Chinese cuisine: 79 iconic Chinese dishes you need to try

How well do you know Chinese cuisine? Let’s go over 79 succulent traditional Chinese dishes!

Learning Chinese isn’t all about grammar and vocabulary words. Any time you learn a new language, you get a beautiful opportunity to expand your mind and enrich your soul. And, if you choose the right language, you’ll also have a glorious opportunity to make your tummy very happy.

Fortunately for you, Chinese cuisine is one of the richest in the world. Of course, you’re probably already familiar with Chinese food, but as anyone who has been to China can attest, Chinese food inside and outside China is often very different.

So, what are authentic Chinese meals like? Let us walk you through this extensive guide on Chinese dishes!

Man walking through a Chinese food market.

Table of Contents

Staples of Chinese cuisine

Let’s start with the very basics: the building blocks of Chinese cuisine. These unmissable staples are present in an overwhelming majority of Chinese meals in one way or another, so they’re truly essential to Chinese cooking. Let’s take a look:

Woman worker in rice fields, China.

Rice — 米 (mǐ)

This versatile grain is the primary staple food for much of China, providing a majority of carbohydrates for hundreds of millions of people all over the country. In addition to being a wonderful standalone companion to many saucy dishes, the grain is essential for making fried rice, congee, and other rice-based dishes. When ground into flour, rice can also be used to make noodles, rice cakes, and buns, serving as the base for various savory and sweet dishes.

Soy sauce — 酱油 (jiàng yóu)

Soy sauce is an indispensable ingredient in Chinese cooking, adding an umami flavor to meats, vegetables, and marinades. Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce comes in various forms — from light to dark — adding color and flavor to dishes like stir-fries and soups.

Ginger — 姜 (jiāng)

Along with garlic and scallions, ginger is considered part of the “Holy Trinity” of Chinese cuisine. It is used to eliminate unwanted gamey tastes and introduce warmth to dishes. It’s revered for its distinctive spicy and aromatic qualities. Whether minced, julienned, or used as slices, ginger is an essential ingredient in many stir-fries, stews, and teas.

Garlic— 大蒜 (dà suàn)

Garlic, another member of the Holy Trinity of Chinese cooking, is an essential part of many dishes thanks to its ability to add a unique intensity to dishes. Enhanced by sizzling oils, garlic can serve as an aromatic foundation, infusing diverse dishes with depth and intricacy. Its intensity enhances everything from simple vegetable stir-fries to complex meat dishes.

Wheat — 小麦 (xiǎo mài)

Like rice, wheat is a staple grain in Chinese dishes, used to make buns, noodles, and various other foods. Take noodles for an example, the earliest history can be traced back to ancient China. They serve as a staple in countless dishes, from soups to stir-fries, offering a nutritious and delicious base for all kinds of preparation styles.

Green onion — 葱 (cōng)

The last of the Holy Trinity of ingredients, green onion (or scallion), is an essential aromatic ingredient for many Chinese dishes. They add a mild yet crisp onion flavor and are often used as a garnish or cooked in stir-fries and soups.

Chinese dishes

Now that you have the basic ingredients of Chinese cooking, let’s dive into the food. There are countless delicious Chinese dishes out there for you to try, but we’ll try to keep it concise. Let’s start with the main one: China’s national dish.

Some would say, peking duck is the national dish of China.

What is China’s national dish?

In China, there is considerable debate about what constitutes the national dish, as people from different regions take pride in their local cuisines and believe their own dishes best represent Chinese culture. However, from a global perspective, many people choose Peking duck as the culinary symbol that best represents the nation.

This iconic dish, renowned for its crispy skin and tender meat, has deep historical roots dating back to the imperial kitchens of the Ming Dynasty. Over the centuries, Peking Duck has become a celebrated part of Chinese cuisine, often featured at state banquets and prestigious events, making it an adequate — albeit unofficial — choice for China’s national dish.

This dish is as delicious as it is entertaining. The ingredients are relatively simple, and each is served on its own individual plate: crispy marinated duck meat, steamed thin pancakes, sweet bean sauce, paired with julienned green onion (scallion) and cucumber slices. All plates are placed in the center of the table, and everyone assembles their own Peking Duck wrap. It’s a must-try for visitors, especially in Beijing, but this dish can be found all over China.

The Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine

If you’re not from China, then you might be used to thinking of “Chinese food” as a monolith. However, Chinese food is incredibly diverse, with eight distinct culinary traditions widely recognized as distinct regional variations of Chinese cuisine. Here’s an overview and some standout dishes of each of them:

Sichuan cuisine - 川菜 (chuān cài)

Sichuan cuisine comes from China’s southwestern Sichuan Province. It’s renowned for its bold and spicy flavors, coming from the liberal use of garlic, chili peppers, and Sichuan peppercorn. Sichuan peppercorn adds a distinctive numbing sensation, ensuring that any dish with it is unlike anything else you’ve experienced.

Spicy Sichuan hotpot.

This cuisine uses a variety of cooking methods, including stir-frying, steaming, braising, baking, and the famous Sichuan hot pot (火锅). Here are some of the most popular Sichuan dishes that you have to try when you visit a Sichuan restaurant (or on a trip to Chengdu!):

Mapo tofu麻婆豆腐má pó dòu fuma por dow fuSoft tofu in a spicy, bean-based sauce with minced meat, Sichuan peppercorns, and chili oil.
Kung pao chicken宫保鸡丁gōng bǎo jī dīnggong bao ji dingDiced chicken stir-fried with peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers with a savory, slightly sweet taste.
Hot pot火锅huǒ guōhuoo guoAn unmissable communal eating experience where ingredients are cooked in a spicy/nonspicy broth at the table. A must-try when you visit China!
Twice-cooked pork回锅肉huí guō ròuhwei guo rowPork belly slices boiled, then stir-fried with vegetables and a spicy sauce.
Dan dan noodles担担面dàn dàn miàndann dann miannWheat noodles served in a spicy sauce with preserved vegetables, minced pork, and scallions.

Cantonese cuisine - 粤菜 (yuè cài)

Cantonese cuisine comes from the province of Guangdong, formerly Romanized as Canton. It’s famous for its emphasis on preserving the natural flavor of ingredients, including plenty of seafood and vegetables. To attain this, Cantonese cooking features techniques like steaming and stir-frying along with mild seasoning and the sparing use of spices, allowing the original flavors to shine through.

Dim sum, a collection of small, bite-sized dishes served with tea, epitomizes the social aspect of Cantonese dining culture.

Dim sum.

Dim sum点心diǎn xindean shinA variety of small dishes, including dumplings, buns, and pastries, traditionally served with tea.
Char siu叉烧chā shāocha shauBarbecued pork, marinated and roasted to achieve a sweet, savory flavor and a tender texture.
Roast duck广式烧鸭guǎng shì shāo yāgoang shyh shaur yaaWhole duck roasted with a honey vinegary glaze, known for its crispy skin and juicy meat.
Baked Lobster in Thick Stock上汤焗龙虾shàng tāng jú lóng xiāshanq tang jyu long shiaLobster pan-fried and then braised in flavorful meat-based sauce.
Stuffed tofu酿豆腐niàng dòu funianq dow fuA dish with tofu filled with ground meat mixture or fish paste.

Hunan cuisine - 湘菜 (xiāng cài)

Hunan cuisine originates from the Hunan Province in south-central China. It’s celebrated for its hot and spicy flavors, fresh aroma, and deep colors. Unlike Sichuan cuisine, which often uses Sichuan peppercorns to achieve a numbing spiciness, Hunan cuisine focuses on pure heat, primarily through the use of fresh chili peppers, garlic, and green onions (scallions).

Hunan cuisine's cooking techniques are diverse, including stewing, frying, pot roasting, braising, and smoking. This culinary tradition is known for its emphasis on oil and broad ingredient variety, including vegetables and meats like fish and pork.

Steamed fish head with diced Hot red peppers剁椒鱼头duò jiāo yú tóuduoh jiau yu tourThis fiery and flavorful fish head dish is packed with aromatics like chopped chilies, garlic, scallion, and ginger to create an extraordinary flavor.
Spicy salted duck酱板鸭jiàng bǎn yājianq baan iaAn aromatic roasted duck dish where the duck is marinated in a sauce of varied Chinese medicine and spices before cooking. After smoked and air-dried, it can be served as a dish or snack.
Stir-fried pork with peppers辣椒炒肉là jiāo chǎo ròulah jiau chao rowPork stir-fried with fresh and dried chili peppers, showcasing Hunan cuisine’s love for spice.
Sautéed preserved pork with dried tofu slices腊肉炒香干là ròu chǎo xiāng gānlah row chao shiang ganA homely dish combining preserved pork with dried tofu, cooked with a mix of vegetables.
Steamed preserved meat腊味合蒸là wèi hé zhēnglah wey her jengVarious types of preserved meat steamed together, highlighting the traditional preservation techniques.

