The table below covers the main Chinese menu dishes. Carry on reading for a wide range of Chinese menu dishes.
Chinese Food Guide
|Name of Chinese Dish||Type of Chinese Dish|
|Hot and Sour Soup||Sichuan Province speciality, usually based on a chicken or pork stock,|
|Spring Rolls||The familiar takeaway spring roll is a selection of meat and vegetables – or vegetables alone (cabbage, carrot, celery and bean|
|Chow Mein||This dish of stir-fried noodles, vegetables and meat of your choice|
|Bang Bang Chicken or Pork||hot, spicy meat salad with tenderised (that’s where the banging comes in!)|
|Kung Po (Kung Pao or Gong Bao) chicken||the heat strength dependent on the chef’s choice which, be warned, usually runs to very hot|
|Crispy aromatic duck||the duck flesh is shredded then packed up to take away with pancakes, cucumber and sweet hoisin sauce|
|Wonton||boiled dumplings, usually filled with seasoned and spic|
|Chop Suey||literally translated, “bits and pieces”|
Chinese cuisine is Britain’s most popular takeaway according to Digital Spy. Most of us are therefore familiar with the main dishes on offer in the thousands of Chinese takeaway outlets across the land, but for the sake of the purists, we’ll go into some detail about the menu items that are not self-explanatory.
The Dishes Dissected:
Here’s a run-down of the most popular dishes you’ll find on Chinese takeaway menus in the UK, with descriptions of ingredients and flavour. Also with heat and health ratings on a scale of 1 – 5 (where 1 is the mildest and healthiest):
- Wonton is boiled dumplings, usually filled with seasoned and spiced (often including ginger) pork, shrimp or chicken, and green onions. The dough contains flour, egg, water and salt. Common throughout China (though they vary in size and shape according to region) in the UK we are most familiar with them served in clear soup, usually with noodles. Also popular are deep fried wonton, which has a crispy texture and are served dry with a dip (generally sweet and sour sauce).
Heat index: 1 (though there is a spicy hot version in red oil, so if in doubt, ask).
Health index: Steamed 2: Deep fried: 4
Hot & Sour Soup is originally a Sichuan Province speciality, usually based on a chicken or pork stock, but vegetarian options are sometimes available. The title says it all – the sourness is added with vinegar and the spicy heat is down to white pepper. Otherwise, ingredients vary but usually comprise bamboo shoots, sesame oil, cloud ear fungus, day lily buds, ginger root, tofu, egg, button mushrooms and cornstarch for thickening.Heat index: Varies, but usually 3/4Health index: 2
Spring Rolls are traditionally one of the components of “Dim Sum” in China – a selection of finger foods usually served up with fragrant tea. In the UK, however, spring rolls are regarded as an appetiser or accompaniment to the main dish, when it comes to Chinese takeaways. The familiar takeaway spring roll is a selection of meat and vegetables – or vegetables alone (cabbage, carrot, celery and bean sprouts) – cooked in soy sauce then enfolded in a flour-and-water wrap. This is then deep-fried until golden and crisp.
Heat index: 1
Health index: 3
- Chow Mein is a staple offering at Chinese takeaway outlets worldwide, especially popular in Britain. This dish of stir-fried noodles, vegetables and meat of your choice (usually chicken, pork or beef) got its English name from a corruption of a word in the Mandarin Chinese Taishan dialect and should be pronounced more in the order of chau-meing. Vegetable components vary but invariably include cabbage (bok choi), bean sprouts, water chestnuts and celery, usually stir-fried with soy sauce.
Heat index: 1
Health index: 4
- Bang Bang Chicken or Pork (also known as Bang Bang Ji) is often billed as a “house special” by Chinese Takeaway emporiums. Ideally, this Sichuan dish is a hot, spicy meat salad with tenderised (that’s where the banging comes in!) steamed flesh, dressed in a sauce based on sesame oil infused with chilli and peppercorns. The cooked meat is thinly sliced and served on a sheet of green bean paste. It is usually accompanied by a green salad, especially cucumber.
Heat index: 4/5
Health index: 2
- Kung Po (Kung Pao or Gong Bao) chicken served as a UK takeaway is a westernised version of the original Sichuan Province classic spicy stir-fry dish. It usually consists of a diced marinated chicken breast, that is stir-fried with red bell peppers, roasted peanuts, Sichuan peppercorns, chilli, and a selection of vegetables that could include green peppers, celery, Chinese cabbage, carrots or water chestnuts. Sometimes you’ll find options where seafood, beef, pork or tofu replace chicken. When well prepared the dish is tasty as well as being spicy – the heat strength dependent on the chef’s choice which, be warned, usually runs to very hot. The preferred accompaniment is plain white rice.
