With 56 ethnic groups, eight recognized major cuisines and countless cooking styles, this menu of Chinese favorites could run longer than a finely pulled noodle.
But these 14 dishes are almost guaranteed to waken the homesick bug in most mainland Chinese living or traveling abroad.
In no particular order, these are the real deals, hard to find at your local Chinese restaurant.
Proper street kebabs
The most unforgettable meals in China don’t come from Michelin-starred restaurants.
They’re eaten in the streets in noisy, crowded, pungent food quarters in the heart of cities.
In places like Guijie in Beijing, Yunnan Nan Lu in Shanghai and Mingwalang in Nanjing, foodies can sample all sorts of freshly cooked skewers while witnessing the ultimate in food theater.
Islamic lamb kebabs with cumin, teppanyaki-style squid with five-spice sauce, gigantic “swords” of mind-blowing spicy chicken wings, grilled fresh oysters, fried pork tenderloin slices and razzle-dazzle exhibitions of vegetables-on-sticks.
Every bite of China’s street kebabs is a combination of good food and a street-side buzz unique to the country.
Crayfish has taken China by a storm in the past decade or so.
Cities all over the country go gaga over the crustaceans, which are simmered in a broth with chilli and abundant spices then served dry.
From spring to early autumn, crayfish-night-outs have become a ritual for many.
Groups of friends find a jam-packed stall, sit on tiny plastic stools and order a bucket or two of bright red crayfish.
Bullfrog poached in chilli oil (Sichuan boiled bullfrog)
Kermit might not like to hear this, but frogs are a delicacy in China, especially bullfrogs.
There are a variety of ways to cook bullfrogs in different parts of the country, but shui zhu — a cooking technique from Sichuan cuisine — has gained widespread popularity.
Pre-fried bullfrogs are poached in oil packed with strong spices, such as chili peppers and flower peppers, then served in a larger bowl and garnished with fresh coriander.
Often, the oil is still bubbling while being served.
It’s an unbeatable sharing dish for a big group.
It’s most satisfying with a bowl of white rice.
Boiled chicken chops served cold (cold chopped chicken)
In China, chicken meat attached to the bones is considered the most flavorful.
That’s why the majority of chicken dishes in China are served with the bones.
This dish is typical.
Spring chickens are boiled till tender, then chopped up and served with a dipping sauce.
The chunky meat is nice, but the tastiest bits are actually the bones, which locals love to suck. They’re even yummier with the magic of the sweet, sour and gingery sauce.
Tracy You is a Shanghai native now living in London.