My Love Affair with Chinese Food

Monday, September 22, 2014

an image of hot pot

Even as a kid growing up in the US I enjoyed eating "Chinese food." When I first traveled to China for my PhD research, I naively thought that Chinese food would be somewhat similar to what is offered at the restaurant in my small town. Boy was I wrong! I've never been more glad to be wrong. Chinese food is millions of times better and more diverse than I expected.

From 2010 to 2012 I lived in Yunnan Province, which is in the southwest of China. The food in Yunnan is incredibly diverse due to 1) the numerous climates that allows for a wide range of crops to be grown and 2) the different cuisines of the 26 different ethnic minorities. For example, Tibetans, who live in high elevations in the northwest of the province have a diet based mainly on buckwheat and yak products (eg., cheese, milk, meat). In contrast, the Dai people, who typically live in the southwest of the province (near Vietnam) eat food that is extremely spicy and often incorporates tropical fruit. Additionally, Yunnan is known throughout China for their numerous species of edible mushrooms as well as their frequent use of wild-collected plant species. This makes for a delicious and diverse cuisine!


When I'm not in China I dream about noodle dishes. Seriously. In Yunnan, noodles are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Noodles can be made out of rice, wheat, beans, or yams and noodles can be thick, thin, or pulled. The most common form of noodles in Yunnan are thin rice noodles prepared in a bowl of spicy soup that is as large as your head. A bowl of noodles in Yunnan is about 7 RMB (1.14 USD).

yunnan rice noodles
 yunnan style thick noodles

chinese noodles
 bean vermicelli

Chinese rice noodles

Pot Stickers or Dumplings (Jiao zi)

Jiao zi are delicious little morsels filled with meat or vegetables. They are eaten for any meal of the day and are served with dark vinegar and cilantro.

Dumplings (Bao zi)

Bao zi are steamed buns that are filled with meat or vegetables and served with dark vinegar. They are often incredibly cheap (5 RMB for a flat of steamed buns) and are easy to eat on the go. Bao zi are eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They are just oh so good!

steamed dumplings and a sesame bun for snacks
 a flat of steamed dumplings

Hot Pot (Huo Guo)

In Yunnan, Sichuan-style hot pot is the go to for dinner. Sichuan-style hot pot is spiced with chili peppers and Sichuan peppers (a mouth numbing spice that looks like a peppercorn). There is also usually the option to have a mild broth as well. Hot pot is a boiling broth that you add uncooked food to. When the food is cooked you remove what you want to eat from the boiling broth. This meal should be eaten slowly with friends and shared beers. Yum!

a nice hot pot spread in Yunnan
Sichuan-style hot pot in Kunming

looking down at a hot pot meal in Yunnan Province
Spicy on the outside, mild on the inside

beer and uncooked food for hot pot
Note the mini glass for drinking beer!

spam and meat for hot pot
Mmm spam. I love spam in my hot pot

frozen tofu and meat for hot pot
Frozen tofu, fish balls, and lamb

Barbecue (Shao Kao)

Shao kao is basically the Chinese version of barbecue; however, there are many more options available. In addition to grilled meats, vegetables, seafood, and tofu, you can have the more unusual pig's brains, chicken feet, and animal innards. Shao kao is eaten for dinner or as a late night snack (perfect for after a late night out). Shao kao is served with chili pepper powder.

Chinese barbecue

cooked chinese barbecue

Eggplants, potatoes, and grilled vegetables

grilled vegetables


Dishes can be a mix of meat, vegetables, tofu, and soups that are eaten for lunch or dinner. Dishes usually compose a large meal, and other than hot pot, can be the most expensive at about 50 RMB for a meal for two people. When ordering dishes for a group of people you should always order at least one more dish than the people eating (e.g., if ordering for 3 people you should order at least 4 dishes). 

spicy green beans
lamb dish

2 acres dish (corn and edamame)
Corn, edamame, and peppers

spicy potatoes
Spicy potatoes

Ku Gua or bitter melon dish
Ku gua - or bitter melon is a Yunnan specialty
Yu Xing Cai - a delicious Yunnan specialty
Yu Xing Cai (sorry I don't really know the translation)

