China’s cuisine is one of its most successful exports, but the food you’ll mostly taste in the West is really just the tip of the iceberg. Chinese food is regionally specific, while meals are often a real occasion. In order to delve into the breadth of Chinese cooking, there’s no substitute for visiting the mother country.
The experiences we describe here aren’t simply about tasting a range of delicious, freshly cooked food. They’re cultural invitations: many involve spending time with everyday Chinese people in casual, ask-any-question situations. In doing so, you’ll learn a huge amount about Chinese food culture. Our specialists have tried out many excellent, food-themed activities around the country: this is their shortlist.
Private cooking class in Beijing’s hutongs
Shuttered away in the back of an inconspicuous courtyard house, itself hidden among the matrix-like streets of Beijing’s hutongs, lies Carlyle’s kitchen. Carlyle has such a passion for sharing Chinese cuisine with foreign visitors that he opened up his own small-scale cooking school using money gifted by his grandfather, who supported his entrepreneurial bent.
Imagine going around to your best friend’s Beijing studio and receiving a very hands-on, no fuss, private cooking lesson from one of the city’s best chefs — that pretty much sums up the intimacy, and relaxedness, of this experience. Carlyle interprets and delivers the lesson alongside respected (and infinitely patient) chefs from Beijing’s top hotels, such as the Sheraton.
Using mostly a cleaver, as is the custom in professional Chinese kitchens, the chef will show you knifework skills, before teaching you how to fold dumpling dough in increasingly dexterous shapes. Together, you’ll create a multi-plate meal of classic pan-Chinese dishes: kong bao chicken, for example, as well as fried dumplings, and even warm salads. Then, naturally, you get to devour it all, perhaps washed down with a Tsingtao or two.
There’s an added bonus: before you even head into the kitchen, Carlyle takes you on a jaunt around his local food shop to buy a few ingredients. He helps demystify what everyone is buying, too, from spices to bubbling vats of hot peanut and sesame sauces.
A dumpling-themed breakfast tour and cooking class, Shanghai
One for dumpling aficionados, or for anyone who lives for mid-morning brunches that seem to go on forever. Except that this brunch involves multiple courses, and a perambulation around the quieter zones of Shanghai’s French Concession — a district of airy, plane-tree-lined boulevards and residential lilongs (alleyways).
You’ll stop at hole-in-the-wall vendors and no-frills, greasy-spoon-type establishments known only to locals. Your mission: to try some of the city’s many varieties of dumpling. You’re also treated en route to interesting snippets about Chinese medicine and foodlore. Your guides are often Western, bilingual expatriates, and they’re a mine of information on Chinese food culture in general.
At each stop (there are five or six, so pace yourself), your guide will explain the ingenious methods used to create xiaolongbao, Shanghai’s premier soup-filled dumpling. (They’ll also show you how to eat them without spattering yourself in meaty broth). You’ll also try lighter-than-air wontons, crispy fried dumplings known as potstickers, and even sweet dumplings made out of glutinous rice and black sesame paste, such as the egg-shaped tanguen.
The walking tour over, you’ll head to a glossy kitchen for a lesson in making a Cantonese steamed dumpling called xiajiao. Particular emphasis is placed on how to shape the dough and parcel your filling correctly. At the end of the class, you’ll sit and enjoy your creations with a bowl of brown rice vinegar.
Lunch at a private family home, Xian
Chinese hospitality isn’t a myth. If you’re intrigued to experience it first-hand, you could do worse than go for lunch at the home of a family living in Xian. Shang, the matriarch and chef, will ply you with dish after dish of delicate morsels, which she whips up from scratch in her impossibly tiny kitchen.
Although China can seem, to some Westerners, like a society governed by strict etiquette (it’s not: you may be thinking of Japan), you’ll find that dining at family homes is a very relaxed and welcoming experience. You’ll start with a cup of green tea, followed by beer or a soft drink, before sitting down to eat. Dishes are brought out as and when they’re ready, everybody shares, and the table soon groans with steaming plates.
Expect anything and everything. We’ve been treated to stir-fried vegetable dishes (okra, broccoli, baby leeks, and bean sprouts), dumplings striped with mint-green-shaded dough (made with spinach), spring rolls, quails’ eggs, prawn wontons, gadsu (fried fish) and buckwheat cakes. All food will be seasonal. You’ll also be accompanied by a bilingual private guide, who acts as your interpreter and explains which dishes are local to Shaanxi Province.
China doesn’t traditionally serve dessert. But, you may find that your host, in deference to Western ways, rounds off your meal with a little blob of ice cream, before your guide conveys your thanks.
Hutong breakfast tour, Beijing
The hutongs are, as we touched on above, a preserved slice of Old China in the heart of metropolitan Beijing. These narrow, grey-bricked streets of single-story buildings, constructed on a grid system, are dense with traditional siheyuan (courtyard) houses. They’re mostly residential, and relatively untouched by Western-esque development. This walking tour offers a way of exploring them while sampling their array of breakfast dishes.
We say ‘sampling’, but in reality, you’ll eat very well. Your guide will likely first take you to try fried pork dumplings, and youtiao (fried dough sticks) dipped in doujiang (soy milk). Then there’ll be jianbing, a crêpe cooked in front of you on a hotplate (everything you eat on this tour is cooked-to-order, and hyper-fresh). It’s loaded with a gooey egg, herbs and chilli.
You’ll stop midway for coffee or tea, at which point you might get to try mung bean juice (an acquired taste, in our experience, but don’t let that put you off). A little later, you might stop for spicy noodles, and breakfast dishes made with lamb in a Muslim cafe.
One of the delights of this tour is watching the sleepy hutongs rouse steadily into life. More and more bicycles streak down their streets. The odd pair of cars engage in a stand-off. Children are walking to school. Locals will join you at the stands to grab breakfast on the go, or cram into a cafe booth alongside you to eat a bowl of dumplings before continuing with their commute.
A ‘secret’ evening dining tour by tuk-tuk, Chengdu
The laid-back city of Chengdu is mostly known in the West for its giant pandas and teahouses, but its food is celebrated throughout China. It’s located in Sichuan province, and it’s here you’ll find some of the country’s hottest dishes. Their star feature is a pepper that numbs the feeling in your tongue – it isn’t, in fact, terribly spicy, but can take some getting used to.
You’ll join your guide, a Chengdu resident, on a tour of four or five eating places. The premise —which is very much lived up to, in our experience — is that you’ll get to dine on great food in out-of-the-way spots you’d be unlikely to stumble upon if exploring independently. Think unassuming street stalls and even a private apartment-turned-pop-up-restaurant.
Food-wise, expect plenty of heat, but that’s not all that’s on the menu. You can try Sichuan stuffed pancakes, many types of noodle, and even Chinese wine. The beer and soft drinks are free-flowing. You’ll finish the evening with a flourish in a hidden-from-view bar which just happens to enjoy some of the best panoramas over the city.
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