Shandong cuisine - 鲁菜 (lǔ cài)

Shandong cuisine, also known as Lu cuisine, is one of the oldest and most influential culinary traditions in China, forming an integral part of the country’s culinary heritage. Originating from Shandong, it’s characterized by its emphasis on freshness, aroma, crispness, and tenderness.

Shandong cuisine showcases the art of using precise cooking techniques to enhance natural flavors. Given the province's coastal location, it features a wide variety of seafood. It also includes plenty of corn, peanuts, and vegetables. Shandong chefs excel at techniques like braising, deep-frying, and stir-frying, producing dishes that are well-balanced in taste and texture.

Sweet and sour carp糖醋鲤鱼táng cù lǐ yútarng tsuh lii yuCarp fried and covered in a sweet and sour sauce, a classic dish representing Shandong’s culinary style.
Braised sea cucumber with scallions葱烧海参cōng shāo hǎi shēntsong shau hae shenSea cucumber braised with green onions and sauce.
Dezhou braised chicken德州扒鸡dé zhōu pá jīder jou par jiChicken marinated, fried, and then braised with soy sauce and spices, known for its tender meat.
Four Joy Meatballs四喜丸子sì xǐ wán zisyh shii wan tzyBraised pork meatballs in gravy, symbolizing four joys in life: luck, wealth, long life and happiness.
Braised Prawns in Oil油焖大虾yóu mèn dà xiāyou menn dah shiaLarge prawns first stir-fried in oil and then braised in sauce.

Jiangsu cuisine - 苏菜 (sū cài)

Jiangsu cuisine is a prominent branch of Chinese culinary arts from Jiangsu Province, which includes cities like Nanjing, Suzhou, and Yangzhou. It’s known for its carefully selected ingredients and celebrated for its emphasis on freshness and the natural flavors of its components, often highlighted through delicate cooking methods.

Man cooking fried rice in China.

The dishes are known for their soft, tender textures, and presentation is equally important, as a dish’s aesthetic appeal should mirror the delicious taste. These are some of the most popular Jiangsu dishes:

Sweet and sour mandarin fish松鼠桂鱼sōng shǔ guì yúsong shuu guey yuDeep-fried mandarin fish with a sweet and sour sauce with the sliced fish looking like a squirrel.
Yangzhou fried rice扬州炒饭yáng zhōu chǎo fànyang jou chao fannA famous fried rice dish mixed with egg, shrimp, peas, and ham.
Nanjing salted duck盐水鸭yán shuǐ yāyan shoei iaDuck cured with salt and spices, a specialty of Nanjing.
Wensi tofu soup文思豆腐wén sī dòu fuwen sy dow fuTender tofu shredded as thin as hair floating in a soup base.
Braised meatballs in brown sauce红烧狮子头hóng shāo shī zi tóuhorng shau shy tzy tourLarge pork meatballs braised in a savory brown sauce, soft and flavorful.
Beggar’s chicken叫花鸡jiào huā jījiaw hua jiChicken wrapped in lotus leaves and then roasted in burnt mud.

Zhejiang cuisine - 浙菜 (zhè cài)

Also known as Zhe cuisine, Zhejiang cuisine originates from — you guessed it — Zhejiang Province in Eastern China, an area known for its wealth and natural beauty. This culinary tradition is celebrated for its seasonality and the natural taste of its ingredients. Zhe cuisine is characterized by its mellow yet rich flavors, with a subtle use of seasoning to enhance, rather than overpower, the primary ingredients.

Braised pork belly.

Techniques such as quick-frying, steaming, and braising are commonly employed to retain the food’s nutrition and original flavors. Presentation is also key, with dishes often showcasing artistic arrangements that reflect the region’s appreciation for beauty. Zhejiang fare also offers a delicate, sophisticated dining experience, mirroring the serene and lush landscapes of its homeland.

Dongpo pork东坡肉dōng pō ròudong po rowSlow-cooked pork belly with a rich and savory sauce, named after the poet Su Dongpo.
Fried shrimps with Longjing Tea龙井虾仁lóng jǐng xiā rénlong jiing shia renShrimp cooked with Longjing tea leaves, highlighting its delicate flavors.
West Lake fish in vinegar gravy西湖醋鱼xī hú cù yúshi hwu tsuh yuFish cooked in sweet and sour vinegar sauce.
Steamed Pork with Rice Flour in Lotus Leaves荷叶粉蒸肉hé yè fěn zhēng ròuher yeh feen jeng rowSteamed pork belly covered with spice and rice, wrapped in lotus leaves.
Sliced Lotus Root with Sweet Sauce桂花糖藕guì huā táng ǒuguey hua tarng oouBoiled lotus root filled with glutinous rice and drizzled with osmanthus jam.

