Chicken skewers in Beijing

Chicken skewers in Beijing

Photograph by Valeriy Tretakov/Alamy

With a population of 1.2 billion people, scattered throughout a country made up of 22 provinces, it's fair to say that China's food is a little more than just spring rolls and fried rice. We've the lowdown on a culinary culture rich with tradition and reveal exactly what everyone's been missing.

Hong Kong

Functioning as a gateway to the rest of China and with its history as a British colony, Hong Kong's dining scene is international and varied, serving everything from regional street-food nibbles to fine-dining French fare. But it's the city's border with Guangdong – the province from where Cantonese cuisine originates – that most influences the local palate.

There's no better way to start your day than with a quintessential dim sum feast at City Hall Maxim's Palace, where a dizzying assortment of goodies are paraded on trollies, the old fashioned way. Making the most of its coastal setting, seafood is a no-brainer, and the best spot to sample salt and pepper-baked abalone is at Sing Kee Seafood Restaurant, a buzzy spot, further bolstered by its live offerings that are proudly displayed in the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant fish tanks.

Hong Kong's egg waffle

Hong Kong's egg waffle

As any local will tell you, a steaming bowl of wonton noodle soup is the ultimate comfort food and while everyone has their personal preference, try out the Wing Wah Noodle Shop, where the all-important ratio between the minced pork and shrimp contained in the dumplings is just right.

Finish off by wandering down King's Road in North Point, where you'll find Lee Keung Kee, a stall that specialises in gai daan jai – or the Hong Kong egg waffle – a nostalgic childhood treat, best eaten on the street, of course.

Must try: Wing Wah wonton noodles

Macau

Better known as the Las Vegas of Asia, Macau wasn't always the excessive deluge of glitzy casinos, colossal hotels and extravagant malls it is today. A Portuguese colony for over four centuries and once an important trading port, the region has developed a unique culture that's a blend of its Southern Chinese roots and continental history, that expresses itself in everything from the Asian-inflected European architecture down to the cuisine.

Largely based on Portuguese fare, it uses spices and ingredients from Africa, India and Southeast Asia picked up during maritime travels, combined with traditional Chinese culinary techniques. The best restaurant to tick all the Macanese food boxes is Riquexo, a cheap and cheerful family café.

Make sure you order minchi, a savoury minced pork dish, or the bacalhau a bras, salt cod cooked with scrambled egg. The most popular local snack, however, is as simple as a deep-fried pork chop served in a bun and while there's usually a queue that snakes around the corner at Tai Lei Loi Kei (literally 'pork chop bun café'), it's definitely worth the wait. Head to the beach and Fernando's for a buzzy, fun authentic Portuguese menu, and of course, make sure you do not go home without popping by the legendary Lord Stow's Bakery for one (or two) of its world famous pastels de nata, the legendary Portuguese-style egg tarts.

Must try: the egg tarts at Lord Stow's Bakery

Foshan

It doesn't get more real than in Foshan where, for non-natives, it's tricky enough to find the location of a restaurant, let alone to find pictures on its menu. A sprawling industrial metropolis in China's southern Guangdong province – best known for its furniture production – Foshan is often considered the little brother of Guangzhou, which is a mere 30-minute ride away on the metro. And while its cuisine falls under the general Cantonese umbrella, it is more accurately influenced by Shunde, a district within the city, where the food is widely regarded as the precursor to Cantonese fare as we know it today.

Foshan's seafood

Foshan's seafood

Of course, the usual suspects such as dim sum and wonton make the hit list, but the city also has its own specialties worth a nibble. Taking advantage of its location on the Pearl River Delta, freshwater fish is a common menu staple – usually served steamed in a broth at the table – along with dairy-based dishes such as sautéed fresh milk topped with shrimps, or desserts such as the custard-like double layer milk or sweet sago pudding in winter.