Yunnan mashed potatoes
 sweet and sour chicken

copper pot potato rice from Fu Xian Lake in Yunnan
Copper Pot potato rice - a specialty from Fu Xian Lake

broccoli with Yunnan cheese
Broccoli with Yunnan cheese (so good!)

broccoli cooked with ham

Yunnan broccoli dishes
broccoli with Yunnan bacon

cooked cabbage
Cabbage with peppers and garlic

roasted meat and potatoes
roasted meat and potatoes

fried red beans from yunnan
fried red beans

a meal for two in Yunnan province
a typical Yunnan-style meal for two

Dai Specialties

Dai food is so incredible! Most dishes have a nice balance of spicy and sweet. My favorite dishes include pineapple rice, any kind of spicy meat, and this sweet soy and coconut milk drink with bread and jellies.

Dai drinks
Dai pineapple rice

Dai style spicy meat
Spicy chicken


In addition to shao kao, you can find numerous street snacks such as roast corn and sweet potatoes, fried potatoes, fruit, and hard boiled eggs. Popular snacks are also in found in supermarkets or convenience stores and typically consist of nuts, sunflower seeds, and preserved eggs and meat. Additionally, you can find flower cakes and other pastries that are often filled with red bean paste.

Yunnan style flat bread
Spicy flat bread

perserved meats in Yunnan stores
Preserved meats

a bag of tea flavored sunflower seeds
 flower cake

spicy potatoes for a snack
Fried potatoes

 *Sorry for the long post!

Okay, now I really want a giant bowl of rice noodles. What country has your favorite cuisine? Do you like Chinese food?

I'm linking up with Katie from Something Winnderful for her Social Saturday linkup!


  1. I love the idea of Hot Pot but sadly, I've never tried it. There are few things I love more than good pot stickers though!

    1. You could make hot pot at home! You just need a lot of chili peppers. The Japanese version is called Shabu Shabu - maybe you can find a restaurant serving it in London. Yum - pot stickers

  2. i stumbled upon the 'ma la' flavors when i visited a restaurant in beijing and my palate was so intrigued! it had spices i had never tasted before, i loved it.

    loved this post. i prefer noodles and dumplings over rice. i could eat them daily. looks like you had a delicious time in china!

    1. I also prefer noodles to dumplings or rice. I could eat spicy rice noodle soup for every meal (and have)! Thank you for stopping by :)

  3. I always find it funny when we finally have the real cuisine in a country as compared to the Americanized version of it - I was quite 'disappointed' to find out Italians have no idea what chicken parmesan is! hah love pot stickers too!

    1. I think it is pretty cool to see how a culture's cuisine changes when it isn't in its native country. The same foods/spices aren't always available and the local tastes are different, so it is interesting to see how the cuisine adapts. Oh such a nerdy response!

  4. Oh man - my mouth is watering. I just love Chinese cuisine. How well did you get on with the language while living in Yunnan? Any tips for travelling there?
    Claire xx

    1. The food is so good! I love it in Yunnan and if I could convince J to move there I would be on the next plane. Not many people speak English in Yunnan, so a basic knowledge of Mandarin would be useful. I used to be pretty fluent in Mandarin (especially the local dialect) when I lived there, but unfortunately I've since forgotten a lot. Luckily I've still got enough to get around and have conversations - just nothing too deep- such a bummer that if you don't use it you lose it!

      If you have any specific questions about planning a trip to Yunnan I'd be happy to help you. My main tips would be 1) enjoy the food, 2) don't ever drink water that hasn't been boiled, 3) drink lots of tea, 4) visit the Yunnan Nationalities Museum in Kunming, 5) Get out of Kunming and visit to both the north and the south. Oh the list could go on!

  5. Oh my gosh. My husband and I are dying over here after looking at all that. It looks soooooooo gooood. I knew authentic Chinese food would be much different than what is served here in the US, but to actually see it. Man, I need all of it. Particularly the bowl where you cook your own food with friends. My first thought is how that seems unsanitary, but then I see pictures and I couldn't care less about it. It looks to good.

    Thank you for linking up and for linking to me in your post!

    1. Hi Katie! The food there is seriously good. I think Hot Pot isn't so unsanitary because the boiling soup is so hot - and it is with friends so no big deal. My husband; however, was not a fan of the barbecue (shao kao) because he thought it was unsanitary. I love it all though!