Heat index: 4/5
Health index: 3
Crispy aromatic duck is a favourite starter on the Chinese takeaway menu in Britain. It’s an anglicised version of the renowned gourmet Peking duck of Beijing, and therefore decried by purists, but delicious nevertheless! The duck is rubbed with a spicy marinade (usually containing Chinese five-spice, peppercorns, cumin seeds and rock salt), then steamed until tender, before being deep-fried until crisp. The duck flesh is shredded then packed up to take away with pancakes, cucumber and sweet hoisin sauce (containing soy, red chilli, garlic, vinegar and sugar), ready for you to roll and wrap according to taste.
Heat index: 3
Health index: 4
Char siu pork is a mouthwatering meat main, great as fast food on the run in a bun, or sat down with to enjoy with an assortment of other Chinese takeaway dishes. Char means fork, and siu means roast. Essentially the cuts of deboned pork (usually belly strips, ribs or shoulder) are grilled or barbecued on a skewer, after being marinated. It’s the marinade that makes it delectable, usually a mixture of honey, five-spice, red bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sherry and rice wine. Usually, red food colouring is added to ensure the meat comes out with its characteristic appetising smokey red surface, often enhanced with a malt sugar glaze.
Heat index: 1
Health index: 3/4 depending on the meat cut.
- Chop Suey means, literally translated, “bits and pieces” (from the Mandarin phrase za sui). The origins of the dish are obscure (except that we know it is certainly not Chinese!), but it remains a staple on the Chinese takeaway menu in Britain and the USA, coming in many flavours with a variety of ingredients. Chop Suey is a stir-fry mix of meat or seafood and various vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots and celery, with a thick gravy sauce base. The sauce varies in flavour from the ubiquitous sweet and sour to ginger or garlic, with ever-present soy. It is usually served with white rice.
Heat Index: 1
Health index: 2
- Moo (mu) Shu (shoo) Pork is a dish which originated in northern China and is today hugely popular as a takeaway in Britain and the USA. It is usually served with a stack of thin pancakes in which to wrap the food and a small pot of hoisin sauce. Besides lean strips of pork, the dish also contains scrambled egg and a combination of vegetables such as cabbage, carrot, wood ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, day lily buds, pea pods, onions and celery.
Heat index: 1
Health index: 2
A glossary to help you select from your local Chinese takeaway menu:
- Soy sauce – is a basic ingredient in most Chinese dishes. Made from fermented boiled soybeans, roast grains, brine and a mould called Aspergillus oryzae. Its taste is salty and earthy.
- Sweet & Sour sauce – a classic authentic Chinese sauce, adapted slightly for western tastes, this is generally served as a dip or pour-over sauce with Hong-Kong style (deep fried and battered) pork and chicken balls or goujons. Basic ingredients are sugar (or syrup), white vinegar, soy sauce and tomato ketchup, often with the addition of pineapple, green pepper and onion pieces. The taste is more tart than sweet.
- Black bean sauce – is a rich, dark, pungent cooking sauce usually added to stir-fried meat dishes towards the end of the cooking time. It is made from douchi – a fermented black soya bean paste – usually combined with garlic, soy sauce and a hint of chilli. The result is a strong salty and spicy flavour.
- Satay – is a peanut sauce usually used as a dip for skewered chicken or beef. It is a general Asia-wide taste which has become a staple of Chinese takeaway outlets in Britain. Besides peanuts, crushed into a coarse paste, it usually contains brown sugar, dark soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic, coriander and coconut milk. The sauce can also be hot with the addition of chilli, so it is wise to inquire as to the spiciness level.
- Oyster sauce – a savoury sauce commonly used in Chinese cooking, it was traditionally made by simmering oysters until the juices caramelised. Today Oyster sauce is commercially available, made with sugar, salt and cornstarch, flavoured with oyster essence and coloured with caramel.
- Hoisin – a thick, pungent sauce, usually used as a glaze for meat, made from soybeans, sesame seeds, vinegar, starch, garlic and red chilli peppers. The word hoisin means seafood, but this is a misnomer because it neither contains nor is typically used with seafood. It is also known as plum sauce, but contains no plums!
- Plum sauce – a light brown, thick sauce made from plums, which is particularly popular with duck and pork ribs, or as a dip for spring rolls.