The best spot to sample all of these dishes under one roof is at Lingnan Tiandi, a planned development project built to preserve the city's artistic traditions but also a social hub with a plethora of restaurants. If the language barrier gets too much, head to any of the western hotel brands, where the dining rooms serve bona fide local dishes. And don't forget to pick up a pack of Manggong cakes from the Heji Biscuits Industry Corporation before you go, as a souvenir.

Must try: sautéed fresh milk topped with shrimps

Guangzhou

Once known as Canton, Guangzhou is the capital of China's southern Guangdong province. Its history as a trading port has resulted in the amalgamation of various cooking styles and ingredients – both regional and international – to form Cantonese food as we know it today. The best-known Chinese regional food in the west, it has developed something of a bad rap, with the common high street takeaway serving an adapted, average version, liberally doused in corn starch and MSG.

The real deal however, is anything but; clear, natural and fresh flavours that reflect the region's rich agriculture are abundant. It's true that Cantonese cuisine will comprise anything that moves, so if you're going to get into the nitty-gritty, it is best to approach with an open mind and a strong stomach.

Cantonise food comprises anything that moves – it's best to approach with an open mind and a strong stomach

First up, head to Bing Sheng in Zhujiang New Town. This local favourite serves up exotic offerings such as sea cucumber and shark fin soup, but for the faint-hearted, go for the barbecued roast pork; the crispy skin and melt-in-your-mouth meat mean that you simply can't go wrong. Next, suck on some chicken feet at Guangzhou Restaurant, the city's oldest dim sum haven, or take your time plucking out the meat from the freshest crabs at East Ocean Seafood Restaurant. For those with a sweet tooth, make sure you end up at Baihua Dessert Store, to slurp up a sweet bowl of red bean soup.

Must try: crispy barbecued roast pork at Bing Sheng

Beijing

Unlike the temperate climes to the south, where rice is grown in abundance, Beijing's food has been shaped around the chilly northern temperatures where wheat-based staples from hand-pulled noodles to comforting dumplings make for hearty tummy warmers.

Of course, there's no escaping the city's most famous dish: Peking roast duck. Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, eat it served in a paper-thin pancake with cucumbers, spring onions and plum sauce. Where to try it? Beijing stalwart Quanjude. The type of restaurant to have its own Wikipedia page, it's not exactly a hidden gem, but as the city's oldest and most famous roast duck joint, it's certainly worth a visit.

Afterwards, meander down Wangfujing snack street, where the live scorpions wriggling on skewers ready to be grilled might not take your fancy, but steaming crispy flatbreads filled with spring onions will. Finally, slurp a bowl of zhajiangmian – noodles topped with minced pork cooked in yellow-soybean paste – at Yaoji Chaogan, or head to Yang Fang for lamb hotpot and choose from a selection of raw vegetables and lamb to cook in a bubbling pot of soup at your table.

Must try: Quanjude's Peking roast duck

Dim sum in Shanghai

Dim sum in Shanghai

Shanghai

China's most populous city, Shanghai has blossomed over the past decade or so, to not only boast an impressive skyline with the tallest building in China, but to become a cultural hub that has shaped the local art and design worlds.

This, in turn, has influenced the dining scene, motivating international industry bigwigs, including Jason Atherton, to set up shop, with whispers that the Michelin Guide's first Chinese stopover will be in the city. And while western fare has a certain amount of cachet for the affluent, local food has its own merits, not least for its distinct sweet flavours and light, mellow palate.

Start with a visit to A Da Cong You Bing, a backstreet hole-in-the-wall shop where Mr Wu churns out deliciously crisp scallion pancakes to queuing locals. For lunch, head to Old Jesse on Tianping Lu, a shabby eatery that serves tasty Shanghai classics such as braised pork shoulder. Xiaolongbao – delicate soup-filled pork dumplings – are not to be missed at Din Tai Fung, and to end the day take a stroll down Shouning Lu, the city's food street that comes alive at night. If you're visiting between October and December, don't miss the hairy crab, a regional delicacy.

Must try: xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung.