“What did you eat today?” is one of the most common warmup questions I ask students. It can be used for all different levels of learners; it uses an irregular past tense verb, it can lead to many follow up questions, and of course, it starts a conversation about food, a topic I’m always happy to talk about. Of all the Asian cuisines in the world, my favorite is Chinese and Japanese food (although, as a Chinese-Japanese American, I might be biased). I always thought I knew what authentic Chinese dishes were until my family visited China in 2007. During the trip, I discovered the many types of Chinese food and realized the cuisine is a lot more varied than in my mom’s kitchen.
While you may remember the traditional Chinese dishes eaten during holidays like Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid Autumn Festival, you might still be wondering, “What do Chinese people eat on a daily basis?” Here are some everyday snacks and foods you might catch your students eating.
- Dried fruits and nuts: One popular dried fruit in China are red jujubes. No, these aren’t candies but small red fruits. When dried, they become chewy and sweet, similar to a date. Popular nuts include chestnuts and roasted seeds like pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
- Haw flakes: This snack is made from the haw fruit, which comes from the hawthorn family. Haw flakes are candied versions of the fruit which come in a cylinder and taste sweet and tart.
- Wang Wang cookies: This is a very popular snack among Chinese children. The cookies are crispy and lightly dusted with sugar, so the initial bite is savory from the cracker and then sweet once the coating dissolves.
- Sugar-coated fruits: In the autumn or winter, people in China start to see many vendors selling tanghulu, or candied fruit skewers. Traditionally, the skewers are filled with haw fruits, but nowadays, you can find strawberries or bananas as well as different coatings.
- Rice cracker mix: You may have seen these kinds of snacks in other Asian cuisines; in Japan, they are called senbei. These small crackers are made in various shapes and have a savory, sometimes spicy flavor.
Hot snacks and dishes
- Stinky tofu: Ask your students if they like stinky tofu, and you’ll get mixed reactions. Some people love it, but others can’t stand the smell. This fermented bean curd is usually deep-fried. Despite the smell, stinky tofu has a mild taste, and some people compare this to cheese because of the soft texture when you bite into it.
- Meat skewers: These grilled skewers are popular in Beijing and other parts of northern China. They use lamb meat and are seasoned with cumin.
- Jianbing: Jianbing is more commonly eaten for breakfast and is similar to a crepe. To make it, first, the cook spreads a layer of batter in a hot pan. While it cooks, they add an egg and other vegetables. It’s then rolled like an omelet or crepe and eaten with sauces.
- Xiaolongbao: These soup dumplings are originally from Shanghai and have become a more well-known traditional Chinese dish in US restaurants. These steamed dumplings are unique because they contain both meat and broth inside. It’s like eating the perfect bite of soup in one spoonful.
- Youtiao: These long sticks of fried dough have the texture of donuts, but you won’t find any chocolate-covered or jelly-filled. Instead, youtiao is usually dipped in rice porridge or soy milk for breakfast.
- Baos: Steamed or pan-fried buns are a common type of Chinese food. Depending on the region, you will find different fillings. Baos can be savory or sweet, and popular fillings include sweet bean pastes, custards, and meat.
Just as here in the US people argue over the best barbeque, the Chinese like to debate over who has the best hotpot. Diners choose a broth that is heated to boiling and used to cook meat, tofu, vegetables, and noodles. No matter where your students are from, their region probably has a unique hotpot style. It’s a popular style of dining when going to a restaurant with families and friends.
- Beijing: Beijing hotpot is also called Mongolian hotpot. It uses a bone broth, and the most common ingredient is thin-sliced lamb. After cooking, the meat is often dipped in a peanut or sesame dipping sauce.
- Chongqing: Chongqing is the most famous region for this type of Chinese food. Even if you like spicy foods, you might not be prepared for the mouth-numbing level of Sichuan peppers, chilis, and chili oil that are packed into this spicy hotpot broth.
- Guangzhou: In the southern parts of China, they may eat congee hotpot. Congee is rice porridge and, when mixed with more broth, becomes a different style of hotpot. Typically, people cook seafood and dip youtiao in the congee broth.
The next time your students answer, “I ate rice today,” you can prompt them to speak more about these foods and snacks. If you’re interested in trying some of these unique foods in Asian cuisine, you probably will be able to find foods like hotpot, xiaolongbao, and other baos in restaurants who specialize in regional Chinese dishes. If you live near an Asian grocer you probably will be able to find the dried snacks as well! What types of Chinese dishes do you like to eat?
Photos for Asian Cuisine: Popular & Traditional Chinese Dishes to Discuss with Your ESL Students
ID 67322779 © Hiweiwei | Dreamstime.com
ID 93927617 © Prakrong Lim – Dreamstime.com
ID 74813837 © ZhangMing Wang | Dreamstime.com
Delanie Honda has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While in Cambodia in 2014, she discovered she had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals through language learning. During her Master’s studies, she researched interventions using technology to provide quality education to students around the world. She has been a tutor with ALO7 since April 2017 and lived in Southeast Asia, Ecuador and Colombia.
The digital nomad lifestyle has allowed her to pursue the two things she loves: travel and education. As a Chinese-Japanese American, Delanie is asked, “Where are you from?” a lot, but welcomes the opportunity to share her culture with the people she meets from around the world. Her favorite things to do while traveling are trying new foods, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and exploring on foot.