Chinese street food can be enjoyed practically everywhere in China.
Street carts and market stalls provide a cheap, fast and practical fueling station for workers on the go.
The mobile nature of street food culture has allowed regional dishes from far and wide to travel cross-country and become established on street corners in cities thousands of miles away.
Provincial dishes once known only in small regions have now become celebrated street snacks all over China.
Experience the best of Chinese culture
If you’re traveling to China, street food isn’t just cheap sustenance. It’s also a great way to experience authentic local culture.
I’ve always seen street food as an essential part of the traveling experience. That’s especially true when it comes to visiting a street food paradise like China!
Wandering mysterious back alleys and cramped, colorful markets in search of the ultimate street food discovery is an adventure in itself.
Below are some of the best Chinese street food dishes you can find.
They’re all taste-tested by yours truly and legendary throughout the land for their uncontested deliciousness!
1. Jianbing (Fried pancakes)
There’s hardly a better way to kick start a busy day than with an irresistible jianbing hot off the grill.
Jianbing (bing for short) can trace its 2,000-year-old origins back to the northeast of China. Today, it has undoubtedly become China’s favorite street breakfast.
Jianbing carts can be found in towns and cities all across the country, serving up this breakfast of champions to the masses.
Jianbing (literally ‘fried pancake’) actually refers to the pancake itself, made of egg and mung bean flour.
While bubbling away on the hotplate, the pancake is topped with fluffy, crunchy wonton sticks, coriander, spring onion, a layer of hoisin sauce and a layer of chilli sauce.
It’s then neatly folded up into a burrito-like shape – a handheld flavor sensation you can eat on the go.
Many jiangbing vendors will try to supersize your bing with extra fillings like bacon, Chinese sausage, roast vegies and cheese.
But for my money, nothing beats the tried and true traditional.
2. Chuan’r (Chinese kebabs)
All over China, you’ll find street vendors selling edible stuff on sticks.
Chinese-style kebabs are usually meat, but can also be made from seafood or vegetables.
Different vendors will use different seasonings, marinades or sauces to flavor their kebabs.
As chuan’r originated from the Xinjiang region, the most typical seasonings used for chuan’r aren’t too dissimilar to what would be traditionally used by the Uygur people of Xinjiang.
A common spice mixture would include salt, chilli flakes and a liberal dose of ground cumin.
The meat is coated generously in spices and then barbecued over a hot charcoal fire until slightly charred and crispy on the outside. But it’s moist and tender on the inside.
Charcoal chuan’r carts are common throughout China but are most commonly found at outdoor night stalls called da pai dang, especially during summer.
3. Jiaozi (Dumplings)
As a xiao long bao fanatic, I was tempted to feature these delicate yet dangerously scalding soup-filled dumplings on this list.
But let’s face it, xiao long bao is a Shanghai speciality, and while you certainly can find great xiao long bao all over China, it’s easy to end up disappointed, especially when we’re talking street corner dining.
So instead, I’m focusing on jiaozi, those cute, bite-sized flavor bombs of pork, shrimp and spiced cabbage wrapped in a gorgeous translucent skin.
Grab that slippery little sucker with chopsticks, dunk in vinegar and soy sauce and enjoy that flavorsome mouth explosion.
Every city, and maybe every vendor does dumplings a little differently.
But no matter where you are in China, it’s never hard to get hold of a comforting, hot plate of jiaozi to warm up your day.
4. Youtiao (Fried breadsticks)
These are a Chinese breakfast favorite of mine, since they’re basically the equivalent of having donuts for breakfast!
Youtiao is basically a long, golden-brown stick of dough (made mostly of flour, milk and butter).
It’s then deep-fried just-so, so that biting into that satisfying outer layer of crunch reveals a soft, puffy interior, ready to soak up the sweet or savory dip of your choosing.
You can dip youtiao in pretty much anything, but it’s most often served in the mornings with warm, slightly sweetened soy milk for dunking.
It’s simple, comforting stodge. It’s also high in fat and basically void of nutrition of any sort.
You’re best off regarding this scrumptious street food as an occasional treat.
