Mangoes, mangosteens, melons, star fruit, star fish, abalone, mussels, oysters, whelks, cockles and lobster – Xiamen is a subtropical island in the South China Sea and its foods reflect all the bounty and diversity of the sea and the warm, languid climate.
In order to retain the natural flavour of foods the cuisine of Fujian Province places emphasis on cooking methods like braising and steaming. Soups, soupy stews and soupy noodles feature heavily and are considered an ideal way to highlight the inherent flavour of ingredients. In Xiamen, the local saying 不汤不行 bù tāng bù xíng means “It is unacceptable for a meal not to have soup” but translates literally as “No soup, no go.”
I ate very well in Xiamen, a place that once again highlights the vast regional differences in Chinese cuisine. Here are ten foods from Xiamen, far from an exhaustive list, and places where you can try them.
1. Seafood Satay Noodle Soup 沙茶面 Shacha Mian
Arguably Xiamen’s most famous dish, sha cha main is a base of rich, creamy, nutty curry satay soup with the addition of wheat noodles and seafood and meats of the diner’s choice.
Sha cha mian restaurants display trays of squid, shrimp, oysters, cockles, and baby octopus alongside cooked pork intestines and fat pork which you add as you wish, the final price of your soup reflecting the number of ingredients you add. The result is a heady and fragrant meal with whispers of laksa, which it most closely resembles.
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
About 12 yuan ($2) per bowl
2. Gold Wraps Silver 金包银 Jin Bao Yin
These street snacks have a wonderful name, a reference to the treasure within and without. They are common on Gulang Yu island
, where a steamer full of the plump little buns can be found on every corner.
The outer wrapper is made from sticky rice and arrowroot flour, soft, warm and pleasantly chewy. The inside is a rich, dark mixture of finely shredded mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pickles, sometimes with a little meat added.
Try at: Gulang Yu street stalls
4 yuan (65cents) each
3. Tu Sun Dong 土笋冻 Sea Worm Jelly
How can I describe this in a way that sounds anything other than off-putting?
A popular cold dish with pride of place at every banquet dinner in Xiamen, tu sun dong is made using a short marine mud worm – the ‘bamboo shoot of the earth’ (tu sun 土笋 , actually the sipunculid worm, 星虫). After being washed clean of any residual mud the worms are set in a light vinegar aspic.
Yet for the adventurous eater this little dish is a masterpiece of textures and distinctive and novel flavours – the cold vinegar aspic is cool and smooth on the tongue, and as you bite in there is a rush of briny saltiness then the pleasant chewiness of the worms themselves. The accompanying sauces – horseradish, satay, and chill, with cold shreds of lightly pickled radish, add more layers of flavour as you eat.
Try at: Lujiang Harbourview Restaurant
7th Floor, 54 Lujiang Dao, corner Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
The restaurant is on the waterfront overlooking Gulang Yu, and has incredible views. Thank you to one of my readers for the great recommendation!
4. Popiah 薄饼 Baobing
These Fujian-style fresh spring rolls have different filling variations according to where they originate. In Xiamen they are made with a very fine wheat pancake spread with a sweet red sauce and fine sprinkles of dried seaweed, then filled with a cooked mixture of carrot, radish, pork and sometimes seafood.
Try at: Hao Qingxiang Restaurant – A clean and inexpensive eatery selling local Xiamen foods from a picture menu
200 Hubin Nan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Popiah 4 yuan each
5. Oyster Omelette 蚝仔煎 Haozi Jian
Green shallots are mixed with tiny brown haozi (oysters) and fried until they brown before being surrounded by a halo of golden omelette. The tangy red sauce is optional.
I must admit I ate this famed Xiamen street food with some trepidation because it broke one of my tried and tested Street Food Survival Rules
– to never eat seafood on the street, especially when the weather is warm. But hey, I figured I was working in a hospital all week anyway, so if I ran into trouble help wasn’t far away.
As it turns out, the oyster omelette did me no harm. Was it fabulous enough I would risk it a second time? Probably not.
Try at: 189 Longtou Lu, Gulang Yu. Be prepared to join a long, hungry queue!
