Street food is an important part of Chinese eating culture. The strange and delicious foods are hidden away in narrow streets and sometimes look unclean. But street food is a good way for people to relax and satisfy the taste buds. If you are a street food lover and relish the experience of new food tastes, read on to see what the popular street foods are in China.
1. Deep-Fried Dough Sticks — great with soy milk
- Chinese name: 油条 yóutiáo /yoh-tyaow/ 'oil strip(s)'
- Taste: a little salty
- Main ingredients: wheat flour, soda
- Average price: 1 yuan
Golden deep-fried dough sticks look very inviting, and they are a popular food for breakfast in China. They look like bread sticks, but have a puffier texture.
The perfect matches for this food are soy milk and rice or bean porridge. At small eateries, you can see people holding deep-fried dough sticks in one hand and a porridge spoon in the other, taking mouthfuls of each in turn. Some people like to dip their youtiao in a bowl of soy milk. At some places, you can even see people eating dough sticks with soup or noodles.
2. Steamed Buns — instant warm food
- Chinese name: 包子 bāozī /baow-dzuh/'wrap(s)'
- Taste: savory/sweet stuffing
- Main ingredients: flour, pork/vegetables/ sweet bean paste
- Average price: 1 yuan
Steamed buns are a common food in China. You can see the mat restaurants or street stalls. They are a popular food for breakfast too.
The cook steams the buns in a big steamer, or in several small bamboo steamers. The stuffing is usually savory, like meat or vegetable. But there are also sweet fillings like red bean paste, custard, and sugary black sesame seed. Tell the vendor which kind of stuffing you want, and he/she will pick the right one for you from the steamers.
3. "Chinese Hamburgers" — almost a meal
- Chinese name: 肉夹馍 ròujiāmó /roh-jyaa-mor/ 'meat sandwich bun'
- Taste: savory stuffing
- Main ingredients: flour, pork/mutton
- Average price: 5 yuan
Roujiamo is vaguely like a hamburger as the meat is put inside a flatbread. It is more popular in northwest China, and north China, including Xi'an.
Preparation: The pork/mutton is stewed with several spices and smells really good. Tell the cook whether you like lean meat or fatty and he/she will pick the meat from the pot and chop it up with some vegetables.
Serving: A slit is cut in the side of the naan, and the chopped meat is placed inside. Before handing it to you, the cook will put some gravy on the stuffing to make the stuffing juicier.
4. Street Crepe— interesting and quick
- Chinese name: 煎饼馃子 jiānbǐng guǒzī /jyen-bing gwor-dzuh/ 'pancake cake'
- Taste: savory sauces
- Main ingredients: mung bean flour, wheat flour, green onion, egg, fermented flour sauces
- Average price: 5–10 yuan — You can add other ingredients in it for extra cost, like sausage and bacon.
The street crepe is popular among northern Chinese. The cook only needs a small stall to carry the ingredients and hot plate. These simple stalls always attract many street food lovers.
It's very interesting to see the seller making this street food. The hawker spoons and spreads the batter on the heated flat iron plate, adds an egg, some fresh vegetables, etc. on the batter skin, turns it over, brushes on your choice of savory sauce, and finally rolls it up and puts it in a little bag. You only need to wait 2 minutes for it.
5. Street Barbecue— now most common
- Chinese name: 烧烤 shāokǎo /shaoww-kaoww/ 'barbecue'
- Taste: savory/spicy
- Popular ingredients: lamb, chicken wings, squid, oyster, corn
- Average price: 3–5 yuan for a skewer
Street barbecue now is the most common street food. You can see it nearly in every city in China, especially in the snack streets. Sometimes whole roadsides are devoted to a row of tented shaokao stalls.
The stall: The meat and vegetables are skewered on a small stick and displayed raw so that you can pick what you want to eat.
Preparation: The peddler barbecues the skewer on a long grill with heated charcoal, producing a delightful aroma. Sauce is brushed on and cumin etc. is sprinkled to taste. Tell the purveyor how spicy you want it.
6. Food in Spicy Boiled Water — warming winter food
- Chinese name: 麻辣烫 Málàtàng /maa-laa-taang/'numbing spicy broth'
- Taste: savory and spicy soup
- Main ingredients: various vegetables, meatballs, tofu, noodles….
- Average price: 1–3 yuan for a skewer
Malatang is spicy and hot, and it is very popular in winter. The food is skewered up like for street barbeque, but it is cooked in boiling spicy broth.