5. Cong you bing (Green onion pancakes)
Hot, crunchy and flaky with just the right amount of greasy goodness, cong you bing are a Chinese street food staple.
Despite their rather basic appearance, doing justice to these disc-shaped morsels takes practise and skill.
For cooks who make them, it’s a precision act.
They have to form the super-stretchy hot-water dough to create multiple layers of crispy pastry. They then need to add the perfect ratio of fillings.
Finally, there’s a multi-step cooking process to grill and bake these beauties to perfection.
While certain chefs consider themselves to be masters of making green onion pancakes, the type found on the streets is usually a little less sophisticated.
Essentially they’re deep fried quickly in large batches in giant bubbling woks.
If you’re a vegetarian traveling to China, these pancakes are a good option.
6. Bing tanghulu (Candied hawthorns on a stick)
These sticks of bulging, bright red fruits slathered in shiny sugar glaze appear all over town in vendor carts and outdoor market stalls, especially during the winter months.
The red fruit is shanzha, or hawthorn in English. Hawthorns are usually too tart to eat on their own.
However, when made into juices, jams, or in this case, bing tanghulu, the additional sugar brings out a pleasantly sweet and sour cranberry-like taste.
The hawthorn fruits are covered in sugar syrup and then threaded on to long skewers, where the sugar syrup hardens to a crispy toffee.
It’s something like the Chinese version of a toffee apple.
Tanghulu can also be enjoyed with a combination of other fruits, including mandarin oranges, strawberries, blueberries, pineapples or grapes.
Personally, I’m not a lover of the toffee apple, but tanghulu is a different story.
Instead of being just sweet-on-sweet, the acidity of the sour hawthorn fruit adds a refreshing contrast that makes the risk of tooth decay a little more worth it.
7. Rou jia mo (Chinese hamburger)
Legend has it that rou jia mo (literally ‘meat stuffed bread’) was first invented in Shaanxi province back in the Zhou dynasty (1045 BC to 256 BC). It’s therefore quite likely the world’s first sandwich.
The meat filling is cooked till tender and then shredded, to let all the incredible complex spices, juicy gravy and indulgent sauce soak into every fiber of the meat.
Every vendor has their own recipe for the meat filling. The most traditional Shaanxi style is made from pork.
Pork belly is stewed for hours and then infused with soy sauce, rice wine and up to 20 different spices.
In other parts of China, you might more commonly encounter beef or mutton.
Fresh vegetables like cucumber and onion are mixed in with the tender, flavor-filled meet, along with a scattering of fresh chili for those who like it hot.
Traditional rou jia mo uses a type of clay-oven baked wheat flatbread. These days, fluffy-textured steamed buns have generally taken over as the bread of choice.
8. Jian dui (Sesame balls)
Sesame balls (also known as ma tuan) are a fried, bite-sized pastry snack.
They’re popular all over China and Hong Kong as well as several southeast Asian countries.
Jian dui are sweetened balls of glutinous rice, generously coated with sesame seeds. They’re then deep-fried to achieve a crisp outer coating and a gooey texture inside.
They’re commonly served ready-made as quick, early morning breakfast bites, but also sold as sweet snacks all day long.
9. Tea egg
China is well-known for having a variety of eggs you can’t find in the West.
Tea eggs are a Chinese street food favorite. Look for these tea colored eggs in huge pots parked by the side of many a breakfast street food cart.
You’ll see them simmering away in a fragrant liquid broth of star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, sugar, pepper and tea leaves.
The hard-boiled insides are infused with a complex, deeply savory flavor. The shells are imparted with a distinctive marble patterning, as the eggs crack as they cook and cool.
If you’re lucky enough to travel to China like I have, make sure you give these eggs a go.
They’re tastier than they look!
A little warning before you eat Chinese street food
The variety of street food available in your average Chinese city is staggering.
The choices can be overwhelming, and if you’re a little wary of the strange and unknown, street eating can be challenging at times.
Always have your phone handy and use a translation app to look up Chinese words on your camera.
That way, you know you’re not about to eat sheep’s brain soup!
If you have another few minutes, you should also check out these apps if you’re traveling to China – they’re really helpful.
Have you tried Chinese street food? If so, have I missed your favorite? Let me know in the comments!