Do you prefer hot and spicy food over the bland stuff?
Do you enjoy sweating when you eat? And do you like the feeling that your tongue is on fire?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then you’re going to love eating spicy Chinese food!
I have to admit that I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to hot food. But I’m also the type to try anything once, even if it leaves me guzzling iced water afterward.
So, let’s take a look at spicy Chinese food starting with 13 of the best dishes you should try.
The best spicy Chinese food to try
If you’re ready to set your tastebuds on fire, then here’s what to eat:
Hotpot can be found everywhere in China. The spiciest hotpot comes from Chongqing and if you can stand the heat, it’s surprisingly tasty.
You’ll need to go to a restaurant in a group, as eating hotpot is a shared experience. Basically, you and your friends dip your favorite raw meats, seafood, tofu and vegetables into a bubbling pot until they’re cooked all the way through.
Don’t worry if the broth is so red that it looks like flames. It’s supposed to look like that! But you can choose to have a separated, non-spicy hotpot cooking at the same time if you can’t handle chili.
When I was in China, this is the hottest dish I tried. After a few mouthfuls, I thought I was going to die!
I didn’t of course, but it taught me to be more careful about what I ate if I wanted to keep the skin on my tongue.
2. Mapo tofu
Hailing from Sichuan (also known as Szechuan) province, mapo tofu is made with tofu, ground pork, a spicy bean chili sauce and Sichuan peppercorns.
It’s this last ingredient that really gives the dish it’s punch and you’ll need a fireproof mouth to enjoy this dish when it’s made properly.
The minced meat is so fine that you can’t really see it. So, when trying this dish for the first time, don’t be fooled thinking it’s just tofu and therefore vegetarian.
3. Hot and sour glass noodles
This spicy snack is from Chongqing and it’s one of the cheapest entries on this list.
It’s made of sweet potato flour glass noodles in a soup of soybeans, vinegar, chili paste, and chili oil.
You can enjoy this dish at markets all over China. I must admit that I tried this a few times!
4. Dan dan noodles
Authentic dan dan noodles are made with ground pork, raw garlic, ground peanuts, and a searingly hot chili black bean paste.
The name dan dan comes from the Mandarin expression ‘biǎn dān’ (扁担) which means ‘carrying pole’. In ancient China, vendors carried the noodles on poles and then sold them on the street.
There are different variations of dan dan noodles, depending on where you go in China. Some people think the best ones can be found in Chengdu in Sichuan province, where they were first invented.
5. Saliva chicken
This spicy Chinese food has a slightly unappetizing name that came about because of the tastiness of the dish.
It’s boiled chicken in a chili and sesame oil sauce that contains 10 spices and sauces.
Even for me, this dish was tasty, though I wasn’t sure if I’d actually survive eating it!
6. Er kuai spicy chicken
If you go to Yunnan province, then you can try these savory rice cakes that are steamed and stir fried with chili peppers and deep-fried chicken.
This might sound a bit odd and not many people outside of the province have tried it, but the result is incredibly tasty, if shockingly spicy at the same time.
7. Gan guo
Originating in Hunan province, you can personalize this dish to suit your own tastes.
All you do is choose your meat, tofu, and vegetables and the dish is brought to your table, spiced with ginger, garlic, scallions, and red and green chili peppers.
This is one of the hottest dishes around and it’s far less oily than some of the spicy dishes you’ll find in Sichuan. So, it might suit your tastes better if oil upsets your stomach.
8. Red braised pork
This dish was allegedly a favorite of Chairman Mao, so there are strict rules about how it’s made and what it contains.
It’s from Hunan province and features red braised pork. But don’t expect this version to be like the braised pork in other parts of China, because it’s actually a celebration of the locals’ love of chillis.
9. Hot and sour fish soup
This is one of the more obscure dishes and originated in southern Guizhou province (you can get a summary of every Chinese province here).
It’s a delicious fish with broth made from chili oil, tomatoes, and local red chili peppers, and it actually contains some local fermented vegetables for an added health kick.
10. Hunan spicy beef
Hunan province is the second largest beef supplier in China, so of course it has a spicy beef dish.
Hunan spicy beef is stir-fried with fresh and deep-fried chili peppers and it’s deliciously tender and burns all the way down.
11. Steamed fish head with chili
This is a slightly odd entry and to be honest, I couldn’t stomach it myself, mostly because I don’t like my food to stare at me accusingly while I’m eating it.
‘Duo jiao yu tou’ originated in Hunan province and features lots of chili in a steamed fish head.
In China, the locals pride themselves on eating almost all the parts of animals that can be eaten, and this dish is a good example of that philosophy.
12. Kung pao chicken
A tourist’s favorite because it’s often found in Chinese restaurants overseas, kung pao chicken will make you sweat if you eat all the chilis on the plate.