Fujian cuisine - 闽菜 (mǐn cài)

Fujian cuisine, also known as Min cuisine, originates from Fujian Province along China’s southeastern coast. This culinary tradition is distinguished by its rich array of seafood and mountain-grown produce, reflecting the region’s diverse geography. Fujian cuisine is renowned for its emphasis on umami flavors, achieved through the meticulous use of broths and soups, which are considered the soul of Min food.

The cooking methods often involve braising, stewing, and steaming, aiming to preserve the ingredients’ natural juices and flavors. Fujian dishes are also noted for their light yet flavorful profiles, often incorporating a slightly sweet and sour taste, making the cuisine both distinctive and inviting. The use of precise knife skills and presentation further enhances the dining experience, offering a feast for both the palate and the eyes.

Buddha jumps over the wall佛跳墙fó tiào qiángfor tiaw chyangA luxurious stew made with various high-quality ingredients like chicken, hams, squids, scallops, and many other delicacies.
Drunken Pork Ribs醉排骨zuì pái gǔtzuey pair guuPork ribs marinated in wine and salt first fried and then braised in sweet and sour sauce.
Fuzhou meat swallow福州肉燕fú zhōu ròu yànfwu jou row yannPaper-like wonton, famous for its wonton skins made of meat and starch.
Lychee pork荔枝肉lì zhī ròulih jy rowPork coated in a sweet and sour sauce, resembling lychee fruit in appearance (doesn’t actually contain any lychee).
Oyster omelette海蛎煎hǎi lì jiānhae lih jianA savory omelette mixed with oysters and starch, creating a unique texture and taste.

Anhui cuisine - 徽菜 (huī cài)

Anhui cuisine, also known as Hui cuisine, originates from Anhui Province in Eastern China, a region rich in biodiversity, including mountains, forests, and rivers. This culinary tradition is deeply rooted in the use of wild, locally sourced ingredients from both the land and rivers, emphasizing their intrinsic flavors and nutritional values.

Fried hairy tofu is a type of fermented tofu with a hairy exterior being fried and then braised in sauce.

Anhui cuisine is characterized by its focus on simplicity and purity. It particularly emphasizes braising and stewing in clear broths to enhance the natural tastes of food. Cooking techniques often involve slow-cooking methods to achieve depth of flavor. The cuisine is known for its hearty, comforting qualities, with a rustic charm that reflects the province’s rugged landscape and agricultural heritage.

Stewed Bamboo Shoots of Wenzheng Mountain问政山笋wèn zhèng shān sǔnwenn jenq shan soenTender bamboo shoots cooked with ham and mushroom in a rich broth.
Li Hongzhang chop suey李鸿章杂烩lǐ hóng zhāng zá huìlii horng jang tzar hueyA stew containing various ingredients like meat, seafood, and vegetables. It’s named after a Qing Dynasty official.
Wuwei Smoked duck无为熏鸭wú wéi xūn yāwu wei shiun iaDuck first smoked with spices and herbs and then braised, resulting in a fragrant and tender dish.
Fried Hairy Tofu虎皮毛豆腐hǔ pí máo dòu fuhuu pyi mau dow fuA type of fermented tofu with a hairy exterior being fried and then braised in sauce.
Yi Pin Guo / Royal Pot一品锅yì pǐn guōyih piin guoA Hui-style hotpot with layers of soybean products, meat, bamboo shoots, and various other ingredients.

Chinese desserts

Chinese desserts, unlike many Western desserts, focus on providing a more complex flavor profile than just sweet, sugary goodness. That’s why it might take a little adjusting if you’re used to enjoying ice cream, cake, or chocolate for dessert. Chinese desserts often blend sweet and other flavors, creating very interesting flavors that you may not have tasted before.

In fact, one of the most common ways of saying that a dessert is very tasty is 不甜 (bù tián), which means that the dessert isn’t sweet!

Here are some of the best and most common Chinese desserts:

Mooncake are a popular Chinese dessert.

