8 best foodie towns in China
Although travelers can try dishes from around China and the globe in renowned food cities Beijing and Shanghai, it is outside these major metropolises where a world of exciting Chinese cuisine awaits the true foodie.
With this in mind and after three years of living in China and writing about Chinese food, I embarked on a six-month journey with my husband and two daughters.
We loaded up a campervan and set out from Shanghai on July 1. We've since covered more than 20,000 kilometers and 21 provinces in our quest to see China's most remote and beautiful areas, and to taste the different regional foods along our way.
Here are eight most amazing Chinese food cities I've come across so far. The list is in no particular order.
1. Chengdu, Sichuan Province
Crowned as Asia's first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010, Chengdu is best-known for its fiery hot pot and spicy dishes, which are characterized by the use of Sichuan pepper and are usually layered with salty, sour and sweet flavors.
There are also dishes that aren't spicy at all, such as beer-braised duck.
The streets hold more than 100 varieties of street snacks, from savory jelly noodles to "dragon lifting a hand" (poached wontons drizzled in toasty chili oil, pepper corns and green onion).
Chef Yu Bo is a must-go. The high-end restaurant cooks sophisticated Sichuan food with awe-inspiring presentations: abalone on spiced mung bean jelly, crispy ginseng root, and tiny spheres of apple poached in syrup tinged with fiery notes of green Sichuan pepper.
Hot pot is as ubiquitous in the city as the smell of chili. At Zigong Delicious Hotpot, the house specialty tiaoshui wa (or "diving frog") is a cauldron of fiery chili to which vegetables, noodles or other meats can be added.
For a real taste of Sichuan's signature pepper, hua jiao, spend a morning at the Chengdu Spice Market where the locals sell and buy it by the sack.
Yu's Family Kitchen (喻家厨房), 43 Zhai Xiang Zi, Xia Tong Ren Lu, Chengdu, 成都市青羊区下同仁路窄巷子43号, +86 28 8669 1975, open daily 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., booking required. Chef Yu Bo serves a 34-course degustation menu, which costs roughly RMB300 (US$47) per person for 7-8 people or RMB1,000 per person for 1-2 people.
Zigong Delicious Hotpot (自贡好吃客), 101 Kehua Bei Lu, Wuhou District, Chengdu 成都武侯区科华北路101号, +86 28 8524 0535, open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Chengdu Spice Market (五块石综合市场), 2 East Saiyuntai Dong Er Lu, Chengdu成都市赛云台东二路2号, open daily 8 a.m.-4.30 p.m.
2. Lanzhou, Gansu Province
Synonymous in the minds of food-lovers with hand-pulled beef noodles, Lanzhou also has one of the liveliest street food night markets in China.
Just west of the city center, the buzzing Zhengning Lu bazaar houses more than 100 street food stalls.
On offer is a broad selection of hot and cold dishes with emphasis on local Hui cuisine.
Highlights include whole grilled fish seasoned with aromatic cumin and sesame paste (RMB 25, US$4), sweet, hot bowls of nai zhou (milk rice with sultanas, peanuts, sesame seed and beaten egg, RMB 8) and flaky pastry rou bing stuffed with meat (RMB 2).
No trip to Lanzhou is complete without feasting on noodles at Wumule Penhui, the 2012 winners of Lanzhou's annual pulled noodle competition. The halal restaurant makes noodles spicy enough to satisfy even the most hardened heat-seekers.
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Zhengning Lu Night Market (兰州正宁路夜市), Zhengning Lu, Lanzhou. Nightly from 6 p.m. until late.
Wumule Penhui Beef Noodles, 2168 Bei Huang He Zhong Lu, Lanzhou 吾穆勒蓬灰牛肉面, 七里河区北滨河西路1268号, +86 139 1989 3333, open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
3. Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
The birthplace of Cantonese food, Guangzhou is thought by many as the best place to eat in China. The city of 12 million has a passionate food culture, with equal excitement reserved for the opening of a hole-in-the-wall congee joint and a high-end restaurant.
The local cuisine is characterized by fresh clean flavors, seafood, barbecued meats and the wonderful tradition of yum cha, which is tea drinking accompanied by dumplings and small dishes.
Congee is the way locals love to start their day, and one of the most popular vendors is Ru Xuan Sha Guo Zhou. Here, one can get a bowl of signature seafood congee any hour of the day.
Yum cha addicts are spoiled for choice but the extensive selections at both North Garden Restaurant (where shrimp dumplings are the specialty) and Bing Sheng are exemplary.
Roast meats are Bing Sheng's most popular order -- their roast goose is marinated with five-spice, boiled, air-dried, then roasted by a flame oven to give a succulent crisp skin.
For something more home style and removed from the madness of downtown, head to Ji Cun for steamed chicken and simple farmer-style dishes.
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Ru Xuan Sha Guo Zhou Haizhu Branch (如轩砂锅粥), 562 Dongxiao Lu, Haizhu District, Guangzhou 广州海珠区东晓南路562号, +86 20 8408 2969, 24 hours
North Garden Restaurant (北园酒家), 200-202 XiaoBei Lu, Yuexiu District, Guangzhou 广州市越秀区小北路200-202号, +86 20 8356 3365, open daily 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Bing Sheng Pinwei (炳胜品味), 1-2/F Shipai Hotel, 168 East Tianhe Lu, Tianhe District, Guangzhou 广州市天河区天河东路168号石牌酒店1-2楼, +86 20 8751 8682, open daily 11 a.m.-4 a.m.
