street food vendors and small restaurants, especially in major cities like Beijing. Stinky tofu is usually made from a mixture of tofu combined with fermented milk, vegetables and a meat or fish based brine. To achieve particularly stinky tofu, the brine is most effective when it’s weeks, or even months, old. Many of the factory-made versions have less of an intense stench than the home-made or restaurant versions, so if the smell is putting you off, it's probably best to stick to supermarket versions which will be less overpowering. It is often served in small cubes, which are skewered together by street food vendors. In Hong Kong, Shanghai, and various Chinatowns worldwide , it’s usually deep fried in vegetable oil and served with chilli and soy sauce. A similar sensation to biting into soft melted cheese, this dish is certainly worth trying if you’re heading to China - despite its foul smell.
5. Fried Bee Pupae
Fried bee pupae are richly nutritious, with a high level of protein and a low-fat content. Commonly used as an ingredient for cooking dishes in the areas of Zhangjiajie, Fenghuang Ancient Town, Southeast Guizhou, and Yunnan Province, the most common way to eat bee pupae is fried until golden. Other alternatives include steamed bee pupa, stir-fried bee pupa, crispy bee pupe cake and cold fried bee pupa in sauce. While it may seem unusual to eat bees, many other insects are also eaten and enjoyed in China. How about trying spider, black beetle, centipede, scorpion, or grasshopper when browsing a night market in Beijing?
6. Spinach Noodles
Spinach noodles are especially popular in Xi’an, but can also be found in other Chinese cities. Just as the name suggests, they are just noodles made from spinach – but are also often topped with chilli, meat, eggs, vegetables or anything else that might appeal to you. This ‘made from scratch’ dish is unlikely to be the most unusual taste you’ve ever experienced, but the green stringy creations will still leave a little intrigue on your palette. And, if nothing else, you may appreciate the option of going for something slightly healthier than the fried Chinese cuisine you may be used to at home.
7. Fried Mashi
Similar in the way it looks to fried rice or chow mein, a Mashi dish is actually created with crunchy vegetables and gnocci-like ‘ma shi’. The result is both sweet and spicy, and is a very traditional option full of nutrients and easy to prepare. It stems from Shaanxi province, and has always been considered as a very sociable meal. Cheap and simple to create, its high flour content makes it very filling, and a good option to cook in large quantities. If you end up staying in a homestay or with a Chinese family, this will be a comforting dish you’ll recognise and love!
So there you have it - 7 foods you'll only find in China.