- Curry sauce – enormously popular with takeaways, poured straight over chips or rice, the distinctive flavour of Chinese curry sauce is seldom “homemade” at takeaway establishments but comes in a powder form ready to mix up for customers. If it is made from scratch it will probably contain curry powder, ginger, garlic, coconut milk and five-spice.
Bok choi(y) or pak choi(y) (chinensis) is a type of cabbage that is very versatile and found in all sorts of Chinese takeaway dishes, stir-fried, braised, steamed, sauteéd, or simmered in soups.
- Napa cabbage is a white cabbage similar to common cabbage, with a sweeter, milder flavour and thinner leaves. It is used in stir-fries, soups and minced to fill dumplings.
- Gai (kai) lan is akin to kale with a taste similar to broccoli. It is usually blanched or steamed.
- Ong Choy (river spinach) is a mild, nutty-tasting leaf which is crunchy even after cooking. Usually steamed (with oyster sauce), stir-fried or used in soup.
- Gai Choy, or mustard greens, have a strong, sharp flavour. You’ll find these leaves mostly in braised or steamed dishes.
- Chinese celery is aromatic with thin, crisp stems and feathered leaves. Both leaves and stems are often added to stir-fries and soups.
- En Choy, from the same family as beetroot, is Chinese spinach, characterised by red-centred leaves. It’s used steamed, stir-fried or raw in a salad.
- Shitake mushrooms are commonly used in Chinese cuisine, with a pleasing flavour. They are usually used dried rather than fresh, outside of Asia where they are indigenous.
- Wood Ear fungus, named for its shape, is also often used dried in British Chinese takeaways. While they aren’t very tasty they absorb the flavours of their companion ingredients and have a firm flesh.
- Oyster mushrooms, with white flesh under a greyish-brown skin, are slightly peppery and are used in both soups and stir-fries.
- Bamboo shoots are exactly what it says on the tin (and tinned is a common way of using them). They are cut from the bamboo when very young and slices are used in a wide variety of Chinese dishes, including stir-fries and soups.
- Water chestnuts are another ubiquitous ingredient in many Chinese takeaways. They are not nuts, but actually the corm of an aquatic vegetable that grows naturally in Asian paddy fields. They have a sweet flavour and are used to add texture to stir-fries, and often in dumpling fillings.
Chinese regional styles:
- Cantonese (Guangdong) is one of the most familiar to Westerners of the eight
different recognised Chinese regional cooking styles, many of its traditional Dim Sum dishes having been anglicised for the takeaway market. It’s the home from which sprang most of our takeaway favourites, including sweet & sour dishes, the ever-popular chow mein, wonton dumplings, fried rice and noodles.
- Sichuan/Szechuan – however you decide to spell it – is a province in south-west China from which emanate bold, spicy and pungent flavours, that frequently tempting our takeaway tastebuds. Sichuan peppercorns, chilli peppers, peanuts, sesame seeds and ginger are all hot ingredients in the dishes from this region, like Kung Po Chicken.
- Anhui cuisine comes from the Huangshan Mountain region of China. You won’t find it mentioned on many (if any) takeaway menus in Britain, but its dishes, centred on stewing and braising using plenty of herbs and vegetables, appear in gourmet Asian restaurants.
- Shandong (also known as Lu) cuisine is strong on seafood, cooked in a variety of ways, with typical dishes being sweet and sour carp, and the rather famed braised Dezhou Chicken, which is not common on takeaway menus but if you see it, give it a try!
- Fujian cuisine favours braising, stewing, steaming and boiling using seafood and woodland delicacies as main ingredients. Broths and soups are the region’s specialities. One dish you may have heard of is the delectable “Buddha jumps over the wall”.
- Jiangsu (Su) cuisine is renowned for its distinctive style and taste. Not too often familiar in the takeaway sector, Jiangsu is however highly rated by Chinese food fundis. Some examples of dishes are clear crab shell meatballs, Jinling salted dried duck, and Yangzhou steamed Jerky strips.
- Hunan (Xiang) favours hot, spicy dishes with a deep colour, with smoked or stewed meat and fish specialities. An agricultural region, Hunan offers many fresh ingredients which are put to good use. It’s also renowned for its pickles.
- Zhejiang cuisine comes in at least four different styles, originating from different cities in the province: Hangzhou (big on bamboo shoots), Shaoxing, Ningbo (largely seafood), and Shanghai (famous for dim sum) styles. Collectively the dishes are known for their light flavours and mellow fragrance.
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