Ji Cun Restaurant (鸡邨大饭店), 550 Ying Bin Lu, Panyu District, Guangzhou 广州番禺区市桥镇迎宾路550号; +86 20 8466 1010; 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., open daily 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
4. Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
Lying on the northern Silk Road en route to the trading hub of Kashgar, the laidback town of Turpan has the best Uyghur food in Xinjiang.
Dozens of open-air restaurants serve halal fare next to the main bazaar.
Browse the stalls for central Asian specialties like lamb kawop and crispy rounds of nang bread, served alongside less well-known local favorites like banshi (mutton wontons served in a light tomato broth topped with black-eyed beans and cilantro) or lamb, which is marinated in saffron and yoghurt and cooked until it falls tenderly apart in the tonur oven.
Finish with a bowl of fresh set yoghurt.
The extremely dry county grows China’s sweetest grapes with the harvest spectacle taking place in early to mid-September.
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Turpan Bazaar (吐鲁番市场), Laocheng Lu, opposite the bus station, Turpan 吐鲁番老城路, open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
5. Datong, Shanxi Province
Shanxi is home to one of China's great eight cuisines, jin cai, characterized by the liberal use of vinegar, round breads and pastries (known as bing) and hundreds of varieties of noodles.
Located in north of the province, industrial city Datong is an unassuming choice for dedicated Chinese foodies, with a burgeoning number of restaurants serving innovative and elegant jin dishes.
Phoenix Court, housed in an intimate Ming Dynasty mansion since 1518, serves the most refined jin cuisine in Datong.
Specialties are the delicate chrysanthemum shao mai (steamed dumplings favored by the Empress Cixi when she last visited), and the unusual yangsheng hulusi, which is carefully coiled shredded bottle gourd dressed with aged Shanxi vinegar, chilies, and finely sliced scallions.
Across town the 500-seat Yonghe Fine Food City gives a new spin on traditional dishes, with must-tries like golden millet pudding studded with tiny orange sea buckthorn berries.
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The Phoenix Court Restaurant, Huayan Temple Street, Datong 凤临阁, 大同城区华严寺街, +86 352 2059 699, open daily 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.
Yonghe Fine Food City, 8 Yingbin Dong Lu, Datong 永和美食城山西省大同迎宾东路8号, +86 352 5100 333, open daily 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 6 p.m.- 9 p.m.
6. Qingdao, Shandong Province
This is one of China's best seafood cities.
There is no better accompaniment to the city’s refreshing brew, Tsingtao, than the local shrimp, clams, geoducks, sea cucumbers and crayfish.
At Qingdao's Haidao restaurant, choose the catch of the day from the tanks, request a method of cooking (if unsure, the restaurant will help), sit down with a jug of beer then wait to see what turns up.
The emphasis is on preserving the seafood's fresh taste so don't expect a lot of complex heavy sauces. Instead, enjoy gala (local clams cooked with garlic and a little chili), or wok-fired shrimp with scallions.
For those who love to smell brine and hear the creak of rigging with your seafood, Xiao Gang Pier in northern Qingdao is lined with fishing boats selling directly from their decks.
Haidao Seafood Restaurant 40 YunXiao Lu, Qingdao 海岛渔村, 青岛市云霄路40号; +86 532 8573 5588, open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Qingdao Xiaogang Pier Seafood Market, Xiaogang Yi Lu, Shibei District, Qingdao 青岛小港海鲜市场, 青岛市北区小港一路, open daily 7 a.m.-4 p.m., best choice in the morning
7. Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province
This ancient canal city is home to huangjiu, an amber-colored rice wine that's ubiquitous in Chinese cooking.
Experience the history of 2,000 years of winemaking and taste aged wines at the Yellow Rice Wine Museum before enjoying a meal at the legendary Xianheng restaurant.
Open since 1894, the dining chain is known by almost every Chinese for its appearance in early 20th century novels by Chinese literati Lu Xun.
Xianheng's delicacies include crispy-skinned chicken, smoked red dates in rice wine, beans flavored with fennel, and crispy bream in rice wine.
Fried fermented tofu is also a local specialty, which is available all over town at small street stalls including one just outside Xianheng.
Shaoxing Yellow Rice Wine Museum, 557 Xiada Lu, Shaoxing 绍兴黄酒博物馆, 下大路557号, +86 575 8517 6032, open daily 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Xian Heng Restaurant, 179 Lu Xun Zhong Lu, Yuecheng District, Shaoxing 咸亨酒店中餐厅, 越城区鲁迅中路179号, +86 575 8511 6666, open daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m., reservation required
8. Dazhai, Guangxi Province
Not technically a city, but Dazhai is the best destination in China to enjoy fresh food as well as a stunning natural landscape on one trip.
The village is about three hours from Guilin by car and is at the base of the remote "Dragon's Backbone" rice terraces.
Here, the Yao minorities grow, make and forage everything they eat, including rice, tea, fern shoots, wild mushrooms and liquor brewed from wild berries.
Vegetables are plucked by farmers from the earth next to dining tables which overlook spectacular centuries-old rice fields.
Farmer Li's guesthouse is one of many lodgings that serve simple home-cooked dishes according to the season, for example: stir-fried pumpkin with fern shoots, or sticky rice cooked inside bamboo.
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Farmer Li's Quanjinglou Guesthouse, Longji rice terraces, Dazhai 全㬌楼, 广西省龙脊梯田大寨村, +86 773 758 5688