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5 Funky Chinese Snacks You'll Want to Try for Yourself

JINNA WANG

On my weekly grocery shopping trips, I often pause at the snack aisle and stare forlornly at my options.

Yes, potato chips are fine, and Oreos are okay...but the amazing snacks from my childhood are nowhere to be found, even in the supermarkets of the nearest Chinatown.

Growing up in a small Chinese city, I happily chomped my way through all kinds of tasty snacks. 

I loved visiting the night market near my house, where street food sellers hawked everything from sugarcane to lamb skewers and so many other delicious foods that are less well-known outside of China.

But I never thought that these snacks might not be available in other parts of the world.

So here are a few of my favorite unique Chinese snacks that I have yet to find in New York.

You have to try them on your next trip to China! And don't forget to bring some back to share.

1. 糖人 (táng rén)  - Sugar Figurines

When the daily final bell rang at my elementary school in China, my friends and I would run out of the school gates to see if the sugar figurine man showed up.

If he did, we knew we were in for a sweet treat.

For 1-2 块 (kuài)  (15 – 30 cents in the US)—affordable even for a third-grader's budget—the 糖人 (táng rén)  man created magic with sugar.

We'd stand back, and watch him dip a bamboo stick into golden melted sugar, and quickly twist and shape the gooey lump into horses, birds, butterflies, even people. He had to work fast, or else the sugar would harden.

There are a dwindling number of artisans still making sugar figurines by hand. The price has definitely gone up since my school days, but the magic of sugar art has certainly remained.

A good sugar figurine will be as much art as it is food, but the sweet smell of the sugar usually tempts you to gobble away your “art” in no time.

Chinese language takeaway:

A useful word for describing the price of things is 块 (kuài)  - a common measurement word for money.

In more formal language, "three RMB" would be written as 三元 (sān yuán)  , but when spoken, it is much more common to hear 三块 (sān kuài). It’s like the Chinese equivalent of saying "three dollars" versus "three bucks."

Example sentence:

这个糖人三块钱 (zhè ge táng rén sān kuài qián).  - This sugar figurine is three RMB.

2. 大白兔奶糖 (dà bái tù nǎi táng)  - White Rabbit Candy

As popular as Hershey’s chocolate kisses are in America, White Rabbit Candy is a “staple snack” for Chinese families’ pantries.

White Rabbit Candies were invented in the 1950s, and are a popular treat for Millennials and parents alike.

The white milk candy comes wrapped in translucent rice paper which dissolves in your mouth. The candy is soft and chewy at first, then melts into a luscious sweet cream.

大白兔奶糖 (dà bái tù nǎi táng)  - White Rabbit Candy is so delicious, that it's considered a source of national pride. It was even used as a gift for President Richard Nixon when he visited China in 1972!

Chinese language takeaway:

Here is a useful Chinese phrase to learn for when you want to offer candy to someone else:

我请你吃大白兔奶糖 (wǒ qǐng nǐ chī dà bái tù nǎi táng).  - Let me offer you some White Rabbit milk candy.


Learn more about how to treat someone else with 请 (qǐng) in this lesson: Splitting the Bill (Part 1)


3. 糖葫芦 (táng hú lu)  - Candied Haw Berries

I can't say that I really loved fruit as a child (if you did, you probably liked vegetables too, didn't you?). 

One way my grandparents got mini-Jinna to eat fruit is through these sweet-and-sour treats.

It worked every time.

The concept of 糖葫芦 (táng hú lu)  - candied haw berries is similar to a chocolate-dipped strawberry, but the taste is quite different.

The sugar coating is sweet and crunchy, but when you bite through the shiny exterior, the super sour haw berries are sure to make you wince.

Candied haw berries are a treat high in Vitamin C that originated in Northern China.  They're usually only available during the winter, and freeze well when the temperature dips below zero. Other fruits like strawberries and bananas have gained popularity in recent years, but I still prefer the original.

Chinese language takeaway:

串 (chuàn)  is a measure word specifically used for foods on a skewer. If you love street foods of any kind on a stick, you have got to add "串"into your vocabulary.

Here is an example of how to use "串" :

我要一串糖葫芦 (wǒ yào yí chuàn táng hú lu)!  - I want one skewer of the candied haw berries!


Want to learn more about Chinese measure words? Learn it in a snap here!


4. 臭豆腐串 (chòu dòu fu chuàn)  - Stinky Tofu Skewers

If your preference in cheese is "the stinkier, the better", then you'll be a fan of 臭豆腐串 (chòu dòu fu chuàn).

In a crowded Chinese night market, simply follow your nose to the most pungent scent, and you will quickly find the stinky tofu seller.

Don’t be scared off by the grayish cubes bobbing up and down in a vat of hot oil—those are the delicacies you came here to taste.

Stinky tofu is made by fermenting regular tofu in a brine of milk, dried shrimp, soy sauce, and Chinese herbs. They ferment anywhere from a few days to a few weeks until the tofu turns a blackish-gray color.

The stinky tofu is then fried to a crisp on the outside, brushed with a spicy and sweet sauce, and served hot on a skewer.

Even though the stench can be quite putrid, most people are pleasantly surprised by the taste of stinky tofu. The skin is crunchy and saturated with sauce, and the inside is creamy and earthy, with a cake-like texture.

Tip: Be sure to pack some breath mints or gum, because 臭豆腐串 (chòu dòu fu chuàn)  will give you the worst dragon breath (READ: don't eat it on a romantic date!).

Chinese language takeaway:

Is the stinky tofu skewer super stinky? Here is the Chinese phrase to express how you feel:

太臭了 (tài chòu le)!  - It's too stinky!

5. 毛蛋 (máo dàn)  - Balut

毛蛋 (máo dàn)  – “Balut” is a common snack food throughout China and in the Philippines. It's essentially a salty hard-boiled egg with a twist: there is a developing duck or chicken embryo inside.

The Mandarin Chinese character 毛 (máo)  means hair, or feathers. Since Balut might be cooked and served anytime during the bird’s development, you just might bite into a mouthful of small feathers if you aren’t careful. 

It’s shocking, I know. But if you can get past the idea of eating a bird embryo (or if you close your eyes) you’re in for a tasty treat.

Balut combines the fresh creaminess of eggs and a savory, meaty flavor. It also has a special funk that many people find quite attractive!

This funky odor makes it a popular drinking food, so wash it down with a bottle of beer.

Personally, I have no reservations when it comes to eating bizarre foods like 毛蛋 (máo dàn) , but my upbringing in the US makes me aware that most Americans would find Balut slightly (or maybe completely?) horrifying.

The bottom line: Balut is not for everyone.

Chinese language takeaway:

Are you a brave soul who has tried 毛蛋 (máo dàn)  ? Here’s how you tell other people that it’s delicious in Chinese:
毛蛋很好吃 (máo dàn hěn hǎo chī)  - Balut is very delicious.


Are you as hungry as I am after reading this post? Let me know what snack you are especially excited to try, or tell me about other Chinese snacks you love in the comments section below!


Still hungry? Explore more Chinese food articles here:

Beginner Conversational Lesson: I like to eat Chinese food

Chinese Food Cures

6 Awesome Authentic Chinese Foods You Need to Know About

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JINNA WANG is a freelance writer and translator living in New York. She grew up in the snowy city of Harbin, and now spends many weekends recreating the northeast Chinese cuisine of her childhood. You can usually find her traveling, eating, and writing about both.

Tue, 05 Apr 2016 20:00:00 GMT

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