Mooncake月饼yuè bingyueh bingA traditional pastry filled with pastes and/or nuts, typically eaten during Mid-Autumn Festival.
Glutinous rice ball汤圆tāng yuántang yuanSweet, chewy balls made from glutinous rice flour, usually served in a warm, sweet soup.
Green dumplings青团qīng tuánching twanMade with glutinous rice and mugwort juice, these steamed dumplings are filled with sweetened red bean paste.
Steamed pea flour cake豌豆黄wān dòu huánguan dow hwangA light, fluffy cake made from pea flour, known for its delicate sweetness.
Osmanthus cake桂花糕guì huā gāoguey hua gauA fragrant dessert with sweet osmanthus flowers.
Jujube cake枣糕zǎo gāotzao gauA sweet cake made with jujube paste, offering a chewy texture and rich flavor.
Mung bean cake绿豆糕lǜ dòu gāoliuh dow gauA refreshing cake made from mung bean flour, characterized by its light texture and sweetness.
Steamed sponge cake发糕fā gāofa gauA soft, fluffy cake using fermented glutinous rice wine as a rising agent, offering an aromatic taste.
Water chestnut cake马蹄糕mǎ tí gāomaa tyi gauA translucent, jelly-like cake made with water chestnut, known for its melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Cloud cake云片糕yún piàn gāoyun piann gauA soft, delicate thinly sliced cake that’s soft and white as a cloud, often made with rice flour and steamed to perfection.
Meat floss cake肉松蛋糕ròu sōng dàn gāorow song dann gauA savory-sweet cake topped with fluffy, shredded dried meat, combining sweet and savory flavors.
Pineapple cake凤梨酥fèng lí sūfenq li suA popular Taiwanese pastry with buttery crust and sweet pineapple filling.
Egg-yolk puff蛋黄酥dàn huáng sūdann hwang suA pastry with a flaky outer layer and a sweet, moist filling containing salted egg yolk.
Dragon’s beard candy龙须糖/酥lóng xū táng/sūlong shiu tarng suA traditional hand-pulled candy made from maltose, resembling fine, white threads/dragon’s beard.
Chinese pumpkin pie南瓜饼nán guā bǐngnan gua biingA fried sweet pie made with mashed pumpkin wrapped in a thin, crispy crust.
Sweetheart Cake老婆饼lǎo pó bǐnglao por biingA traditional Cantonese pastry with a flaky crust and sweet, chewy filling, often made with winter melon.
Sugarcoated haws on a stick冰糖葫芦bīng táng hú lubing tarng hwu lhuA popular street snack of candied hawthorn berries skewered on a stick.
Steamed creamy custard bun奶黄包nǎi huáng bāonae hwang bauA soft bun filled with a creamy, sweet custard, often served as a dim sum dish.
Double-layer steamed milk custard双皮奶shuāng pí nǎishuang pyi naeA Cantonese dessert made with milk, egg white, and sugar, known for its smooth texture.
Rice dumplings粽子zòng zitzonq tzyGlutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, often filled with sweet or savory ingredients, traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival.

Chinese breakfast dishes

Chinese breakfast generally focuses on warm dishes, including both savory and sweet items. Breakfast in China is always comforting and hearty, providing enough energy to start the day. You’ll often find fresh ingredients and different textures that bring variety to the first meal of the day. Here are some of the most common Chinese breakfast dishes:

Congee is enjoyed for breakfast in China.

