If you’re cute, cuddly, or marginally edible, beware. In China, you’re a cure for the munchies. Real Chinese food is street food. Sidewalk sellers offer a culinary tour that covers more of the animal kingdom than National Geographic and it doesn’t matter if you’re low on the dough. OTP’s got the lowdown on the most munchable areas and lingo; you bring the Tums.
Street vendors in China will sell you fried could-be pets, on a stick, for pennies. But if you don’t know the language or look local, someone will likely attempt to rip you off. It happens to everyone, so don’t go ape-shit because someone charges you 30 Yuan ($4.50) instead of 20 ($3) for some noodles. Know your conversions and hit up the carts with the longest lines. The wait is worth the fresher food they're slangin'.
Hong Kong has the cutest, puffiest, bite-siziest food in the world, period. Buns, dumplings and bamboo-wraps rule in this ex-colony. You may have heard of the pork bun (Chaoshubao), a dim sum favorite, but the Xiaolongbao, a fluffy white shell filled with Malatang, a spicy noodle soup, is king. Other popular balled-up eats are noodle buns and Zongzi, bamboo-leaf bundles of sticky rice. Pretty much any kind of meat is available all over town in ball-form, curried or simmered in homemade sauce. Mongolian milk tea is a good drink to pair if you like your balls salty; sugar cane juice to keep them sweet.
OTP Tip: Xioalongbao are infamous for burning tongues, so bite with caution and a Tsing Tao on hand.
Located near the People’s Square in the south Jing’an district, Wujiang has plenty of restaurants and loads of street carts. These carts will sell you all kinds of stinky deliciousness from Chou Doufu to buttery bamboo leaf-wrapped pork belly. When you’re ready to get off the curb, Jin Shifu Won Ton Restaurant is a good place to sit down and enjoy the house specialty—won tons.While there are a handful of Western restaurants around, you don't need a Big Mac in your McGrill. Instead, check out the Jing’an district's Muslim market for a flavor change-up—a one-stop shop for lamb skewers, flat breads and pirated Arabic CDs.
Slip back in imaginary time surrounded by crazy-cool old-school architecture while you suck down some fish-wrapped chilies here. We can't pinpoint what it's really made of, but fake shark-fin soup is another local delicacy. There’s a nice meatless bone to toss to the veggie-crowd too: Chunfeng Songyue Vegetarian Restaurant (23 Bailing Rd.) is your best bet for something other than the standard veggie standby, noodles.
China’s capital has some regional favorites that will make you tingle where the sun don’t shine. Indigenous to the northern Uyghur region, the Roujiamo, the “Beijing sandwich” is a pita-like flatbread served overflowing with shredded pork, lettuce, cucumber, onion and chili sauce. Even the all-too-common noodle soups have a special ingredient kick in Beijing and are usually DIY (where you pick what gets thrown in). You’ll be choosing from stuff like pig blood, lotus roots, beef tendon, chicken wings, pork belly fat, fish cakes and lobster balls. The more bits you add, the more you pay. Make your soup dreams come true at Donghuamen night market across from Xin Dong An plaza. Need your soup to go? Forget plastic containers; grab some soup on a stick, in which ingredients are skewered in the bowl of Malatang (those tasty buns). The little spice-nuggets in it, called Maqui, are like biting into novocaine--ride it!
Soup isn’t the only street food that comes on a stick; skewers are available everywhere in China. It’s common to see huge pots bubbling with colorful sauces boiling up desserts, appetizers, or that pesky bird from outside your hostel window. Lamb is hot right now (so hot), but other stick foods include grasshoppers, starfish, snakes, lobsters, silkworms, scorpions, chicken intestines, pig livers, hearts, pheasant, corn, octopus, crabs, squid or centipedes. Nanning’s is famous for its snails and crocodile skewers. A light-hearted version of this skewer-fest is Bingtang Hulu, a candied fruit-stick of Hawthorns and Crabapples which work well as digestive aids for chasing that testy dumpling.
The black eggs you see boiling around busy areas are not the1,000 year-old eggs that you need to be wasted to swallow—just plain eggs boiled in tea and soy sauce. Disappointing, we know. Just pretend it’s bizarro brunch.
We're sure you've noticed that General Tso's Chicken, Broccoli Beef and other “Chinese” comfort foods are missing from our guide. Well, that's because most of those are bastardized American takes on Chinese food and while you can still get some familiar foods in various regions of China, there are many more interesting options to try than what you're used to back home. If you've ever felt like getting all Bourdain on yourself, this is the place to do it.