Chinese street food is cheap, delicious and can be enjoyed everywhere in China.
I’ve always seen street food as an essential part of the traveling experience. That’s especially true when it comes to visiting a food paradise like China.
What’s special about China is the mobile nature of the street food culture. This has allowed regional dishes from far and wide to travel cross-country and become established on street corners in cities thousands of miles away.
So, join me on this culinary journey with 12 of the best local snacks. They’re all taste-tested by yours truly!
1. Fried pancake 煎饼 (Jiānbing)
There’s hardly a better way to kick-start a busy day touring China than with an irresistible fried pancake hot off the grill.
Jiānbing (or bing for short) can trace its 2,000-year-old origins back to the northeast of China. Today, it has undoubtedly become one of China’s favorite street breakfasts.
The word ‘jiānbing’ actually refers to the pancake itself, made of egg and mung bean flour.
While bubbling away on the hotplate, the pancake is typically topped with fluffy, crunchy wonton sticks, coriander, spring onion, hoisin sauce, as well as a layer of chili sauce.
It’s then neatly folded up into a burrito-like shape – a handheld flavor sensation you can eat on the go.
Many vendors will try to supersize your bing with extra fillings like Chinese sausage and vegetables. But for my money, nothing beats the tried and true traditional.
2. Dumplings 饺子 (Jiǎozi)
Dumplings are one of the classic foods from China.
Known as ‘jiǎozi’, these cute, bite-sized flavor bombs of pork, shrimp or cabbage are wrapped in a delicious doughy skin.
To enjoy your dumpling, first grab the slippery little sucker with your chopsticks. Then, dunk it in vinegar and soy sauce and enjoy the 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 jiǎozi to warm up your day.
3. Kebab 串儿 (Chuàn’er)
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 chuàn’er originated from the Xinjiang region, the most typical seasonings used for chuàn’er aren’t too dissimilar to what would be traditionally used by the Uygur people of Xinjiang.
A common spice mixture includes salt, chili 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 chuàn’er carts are common throughout China, especially at outdoor night stalls called ‘dà páidàng’ during summer.
4. Steamed bun 包子 (Bāozi)
Steamed buns are another delicious Chinese street food snack.
You can find them all over China, though I find they’re best enjoyed in the colder north of the country, in places like Beijing and Tianjin.
Although they may not look overly appetizing, once you bite into them you’ll know why the locals love them.
My favorite are the barbecued pork bāozi , but you can find them filled with all kinds of fillings including pickled vegetables and sweet bean.
If you’re watching your carbs, my suggestion would be to go easy on the steamed buns!
5. Fried breadstick 油条 (Yóutiáo)
This is a favorite of mine, since it’s the equivalent of having a donut for breakfast!
Yóutiáo is basically a long, golden-brown stick of dough made mostly of flour and milk. It’s then deep-fried.
Biting into the 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 yóutiáo into 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, so it’s best eating this Chinese street food snack in moderation.
6. Green onion pancake 葱油饼 (Cōng yóubǐng)
Hot, crunchy and flaky with just the right amount of greasy goodness, cōng yóubǐng are a Chinese street food staple.
Despite their rather basic appearance, doing justice to these disc-shaped morsels takes practice 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 some cooks 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.
These pancakes are a great option if you’re a vegetarian traveling to China.
7. Candied hawthorns on a stick 冰糖葫蘆 (Bīngtánghúlu)
These sticks of bulging, bright red fruits slathered in shiny sugar glaze appear all over town in vendor carts, especially during the winter months.
The fruit is shānzhā, or hawthorn in English. Hawthorns are usually too tart to eat on their own.
However, when made into juices, jams, or in this case, bīngtánghúlu, the additional sugar brings out a pleasantly sweet and sour cranberry-like taste.
The hawthorn fruits are covered in sugar syrup and then threaded onto long skewers, where the sugar syrup hardens to a crispy toffee.
It’s something like the Chinese version of a toffee apple. Personally, I’m not a lover of the toffee apple, but bīngtánghúlu is a different story.