CongeezhōujouA comforting rice porridge often served with pickles, peanuts, or eggs, providing a warm and hearty start to the day.
Youtiao油条yóu tiáoyou tyauDeep-fried dough sticks, crispy on the outside and tender inside, commonly dipped in soy milk, congee or soup.
Soy milk豆浆dòu jiāngdow jiangA traditional drink made from soybeans served hot or cold, sweet or salty.
Steamed buns包子bāo zibau tzySoft, fluffy buns filled with various ingredients like vegetables, meat or sweet bean paste.
Stuffed pancakes煎饼jiān bingjian bingA popular street food item consists of a crispy crepe with egg, sauces, and sometimes crispy crackers or meat.
Xiao long bao小笼包xiǎo lóng bāosheau long bauSoup dumplings filled with pork and savory broth steamed in small bamboo baskets.
Rice rolls肠粉cháng fěncharng feenSteamed rice noodle rolls, often filled with shrimp, beef or vegetables and served with soy sauce.
Tofu pudding豆花/豆腐花dòu huā/dòu fu huādow hua dow fu huaSoft tofu served in a sweet syrup or savory broth often topped with peanuts or sesame seeds.
Turnip cake萝卜糕luó bo gāoluo bo gauA savory cake made from shredded radish, ham, and rice flour, steamed, then pan-fried until crispy.
Wonton soup馄饨hún tunhwen tuenA comforting soup with wontons filled with meat and/or shrimp, served in a clear broth with vegetables.
Zongzi粽子zòng zitzonq tzyBamboo leaf-wrapped glutinous rice dumplings, filled with meat, beans, or other fillings, traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival but available year-round.
Tea eggs茶叶蛋chá yè dànchar yeh dannHard-boiled eggs braised in a savory tea and spice broth, creating a marbled effect and deep flavor.
Mantou馒头mán touman touPlain steamed buns, soft and fluffy, often eaten as a staple food instead of rice or served alongside main/side dishes from breakfast to dinner.
Egg and chive pockets韭菜盒子jiǔ cài hé zijeou tsay her tzyPan-fried pockets stuffed with scrambled eggs and fresh chives, crispy on the outside.
Millet porridge小米粥xiǎo mǐ zhōusheau mii jouA smooth, nutritious porridge made from millet, often served with pickles or fermented tofu.
Rice noodles米粉mǐ fěnmii feenRice noodles with vegetables and meat served in soups or as stir-fries.
Chongqing noodles重庆小面chóng qìng xiǎo miànchorng chinq sheau miannNoodles with peas, vegetables and meat, often served with broth drizzled with chili oil.
Hot noodles with sesame paste热干面rè gān miànreh gan miannHot and dry noodles mixed with sesame paste, pickled radish and scallion.

Chinese sauces and condiments

Chinese sauces pack a lot of flavor and variety, making them a huge part of Chinese cooking. Some dishes often mix three or more sauces to create rich and complex flavors, from soy sauce to hoisin sauce, adding kicks of umami and hints of sweetness to bring Chinese dishes to life. Here are some essential Chinese sauces and condiments:

Dipping a dumpling into soy sauce.

Soy sauce酱油jiàng yóujianq youA versatile, fermented sauce made from soybeans that adds a salty, umami depth to dishes.
Oyster sauce蚝油háo yóuhaur youA savory sauce made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt and other ingredients, used to enhance meat and vegetables.
Hoisin sauce海鲜酱hǎi xiān jiànghae shian jianqA sweet and salty sauce made from soybeans, garlic, and chili, perfect for marinades and dipping.
Sesame oil麻油má yóuma youAn aromatic oil made from toasted sesame seeds, adds a rich, nutty flavor to dressings and dishes.
Chili oil辣椒油là jiāo yóulah jiau youA spicy condiment made by infusing oil with chili peppers, ideal for adding heat to meals.
Black bean sauce豆豉酱dòu chǐ jiàngdow chyy jianqA salty sauce made from fermented black soybeans, garlic, ginger, chilies, and soy sauce.
Rice vinegar米醋mǐ cùmii tsuhA mild vinegar made from fermented rice, used in dressings, marinades and pickling.
Sesame paste芝麻酱zhī ma jiàngjy mha jianqA thick paste made from ground sesame seeds, offering a creamy texture and nutty taste.
Sweet bean sauce甜面酱tián miàn jiàngtyan miann jianqA thick, sweet sauce made from fermented wheat flour and soybeans, used in noodles and stir-fries.
Szechuan peppercorn oil花椒油huā jiāo yóuhua jiau youAn infused oil with the numbing, citrusy flavor of Sichuan peppercorns, which adds a unique tingling sensation.
Doubanjiang豆瓣酱dòu bàn jiàngdow bann jianqA spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans/soybeans, and chili peppers, essential in Sichuan cuisine.
Plum sauce酸梅酱suān méi jiàngsuan mei jianqA sweet and tangy sauce made from Chinese plums and seasonings, often used as a dipping sauce.
Fish sauce鱼露yú lùyu luhA salty, fishy condiment made from fermented fish and shrimp, and used to add umami to dishes.
XO sauceXO酱XO jiàngXO jianqA gourmet seafood sauce made from ham, dried scallops, shrimp, chili peppers, and spices.
Five-spice powder五香粉wǔ xiāng fěnwuu shiang feenA fragrant blend of five spices including anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds.
Chopped chili sauce剁椒酱duò jiāo jiàngduoh jiau jianqA spicy condiment made from chili peppers, salt, sugar, white wine, ginger and garlic, used to add heat and flavor.
Fermented tofu腐乳fǔ rǔfuu ruuTofu fermented in a mixture of salt, wine, and seasonings, offering a strong and creamy flavor.
Light soy sauce生抽shēng chōusheng chouA thinner, lighter-colored soy sauce, used primarily for seasoning without darkening the color of dishes.
Yellow bean sauce黄豆酱huáng dòu jiànghwang dow jianghA thick, savory paste made from fermented yellow soybeans. It has a rich, umami flavor, ideal for stir-fries and marinades.

