I have a lot of friends back in New York who’ve never been to China, but if they were coming here and I gave them any one of the food recommendations Global Times has so (un)helpfully listed for “foreign visitors,” they’d cock an eyebrow, mutter something impolite and go ask someone else. Honestly, kung pao chicken? Wontons? DUMPLINGS?! The whole point of recommending something is to give someone the chance to try something they haven’t before. Rather than just rip to shreds this laughable article, however, I’ve had a quick brainstorming session with other China hands and come up with eight better recommendations.
This list assumes that your friend just came to China from foreign lands, where there are Chinese restaurants (I mean, where aren’t there nowadays?), but they don’t normally come in contact with communities as huge as the one in Flushings, Queens or San Francisco CT. They’ve tried fried rice, they get egg drop soup with every delivery and – since it was the craze for quite a while – they at least know what a xiaolongbao (or soup dumpling, as they’ll call them) is.
What eight things do I think they’ve never seen before/can’t get back home that could become their new favorite dish?
1. Jian Bing (煎饼)
Ah, the delicious Chinese breakfast crepe, hot and crispy and fresh off the grill. Take your friend to your local jian bing purveyor and – if they’re a heartier lad (or laddess) – ask for two eggs, yes spice, yes to the sauce, crispy dough or fried dough and watch your friend gasp in awe when the total comes out to 2.50RMB (or cheaper if you’re not in Shanghai city center).
From Flickr user benchilada
2. Duck Egg and Pork Porridge (pi dan shou rou zhou 皮蛋瘦肉粥)
While we’re on the subject of breakfast foods – this is always a crowd pleaser. While you can get this in Chinatowns all over the world, it’s surprising how few non-Chinese people have tried it. We bet it has something to do with the color of the duck eggs. Don’t let them get away with it here. If they really need convincing, wait until the morning after you guys have had a rough night out – it’s a surprisingly great hangover food.
Photo by Gary Soup
3. Lan Zhou La Mian (兰州拉面)
The praises we could sing of Lan Zhou La Mian, the pulled noodles in a clear beef broth that no one who visits any Eastern port in China should go without trying. Just remember to remind your friend that, while there’s beef in the noodles, there won’t be a lot and you’re mainly eating the dish for the noodles – supple, chewy and fresh – themselves. Also have them try the dao xiao mian (knife cut noodles) at some point in time; they’re my personal favorite. Expect to pay only 4 to 6RMB for a bowl.
Photo by liquoredonlife
4. Panfried pork dumplings (sheng jian bao 生煎包)
Going back to breakfast foods, while xiaolongbao has made in roads into other parts of the world, the shengjianbao has yet to find a foothold in any but the most Chinese of Chinatowns. Maybe the apparatuses for cooking them are just harder to set up or something. I don’t know about that. What I do know is: when I introduced a new-to-China friend to his first Styrofoam container of shengjianbao, he throatily declared that this was all he would eat the rest of the time here. Luckily, that lasted til dinner, when I presented him with a plate of…
Photo by katebelletje
5. Red-braised pork (Hong Shao Rou 红烧肉)
The favorite of Mao Ze Dong… and for good reason. Just listing out the ingredients the pork is braised in – sugar, cinnamon, chilis and star anise (sometimes garlic) – gets your mouth watering. While the more health conscious might want to remove the fat and skin, try to get them not to. It’s one of the things that make this decadent hearty dish so very good.
Photo by sifu renka
6. Steamed Whole Fish (Qing Zheng Yv 清蒸鱼)
For something a little healthier, get a whole steamed fish. While some less adventurous eaters may be put off by the fish head and tail being on the plate (I don’t get it, but hey – more fish cheek for me), it’s one of those quintessential dishes on every real Chinese menu that they have to at least try. It usually comes steamed with ginger and green onions in a light soy and sesame oil sauce. Yum.
Photo by Micah Sittig
7. Mala Tang (麻辣烫)
Sometimes described as the poor man’s hot pot, but I think that’s a little harsh. Malatang is another one of those oh-so-satisfying late night establishments that your friend absolutely must wander into. Choose your own veggies and meats from the fridge and a cook will boil them up with a standard stock. We’ve recommended at least one great place before, but honestly, since all that food is out there to see, I’ve yet to actually eat at one that really disappoints me. Make sure your friend tries the actual chili soup at least once – nothing like that weird numbing sensation to really emphasize that you’ve eaten in China.
8. Shaved Ice (bao bing 刨冰)
Also called tsua bing in Taiwan, which is where I think it came from. Well, at least, the best places in Shanghai to get bao bing is at Taiwanese food joints. Thinly shaved ice with condensed milk on top and an assortment of other things – fruit, red bean, taro, peanuts… it’s really up to you. Even with the condensed milk, it’s so much healthier than ice cream and it’s delicious.
Well, there you go. Eight recommendations for foreign visitors. Obviously, there’s way more to Chinese cuisine than just these eight picks (for instance, all Chinese vegetarian food is definitely worth a shot – it’s nothing like veggie food in the States), but I’m just trying to match the Global Times here.
If you have your own recommendations, put them into comments!