6. Zongzi 粽子
No ordinary zongzi, Xiamen’s sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf rises up from the plate like the snout of a sea beast, its severed head resting in a puddle of what are by now a familiar trio of chili sauce, horseradish and satay sauce.
The zongzi in Xiamen are large and filled with a tasty combination of fat pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, shrimp and small pieces of other seafoods. Each one is an entire meal in itself.
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
5 yuan (80 cents) each
7. Peanut Soup 花生汤 Huasheng Tang
Peanuts are commonly used in Xiamen’s cuisine, and locals love to eat bowls of warm, sweet peanut soup. The peanuts are soaked and boiled before being cooked into a thick sweetened soup. Rather bland on its own, the soup is often served with crunchy youtiao fried bread sticks, fried dumplings or steamed pork buns.
Try at: Huang Zehe Peanut Soup Restaurant, Xiamen’s most famous. They also serve local snacks.
22 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
3 yuan (50 cents) bowl
8. Zhan Sanfeng’s Milk Tea 张三疯奶茶
The island of Gulangyu is famous for its beautiful old buildings, its pianos, and apparently also a portly cat called Zhang SanFeng. He has his own milk tea shop there, and his story is explained on the wall outside (transposed verbatim):
“Zhang SanFeng is a cat lives on Gulang Yu, Xiamen. He lives leisurely andcarefree. He acted crazily in his chilhood while he is now thinking deeper. He has many romantic stories. Sometimes he elopes with the dog of next door in Gulangyu a few days. If there is no interval of sea around this island, they’ve already travelled around the world.”
His motto: Be yourself. Enjoy life. Sweet home.
A trip to Xiamen wouldn’t be complete without trying the wares at Zhang Sanfeng’s milk tea shop. The milk tea (hot or cold) isn’t bad – it’s milky, it’s tea, and it has added sultanas and flaked almonds – either delicious or alarming, depending on your viewpoint. There is also milk tea flavoured nougat, and jars of Zhang Sanfeng’s favourite snack – dried shrimp with peanuts.
Try at: Zhang Sanfeng Milk Tea Shop
Gulangyu － main square
or 35 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
9. Mango Ice
The warm, humid sub-tropical climate of Xiamen means icy desserts are hugely popular in flavours of green tea, red bean and purple taro. Xiamen’s mangoes, as big as footballs, are available almost all year round and are one of the most popular flavours for juices and ices.
This delectable dessert is a mango parfait with layers of diced mango in syrup, mango jelly, shaved frozen mango (like a sorbet, made on the spot from chunks of frozen mango flesh) served up topped with sweet biscuity crumbs.
Try at: Ice Leisure
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Mango Parfait 18 yuan ($3)
10. Fresh Seafood 海鲜 Haixian
Fresh seafood is Xiamen’s trademark, and it’s difficult to go twenty four hours without having a shrimp, scallop, or piece if fish pop up in your meal.
Small seafood restaurants and stalls abound, with some seafood available live in tanks (and therefore fresh), and some on ice (and alarmingly, some not on ice). You choose your seafood – shrimp, langoustine, lobster, ten kinds of crab, fish, shellfish – pay by weight, then have it cooked to order.
The seafood is plentiful and the choice on offer utterly staggering, but a word of caution from the head nurse at Xiamen No 1 Hospital:
I asked if she was preparing for the usual winter surge in patient numbers, the same as hospitals everywhere.
“Hah! No!” she said. “Winter is my heaven! Summer is my hell!”
“But why?” I asked. “Everywhere else in the world winter viruses and illnesses outnumber summer’s two to one…”
“Well,” she replied, “Firstly there’s the tourists – they mostly come in the summer, and they all do stupid things outdoors and injure themselves. Secondly, there’s the typhoons – we have many, many of those through summer. And lastly….well, lastly there’s the seafood.”
“The seafood?” I said.
“The seafood” she confirmed. “All those street seafood vendors, no refrigeration, the hot, humid weather. Food poisoning is rife.”
So there you go. If you visit Xiamen in the summer, check the weather report, don’t do anything stupid, and steer clear of the seafood on the streets.
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