Foreign cuisines in Chinese

Chinese meals are incredible, but anyone who’s spent an extended period of time will eventually start craving some food from other countries. Perhaps some French, Mexican, or Spanish cuisine? Fortunately, China has plenty of excellent foreign restaurants, especially in the bigger cities. Here’s how to talk about foreign cuisines in Chinese. You’ll notice that, as long as you know the country names in Chinese, talking about the cuisines is quite easy!

Italian cuisine意大利菜yì dà lì càiyih dah lih tsay
French cuisine法国菜fǎ guó càifaa gwo tsay
Japanese Cuisine日本菜rì běn càiryh been tsay
Indian cuisine印度菜yìn dù càiyinn duh tsay
Thai cuisine泰国菜tài guó càitay gwo tsay
Mexican cuisine墨西哥菜mò xī gē càimoh shi ge tsay
Spanish cuisine西班牙菜xī bān yá càishi ban ya tsay
Greek cuisine希腊菜xī là càishi lah tsay
Turkish cuisine土耳其菜tǔ ěr qí càituu eel chyi tsay
Korean cuisine韩国菜hán guó càiharn gwo tsay
Vietnamese cuisine越南菜yuè nán càiyueh nan tsay
Lebanese cuisine黎巴嫩菜lí bā nèn càili ba nenn tsay
Brazilian cuisine巴西菜bā xī càiba shi tsay
Russian cuisine俄罗斯菜é luó sī càier luo sy tsay
Moroccan cuisine摩洛哥菜mó luò gē càimo luoh ge tsay
Ethiopian cuisine埃塞俄比亚菜āi sài é bǐ yà càiai say er bii yah tsay
Peruvian cuisine秘鲁菜bì lǔ càibih luu tsay
Portuguese cuisine葡萄牙菜pú táo yá càipwu taur ya tsay
Australian cuisine澳大利亚菜ào dà lì yà càiaw dah lih yah tsay

Dietary restrictions in Chinese

Although China has an incredibly diverse range of cuisines, some of us may have dietary restrictions that prevent us from trying everything China has to offer. If you have an allergy or follow a special diet, here is some helpful vocabulary for you:

Vegetarian素食sù shísuh shyr
Vegan纯素食chún sù shíchwen suh shyr
Gluten-free diet无麸质饮食wú fū zhì yǐn shíwu fu jyh yiin shyr
Ketogenic diet生酮饮食shēng tóng yǐn shísheng torng yiin shyr
Paleo diet原始饮食yuán shǐ yǐn shíyuan shyy yiin shyr
Low-carb diet低碳水化合物饮食dī tàn shuǐ huà hé wù yǐn shídi tann shoei huah her wuh yiin shyr
Dairy-free diet无乳制品饮食wú rǔ zhì pǐn yǐn shíwu ruu jyh piin yiin shyr
Halal diet清真饮食qīng zhēn yǐn shíching jen yiin shyr
Kosher diet犹太洁食yóu tài jié shíyou tay jye shyr
Pescatarian diet鱼素食yú sù shíyu suh shyr
Low-fat diet低脂饮食dī zhī yǐn shídi jy yiin shyr
Mediterranean diet地中海饮食dì zhōng hǎi yǐn shídih jong hae yiin shyr
Intermittent fasting间歇性禁食jiàn xiē xìng jìn shíjiann shie shinq jinn shyr
Raw food diet生食饮食shēng shí yǐn shísheng shyr yiin shyr
Sugar-free diet无糖饮食wú táng yǐn shíwu tarng yiin shyr
High-protein diet高蛋白饮食gāo dàn bái yǐn shígau dann bair yiin shyr
Nut-free diet无坚果饮食wú jiān guǒ yǐn shíwu jian guoo yiin shyr

Fun facts about Chinese food culture

Five key flavors

The concept of the five key flavors is fundamental in culinary traditions around the world. China places a significant emphasis on balancing these tastes to achieve harmony in a dish. The five key flavors — sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty — interact with each other to enhance the overall sensory experience of a meal.

