Cultured Palate: Dishes from China

For many Americans, our exposure to Chinese cuisine is limited to the fried noodles and saucy spare ribs that populate the menu of our favorite take-out spot. In reality, though, these dishes tell us more about America than about China – American Chinese cuisine has spun off into its own genre, developing a unique culinary history. True Chinese food is entirely different from what we know.

If you’re interested in exploring China’s cuisine, we’ve compiled a list of some essential dishes you need to try. Each is representative of one of China’s eight regional food cultures and culinary traditions, highlighting different ingredients, spice profiles, and cooking methods. Today, we’re going to dip our toes into each culinary tradition’s most famous dishes and explore other well-known dishes popular in China.

1. Dan Jiao

The egg dumplings known as dan jiao come from the cuisine of China’s Anhui region, one of the largest areas of the country. Anhui cuisine features fresh vegetables and wild herbs and is generally considered one of the healthiest regional cuisines. Dan jiao are made out of an egg batter swaddled around minced meat mixed with Shaoxing wine and are prepared using a large ladle over an open fire. Delicate and light, they’re typically eaten in a soup for Chinese New Year.

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2. Buddha Jumps Over the Wall

Fujian cuisine, which comes from the province’s capital of Fuzhou, is known for highlighting individual ingredients, treating them simply so their flavor shines. Soups are considered the perfect vehicle for fresh ingredients in Fujian cuisine, and broths act as a backdrop for vegetables and protein. One of the region’s most famous soups is Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, which includes shark fin, quail eggs, bamboo shoots, ham, and ginseng. It takes at least one full day to prepare this special soup, and it’s extremely rare to find these days because of concerns regarding shark fin harvesting.

Suwarin Rachanikorn / Shutterstock

3. Hairy Crab

Jiangsu cuisine is made up of three distinct culinary traditions centered around the three major cities in the Jiangsu region: Nanjing, Suzhou, and Yangzhou. Since freshwater seafood is plentiful in this area, many Jiangsu specialties focus on fish. You’ll find fish in soups, stews, or cooked whole. Local hairy crabs are a popular delicacy, available in restaurants in the late summer or early fall. They’re steamed, then eaten with a simple sauce of vinegar and ginger to emphasize the freshness of the crab’s sweet flesh.

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