But if you’re a master of chopsticks, you’ll easily be able to separate the chicken from the chili, giving the dish less sizzle. This is something I did a lot of the time while I was in China!
If you’re ordering this food in China, the locals won’t understand you if you say you want “kung pao” chicken. In Mandarin, it’s actually “gōng bǎo” chicken or “gōng bǎo jī ding / 宫保鸡丁” in full.
See also: How to learn basic Mandarin
This is a cold dish that packs a punch.
It’s from Shaanxi in the country’s west, and boasts thick noodles, flowers, and cucumber slices with lots of chili.
It’s often eaten with flat pork buns and makes a nice change from the other spicy Chinese food on this list.
How to survive spicy Chinese food
Even if you’re used to eating spicy food, some of the dishes on this list may be difficult for you to eat. Basically, when it comes to spicy food, it’s what you’re used to.
If you’ve never eaten much spicy food before, then whatever you do, don’t jump straight into eating the hottest Chinese dish imaginable. The burning tongue is just the start and is usually followed by sweating, tears, bloating, and even more unpleasant symptoms.
You’ll need to build your tolerance to eat spicy food in China. Add more spice to your food gradually and before you know it, you’ll be ready to try the hottest Chinese food.
If you do go overboard on the spice, then here are some tips that will help cool your mouth down while you’re eating your meal or after:
- Drink some milk, which helps to wash away the spice molecules
- Don’t drink water, as it will just move the spice molecules around in your mouth
- Stay away from alcohol, as it doesn’t dull the pain as much as you might think unless you drink buckets of it
- Eat a piece of bread, as the carbs act as a barrier between your body tissues and the spice
- Drink something acidic like lemonade or orange juice, as it will help balance the alkaline spices.
‘Hot’ provinces in China
If you’ve only eaten Chinese food in your own country, then you might be forgiven for thinking that most of it is mild, a little sweet, and sometimes has a touch of spice.
China actually has a variety of regional cuisines, some of them hot enough to burn the lining off your stomach.
Here are the best areas in China to visit if you want to try spicy food:
- Sichuan (or Szechuan), which is known for its pandas as well as its spicy food
- Yunnan, famous for its stunning outdoor landscapes and ethnic minorities
- Guizhou, also known for its ethnic minorities and culture
- Hunan, where you can see the early home of Chairman Mao
- Chongqing, a megacity known for its mountainous landscape
- Shaanxi, particularly in the Guanzhong area where they say that three chilis can be a meal.
The dishes you can find in these areas are often vastly different from each other, which gives you a lot of choice when you’re exploring.
If you’re traveling in a not-so-spicy province, you’ll still be able to find a pot of chili sauce and vinegar on virtually every restaurant table.
Spice up your life! Why eat spicy Chinese food
I can understand why some people avoid spicy food.
It hurts if you aren’t used to it and can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms. But on the other hand, the flavor of spicy food is sometimes worth the pain.
The flavor of food is created by a combination of the taste, the smell, and how your nerves react to the food. It’s this last one that spicy food stimulates, which is why the flavor of spicy foods can be so addictive.
The active component in hot peppers is known as capsaicin. This is what stimulates your nerves, creating that burning feeling.
But capsaicin does a lot more than that. When the pain receptors in your mouth are stimulated by capsaicin, your body releases dopamine and endorphins in response, making you feel high.
This combination of nerve stimulation and chemical rush is what can make the experience of eating spicy Chinese food so overwhelmingly good.
How to say “I don’t want chili” in Chinese
Can’t handle the hot stuff?
All you need to say is “Bù yào là” (不要辣) and the chef will go easy on the chili.
But just be warned – in some restaurants the food may still have some kick even if you say this expression to the waiter. Some Chinese dishes are just meant to be spicy, regardless.
Spicy Chinese food: the takeaway
Traveling is all about challenging yourself in every way, and seeing and doing new things. This should include trying new foods as well.
Although hotpot is the most famous and popular spicy Chinese food, you might want to start small and order something else if you’re a newbie to the spice scene.
But if you’re a spicy food veteran, then don’t be afraid to try all of China’s hottest dishes. Enjoy!
Truth be told, eating too much chili in China might upset your stomach, so it’s best you read my article on surviving Chinese squat toilets.
Main image credit: Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
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FAQ about spicy Chinese food
Is Szechuan food spicy?
It sure is! Most signature dishes from this region in China are super spicy and it’s what the locals enjoy eating.
What is a good spicy Chinese dish?
Hotpot is extremely popular in China, even outside the so-called ‘hot’ provinces like Sichuan (Szechuan).
How spicy is kung pao chicken?
It’s fairly spicy, depending on the chef, but you can easily separate the chicken from the chili as you’re eating it.
Is traditional Chinese food spicy?
It can be, depending on the region in China. For example, many traditional dishes in Sichuan province are spicy. But in the south and east of China, food is generally sweeter or less spicy.