The stall: The food is displayed in a glass case or just in front of the stall.
Preparation: Pick what you want and the retailer will boil it in the broth. After the food is done, the skewer (or noodles) will be served in a paper bowl. You can make a meal of vegetables, meat balls, and noodles for about 10 yuan.
7. Stinky Tofu — an acquired taste!
- Chinese name: 臭豆腐 chòu dòufu /choh doh-foo/ 'stinking bean curd'
- Taste: savory and spicy sauces
- Main ingredients: fermented soybean curd
- Average price: 4 yuan for five 3cm stinky tofu cubes
Stinky tofu is very unique among street food. Some people can't get past its smell, as its rancid spicy stench can be stomach turning. It's an acquired taste, like blue cheese. Many reject it at first, but when they have a bite, they fall in love with stinky tofu.
The stall: The vendor has a small wok with plenty of hot oil to deep-fry the stinky tofu in. It's served in a paper bowl. The brown sauce is usually spicy and salty, and it's supplemented wonderfully with chopped green onion and parsley.
8. Chicken and Duck Feet — uniquely Chinese
- Chinese name: 鸡爪鸭爪 jīzhuǎyāzhuǎ /jee-jwaa yaa-jwaa/'chicken claw duck claw'
- Taste: savory and spicy
- Main ingredients: chicken/duck feet, pepper
- Average price: 40 yuan per kilo(about 3 yuan per foot)
You may wonder why Chinese eat chickens' and ducks 'feet. Reasons range from wastage reduction, to an appreciation for the texture, to myths about health benefits. It is a typical Chinese street food that you will rarely find in other countries.
The flavor can be pickled chili, barbeque sauce, salted, or fried, but always spicy.
How it's served: The feet are typically displayed behind a glass window. There may also be some steamed/boiled lotus roots or potatoes on offer too. This is a cold dish and in some restaurants they can be served as an appetizer.
9. Cold Rice Noodles — popular in summer
- Chinese name: 凉皮 Liángpí /lyang-pee/ 'cool skin'
- Taste: salty, spicy sauces; a little sour
- Main ingredients: rice flour
- Average price: 5–8 yuan
Cold rice noodles are very popular in summer, but can also be served heated in winter. The smooth taste and spicy sauce will whet your appetite.
Preparation: The vendor cuts a big rice flour sheet into thin strips, which look like transparent ribbons. They are stirred in a big bowl with spicy sauces and other side dishes like bean sprouts, soy sauce, shredded cucumber, and fried peanuts. If you don't like spicy food, you can ask the seller not to add chili sauce.
10. Sugarcoated Haws— Chinese toffee apples
- Chinese name: 糖葫芦 tánghúlu /taang-hoo-loo/ 'sugar bottle gourd'
- Taste: sweet (and sour)
- Main ingredients: haws or fruits like apples, strawberries, pineapples, grapes, oranges, or kiwi fruits; syrup made from rock candy
- Average price: 3–7 yuan per skewer
Sugarcoated haws are a traditional Chinese food, loved by kids in China. The fruits are skewered on a stick and dipped in sugary syrup, and can look very beautiful. When sour fruit is covered by the sweet crisp coating, you can have a sweet and sour experience with each bite.
The "stall": Sugarcoated "haws" skewers are usually stuck in a straw "head", fixed on a pole held by the vendor. Or in some snack streets, they just display them in a glass case. This snack has developed from being just haws to any fresh fruits, like apples, strawberries, or oranges.
Street Food Tips
There are many more delicious street foods waiting for you to discover. But before you eat street food, please mind the following tips.
- Don't eat too many different street foods at one time, if your stomach is not used to them, to prevent indigestion.
- Pay attention to all the ingredients of each food, and avoid those you have allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities to.
- Don't eat street barbecue if the food is not well-done.
- Keep the streets clean, and help the vendor, by putting disposable bowls, chopsticks, etc. in a trashcan after you finish eating.
Some stalls are not healthy or hygienic. See if the proprietor has a health certificate or license for selling street food if possible. Be especially wary of street barbeque, malatang, stinky tofu, and chicken and duck claws.
Try Chinese Street Food with China Highlights
If you are planning a trip to China and want to taste street food during your trip, please see our recommended tours below for inspiration. Our guides can introduce you to the most popular places to have street food in each city.
- 8-Day Beijing, Xi'an, and Shanghai Tour—the Golden Triangle
- 12-Day Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, Guilin, and Hong Kong Cuisine Tour—the Flavor of China