Depending on whom you ask, China has four, eight, or ten great culinary traditions: the Canton, Sichuan, and Hunan cooking familiar to Americans, and also a variety of regional styles that have not yet jumped the Pacific—and which scarcely resemble what we call “Chinese” food. Muslim-Chinese cuisine emphasizes lamb, cilantro, cumin, and breads; the cooking of China’s Yunnan province has more in common with that of Southeast Asia; and Uighur cuisine—from the northwestern region of Xinjiang—makes liberal use of tomatoes and peppers. To fully appreciate this dizzying variety, you must embrace unfamiliar textures (the Chinese place great importance on kougan, or “mouth sensation”). Be willing to try creatures from the deep. And, above all, do not fear fat.
- Loosely translated as “knife-shaved noodles,” daoxiaomian are a Shanxi specialty. Short ribbons are cut off a block of wheat-flour dough minutes before they’re flash-boiled; the result is fresh and chewy.
- The Uighur specialty dapanji (big-plate chicken) is a scrumptious combination of bone-in chicken, peppers, potatoes, and a savory tangy sauce, sometimes served over thick, hand-pulled noodles.
- Laced with powerful, tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, Sichuan-style mala huoguo (spicy hot pot) is not for the faint of heart. For less intensity, ask for it split into hong (red) and bai (white).
- Xiaolongbao, a.k.a. soup dumplings, are Shanghai’s most ingenious export: a delicate translucent satchel filled with meat or seafood in a fragrant, piping-hot broth.
- Hailing from the ancient capital of Xi’an, roujiamo is China’s answer to the hamburger—except this Muslim-Chinese sandwich is made with minced lamb and cilantro, and served in a dense wheat bun.
- Beijing kaoya (Peking duck) is beloved for its crispy skin, which is injected with air to separate it from the fat. It contrasts beautifully with the crunchy spring onions, soft pancakes, and velvety hoisin sauce.