The origins of Chinese cuisine can be traced back millennia. Chinese cuisine is extremely diverse with wide regional variations, and it is not uncommon for even Chinese people themselves to find the cuisine from another region to be completely foreign to them.
Through the Chinese Empire, Chinese culture has influenced lands such as today's Mongolia and Vietnam. Chinese cuisine has for a long time been renowned in other Asian nations such as Korea and Japan.
In modern times, the Chinese diaspora has spread Chinese cuisine to farther-flung parts of the world.
Chinese cuisine varies depending on what part of the country you're in. The "Four Great Cuisines" (四大菜系) are Sichuan (Chuan), Shandong (Lu), Guangdong (Cantonese/Yue), and Jiangsu (Huaiyang) cuisine, and other regions have their styles as well, with notably different culinary traditions in culturally distinct areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang. It's not hard to sample regional cuisines in China even if you're far from their regions of origin—Sichuanese málà (麻辣) tingly-spicy food can be found all over, for instance, as can signs advertising Lanzhou noodles (兰州拉面, Lánzhōu lāmiàn).
- Meat, especially pork, is ubiquitous. Poultry such as duck and chicken are also popular, and there's no shortage of beef. Lamb and goat are popular with Muslims and in general in western China. If you know where to go, you can also sample more unusual meats like snake or dog.
- Rice is the archetypical staple food.
- Noodles are also an important staple, with wheat noodles more common in northern China and rice noodles more common in the south.
- Vegetables are usually steamed, pickled, stir-fried or boiled. They're rarely eaten raw. Favorites include eggplant, Chinese cabbage (bok choy), lotus root, potato, and bamboo shoots.
- Mushrooms – lots of different kinds.
- Tofu in China isn't just a substitute for vegetarians, but instead simply another kind of food, often served mixed with vegetables, meat, or eggs. It comes in lots of different forms, many of which will be totally unrecognizable if you're just used to the rectangular white blocks that are available internationally.
Bread is hardly ubiquitous by comparison with European countries, but there is a lot of good flatbread in northern China, and baodzi (包子, bāozi) (Cantonese: bao) — steamed buns stuffed with sweet or savory filling — are integral to Cantonese dim sum and popular elsewhere in the country as well.
Except in some western areas like Yunnan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, dairy products are not common in traditional Chinese cuisine. With globalization, dairy products are being incorporated into a few foods in the rest of the country, so you might see baozi stuffed with custard, for instance, but these remain exceptions.
For strict vegetarians, China may be a challenge, especially if you can't communicate very well in Chinese. You may discover that your noodle soup was made with meat broth, your hot pot was cooked in the same broth as everyone else's, or your stir-fried eggplant has tiny chunks of meat mixed in. If you're a little flexible or speak some Chinese, though, that goes a long way. Vegetable and tofu dishes are plentiful in Chinese cuisine, though they sometimes have meat or dried shrimp mixed in, and noodles and rice are important staples. See also "Buddhist restaurants" below.
You'll find all kinds of meat, vegetable, tofu, and noodle dishes in China. Here are a few well-known, distinctive dishes:
- Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐, mápó dòufu) – a Sichuanese tofu dish that is very spicy and has classic Sichuan málà tingly/numbing spiciness.
- Peking duck (北京烤鸭, Běijīng kǎoyā) – roast duck, probably the most famous dish characteristic of Beijing.
- Stinky tofu (臭豆腐, chòu dòufu) – just what it sounds like.
- Xiǎolóngbāo (小笼包) – small soup-filled dumplings from Shanghai.
These small and inexpensive foods make good choices for breakfast or a snack, or an addition to a larger meal.
- Bāozi (包子) – steamed buns stuffed with sweet or savory filling such as vegetables, meat, sweet red bean paste, custard, or black sesame seeds
- Congee (粥, zhōu) – rice porridge
- Mántou (馒头) – plain steamed buns
- Wōwōtóu (窝窝头) – cone-shaped steamed cornbread, popular in northern China
- Yóutiáo (油条) – literally "oily strip", a sort of long, fluffy, oily pastry
- Zhágāo (炸糕) – a little sweet fried pastry
- Zòngzi (粽子) – large sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, traditionally eaten on the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Festival) in May or June. On the Dragon Boat Festival, you may be able to find them for sale at shops that sell other kinds of dumplings and steamed buns. The stuffing can be savory (xián de) with meat or eggs, or sweet (tián de). The savory ones are more popular in southern China, sweet in the north.
- Dragon fruit (火龙果, huǒlóngguǒ) is a strange-looking fruit if you're unfamiliar with it, with pink skin, pink or green soft spikes poking out, white or red flesh, and black seeds. The kind with red flesh is sweeter and more expensive, but the white kind is tasty and refreshing too.
- Lychee (荔枝, lìzhī) is a wonderfully sweet, juicy fruit with a somewhat perfumy taste, and at its best when its peel is red. It is harvested in the late spring and early summer in areas of Southern China such as Guangdong Province.
- Watermelon (西瓜, xīguā) is very commonly available in the summertime. Chinese watermelons tend to be spherical, rather than elongated in one dimension.
- Tea (茶, chá)
- Soymilk (豆浆, dòujiāng) – different from the stuff that's known as "soymilk" in Europe or the Americas. The server may ask if you want it hot (rè) or cold (lěng); otherwise the default is hot.
- Báijiǔ (白酒) is very strong, clear grain liquor. Like other liquors that are better known in the West, its quality ranges from utter rotgut to refined, and its price ranges accordingly.
- Beer (啤酒, píjiŭ) is widely available in China, especially the north. The best-known brand in the West is Tsingtao, which is from the city of Qingdao (Tsingtao being the transliteration of the city's name in the old Wade-Giles Romanization), but there are others.
Hot pot restaurants are popular in China. The way they work varies a bit, but in general you choose, buffet-style, from a selection of vegetables, meat, tofu, noodles, etc., and they cook what you chose into a soup or stew. These restaurants can be a good option for travellers who don't speak Chinese, though the phrases là ("spicy"), bú là ("not spicy") and wēilà ("mildly spicy") may come in handy. You can identify many hot pot places from the racks of vegetables and meat waiting next to a stack of large bowls and tongs used to select them.
Cantonese cuisine is known internationally for dim sum (点心, diǎnxīn), a style of meal where a bunch of small dishes are served in baskets or plates. At a dim sum restaurant, the servers may bring out the dishes and show them around so you can select whatever looks good to you or you may instead be given a checkable list of dishes and a pen or pencil for checking the ones you want to order.
Big cities and places with big Buddhist temples often have Buddhist restaurants serving unique and delicious all-vegetarian food, certainly worth trying even if you love meat.
Major Chinese cuisines hardly have any taboos, and Cantonese cuisine in particular has a reputation for including virtually any animal species, including those considered exotic in most other countries.
However, in Muslim communities, pork and alcohol are taboo.