Enjoying the five key flavors of Chinese cuisine.


Eastern regions of China, including Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Guangdong provinces, tend to favor sweet flavors. Traditional Chinese medicine asserts that sweetness can “tone the body,” improve mood and mitigate illness. This preference has led to a cuisine that emphasizes sweeter, lighter, and more tender flavors, using seasonings like sugar, honey, and jams to enhance dishes and counterbalance stronger tastes.


Sourness is favored in southern China, especially among minority communities in Guangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan, as well as in Shanxi Province. The sour taste, achieved through pickling in vinegar, helps preserve food, reduce waste, aid digestion, and balance inner pH in hard water areas. This flavor is celebrated for its ability to refresh the palate, stimulate appetite, and complement the region’s diverse agricultural products.


Bitterness, the least common of the five flavors, is associated with Chinese medicinal food. Incorporating slight bitterness into dishes can enhance their freshness and appeal, stimulating the appetite and clearing “heat” from the body. Though rarely used alone, bitterness in Chinese cooking demonstrates the holistic approach to food and health, where taste and medicinal benefits are intertwined, adding depth to the culinary experience.


Central and Southern China — particularly Sichuan and Hunan provinces — favor spicy flavors. Spiciness, or “pungent flavor,” helps both stimulate the appetite and expel wind and cold from the body, reduce dampness, and promote qi and blood circulation. The numbing spiciness of Sichuan cuisine, thanks to the Sichuan peppercorn, contrasts with Hunan’s raw heat, showcasing the diverse application of chili peppers to enhance health and comfort in humid climates.


Salty flavors are popular in coastal and northern China, where salt is abundant and cheap. This flavor is essential for dissolving stagnation in the body, but moderation is key. In northern China, the cold climate led to the tradition of preserving vegetables with salt for winter consumption, a practice that continues today despite the availability of fresh produce, illustrating the deep-rooted cultural tradition.

Chinese Food Guide Pagoda

Just as we have a healthy eating pyramid in the West, China has the Chinese Food Guide Pagoda. These are dietary guidelines that help people understand how to organize a healthy diet. There are five levels to the Chinese Food Guide Pagoda:

Level 1: Cereals and tubers

Cereals and tubers form the base of the Pagoda, providing the majority of dietary energy through carbohydrates. Healthy individuals over two years old should consume a diversified balance of cereals and tubers daily.

Level 2: Vegetables and fruits

This level emphasizes consuming enough fruits and vegetables every day, specifically recommending dark-colored vegetables for their high content of vitamins, phytochemicals, and dietary fiber.

Level 3: Fish, poultry, meat, and eggs

The third level includes proteins like fish, meat, eggs, and tofu. The pagoda recommends moderate consumption of meats, poultry, and other animal proteins. It also encourages choosing fresh sources over processed and preferring lean meat to manage fat intake.

Level 4: Dairy, soybeans, and nuts

The Pagoda highlights these as excellent sources of protein and calcium. Moderate consumption of these food groups should be part of a regular diet to meet nutritional needs.

Level 5: Cooking oil and table salt

The pagoda advises minimal consumption of oil and salt, stressing the importance of balancing these out with other nutritional sources. It also emphasizes the risks associated with high intakes, such as hypertension.

Exercise and water intake

The Pagoda complements a healthy diet with enough water intake and regular exercise to maintain overall health. Typically, inactive adults should consume 7-8 cups daily, but this increases with higher temperatures and physical activity, recommended up to 3 liters daily.

Documentaries and videos about Chinese food

Watching documentaries and YouTube videos about Chinese food and culinary traditions can be a great way to learn about the heritage and history of these foods. A great place to start is the Dianxi Xiaoge YouTube Channel, with over 500 unique videos and over 10 million subscribers. You can sample various aspects of Chinese food culture, from sourcing ingredients to cooking a wide range of regional dishes from scratch and sharing food with family and community members.

Here’s a video from her on how to use soybean to make soymilk, tofu, tofu pudding, dried tofu, and many more soybean products:

Craving Chinese food?

We don’t blame you! With so many types of delicious Chinese fare, it’s hard to know where to start. If all the hard work of learning Chinese has left you ravenous, check out our list of over 200 yummy foods in Chinese to help your appetite. And if you’re satisfied with food for now, check out our Mandarin blog to explore even more topics about Chinese culture, language, society and even Chinese calligraphy art!

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