This sweet Chinese snack can also be enjoyed with other fruit, such as mandarins or strawberries.
8. Chinese hamburger 肉夹馍 (Ròu jiā mó)
Legend has it that ròu jiā mó (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 until tender and then shredded, to let all the incredible spices, gravy and sauce soak into every fiber of the meat.
Each vendor has their own recipe for the meat filling. The most traditional Shaanxi style is made from pork.
The pork belly is stewed for hours and then infused with soy sauce, rice wine and up to 20 different spices. Yum!
In other parts of China, you might more commonly encounter beef or mutton in your hamburger.
Fresh vegetables like cucumber and onion are mixed in with the tender, flavor-filled meet, along with a scattering of chili for those who like it hot.
Traditional ròu jiā mó uses a type of clay-oven baked wheat flatbread. These days, fluffy-textured steamed buns have generally taken over as the bread of choice.
If you want to try making a Chinese hamburger at home, try this recipe from The Woks of Life.
9. Sesame balls 煎堆 (Jiān duī)
Sesame balls (also known as má tuán or 麻团) are a fried, bite-sized pastry snack.
They’re popular all over China and Hong Kong as well as several southeast Asian countries.
Jiān duī 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.
10. Tea egg 茶叶蛋 (Cháyè dàn)
China is well-known for having a variety of eggs you can’t find in the West.
Tea eggs, in particular, are a Chinese street food favorite. Look for them 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 savory flavor. And the shells have 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.
11. Stinky tofu 臭豆腐 (Chòu dòufu)
If you can get past the not-so-enticing name, stinky tofu is a tasty and nutritious Chinese street food even if some foreigners find it weird.
This popular snack gets its name from – you guessed it – the strong smell. Apparently, the stronger the smell, the better the taste!
The tofu is fried and enhanced with things like herbs and chili sauce. It’s an easy food to eat on the go, as the tofu is attached to little sticks.
You’ll find stinky tofu everywhere, which is particularly good news if you’re a vegan traveling to China.
12. Fried noodles 炒面 (Chǎomiàn)
Last but certainly not least, fried noodles are another classic Chinese street food. And they taste delicious!
The standard dish comes with fried egg and a few vegies like bean sprouts. But if you want meat added, like sliced Chinese sausage, the cost will slightly increase.
It’s still an insanely cheap dinner though, with a big (vegetarian) bowl costing about 10 yuan in the mid-sized cities.
The cook will usually add a fair bit of chili to give your noodles some kick. If you can’t handle chili, just say “Bù yào là” (不要辣) and the cook will go easy on it.
Noodle vendors are either mobile or hole-in-the-wall type operators. You can’t miss them cooking on their big wok.
Psst! A quick travel tip
If you’re planning a trip, remember that the Chinese internet is censored.
So, when using hotel Wi-Fi you won’t have access to your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Gmail and so on, unless you get a VPN before you leave your country.
Fortunately, VPNs are fairly cheap and you can see the top VPNs for China here.
And 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. That way, you know you’re not about to eat sheep’s brain soup.
If you have another few minutes, check out these apps if you’re traveling to China – they’re really helpful.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy eating your way through China!
Have you tried Chinese street food? If so, have I missed your favorite? Let me know in the comments.
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
FAQ about Chinese street food
Does China have street food?
It sure does! China does street food as good as, if not better than, most other countries. Street food vendors are open until late, serving great tasting snacks to the masses.
What is street food called in China?
It’s typically called xiǎochī (小吃) which means ‘snack’.
What is a popular Chinese street food?
Fried pancakes, dumplings, noodles, kebabs and steamed buns are all very popular in China. The most popular street food dish depends on the region of China you’re in.
What’s a popular sweet Chinese street food?
The Chinese aren’t as big on sweet food as they are on savoury, but one popular sweet snack in China is bīngtánghúlu (冰糖葫蘆) which is candied hawthorns on a stick.