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8 Chinese Dishes You Need to Know

By Carolyn Alburger
August 12, 2013

Asian fusion is over, and one thing is clear: across the country, the best chefs are diving deeper into their obsession with hyper-regional fare. They’re going beyond the chow fun and pad Thai that have become as American as apple pie to approximate new delicacies like xiao long bao and larb moo. To guide you through this new Asian food movement, Zagat brings you a four part series, outlining the dishes that will define the Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese menus of the future, along with suggestions for where to try each dish. Here’s part one, detailing our favorite Sichuan, Cantonese and Hainan dishes that are increasingly showing up on American menus.

  • Dan Dan Mein (Dan Dan Noodles)

    Before there were “dan dan noodles” here in the U.S., there was dan dan mein, a common street noodle dish peddled from a bamboo pole (dan) in the Sichuan province of China. Original versions of the dish start with warm, long, fresh noodles piled over chile oil. Many recent takes finish the dish off with minced pork and pickled vegetables (ya cai) such as mustard greens. Depending on the cook’s taste (and, of course, the customer's), other versions include peanut oil, peanuts, peanut butter, sesame paste, dark soy sauce, black Chinese vinegar, scallions and Sichuan peppers. Some versions are even served cold. The end goal of all of them: a slurpy, delicious and fortifying bowl of noodles.

    Where to try: M.Y. China in San Francisco; Spice 28 in Philadelphia

  • Xiao Long Bao (Soup Dumplings)

    Affectionately nicknamed “XLB,” these cute Shanghainese steamed soup dumplings usually arrive in a group of four to 10 in a bamboo steamer basket. Dip the dumpling in the Chinese vinegar (usually provided), and when you bite into them an explosion of pork broth, or “soup,” spills out into your Chinese spoon. For chefs, creating xiao long bao is an art form requiring much skill and practice to reach perfection over time.

    Where to try: Red Farm in New York; Din Tai Fung in Arcadia, CA

  • Ma Po Tofu

    Another winner from the Sichuan province, this traditional Chinese dish bucks the reigning American logic, crowning vegan and veggie-friendly tofu with a heaping pile of crumbly pork. The tofu and pork bob like a dense flock of seagulls in a hot, red sea of chile oil and vegetarian broth. The steaminess of the dish compounds the heat of Sichuan peppercorns infused into the broth. Those little sweat beads on your upper lip are a forgone conclusion.

    Where to try: Mission Chinese Food in New York or San Francisco, or Red Lantern in Seattle

  • Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns)

    Steamed, paper-white puffs of yeast-risen bread encase a glistening center of sugary barbecue pork chunks. The seasonings on the meat nod to sweet barbecue sauce styles native to Kansas City, which tends to lend an bright orange tinge to the paper-white bread surrounding it. The bun’s exterior strikes the same nostalgic chord as the Wonder Bread of your youth, making this Cantonese street snack a total crowd pleaser here in the U.S.

    Where to try: The Baowry in Portland; Wow Bow in Chicago

  • Congee (Cantonese)

    The chicken noodle soup of China, congee (or jook) is akin to rice porridge. The grains are cooked in water until they break down, forming the best kind of creamy mush. Restaurants serve it straight-up or adorned with various proteins and vegetables. Sometimes it's even served with unsweetened fried Chinese donuts for dipping. If you like pho and ramen, try congee. It’s total comfort food.

    Where to try: Out the Door in San Francisco; Hong Kong Eatery in Boston

  • Shumai

    One of the prettiest members of the dim sum family, these delicate, curly-edged bite-size dumplings show up often with pork or scallop, although they can also be found with spring garlic, shrimp, crab meat, and a range of other vegetarian and meat enhancements. A translucent piece of dough wraps around the fillings, forming a small package that is steamed to order. Similar to xiao long bao (above), shumai are often served en masse in a bamboo steamer basket.

    Where to try: Hakkasan in New York and San Francisco (check out our video here); The Source in Washington, DC

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice

    A far cry from the roast chicken of American kitchens, which are cooked at high heat, this delicate dish starts with a whole, organic, free-range bird that's delicately cooked at a low simmer until it just passes the point of done. Then, it’s plunged quickly into a vat of freezing cold water to tighten up the skin so it pulls from the flesh. The dish is common in China, Singapore and Malaysia, where cooks know a good Hainanese chicken because you can see the layers of meat, fat and skin very clearly. The chicken is always served with rice that’s been cooked in the chicken broth and chile sauce.

    Where to try: Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle; Savoy Kitchen in Los Angeles

  • Anything in X.O. Sauce

    You’ve seen it on a menu, and when X.O. sauce shows up, there is usually very little explanation. Here’s what you need to know. First up, this is not for vegetarians. The sauce starts with finely diced, rehydrated shrimp, scallops and often two kinds of Chinese pork. Second, it's always spicy. The spice quotient varies from one X.O. sauce to another, but there's usually enough red pepper flake in there to light your mouth on fire. Ginger, garlic, star anise and cinnamon give the sauce further body and intrigue. Now you can find X.O. sauce on noodles, vegetables and meats in Chinese restaurants, in jars in the Asian Foods aisle of the supermarket, and on Martha Stewart’s website. Yes, it's here to stay.

    Where to Try: Taste the corn glazed with X.O. at Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York

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