Although travelers can try dishes from around China and the globe in renowned food cities Beijing and Shanghai, it is outside these major metropolises where a world of exciting Chinese cuisine awaits the true foodie.
Chengdu, Sichuan Province
Crowned as Asia's first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010, Chengdu is best-known for its fiery hot pot and spicy dishes, which are characterized by the use of Sichuan pepper and are usually layered with salty, sour and sweet flavors. There are also dishes that aren't spicy at all, such as beer-braised duck.
The streets hold more than 100 varieties of street snacks, from savory jelly noodles to "dragon lifting a hand" (poached wontons drizzled in toasty chili oil, pepper corns and green onion).
Chef Yu Bo is a must-go. The high-end restaurant cooks sophisticated Sichuan food with awe-inspiring presentations: abalone on spiced mung bean jelly, crispy ginseng root, and tiny spheres of apple poached in syrup tinged with fiery notes of green Sichuan pepper.
Hot pot is as ubiquitous in the city as the smell of chili. At Zigong Delicious Hotpot, the house specialty tiaoshui wa is a cauldron of fiery chili to which vegetables, noodles or other meats can be added.
For a real taste of Sichuan's signature pepper, hua jiao, spend a morning at the Chengdu Spice Market where the locals sell and buy it by the sack.
Lanzhou, Gansu Province
Synonymous in the minds of food-lovers with hand-pulled beef noodles, Lanzhou also has one of the liveliest street food night markets in China.
Just west of the city center, the buzzing Zhengning Lu bazaar houses more than 100 street food stalls. On offer is a broad selection of hot and cold dishes with emphasis on local Hui cuisine.
No trip to Lanzhou is complete without feasting on noodles at Wumule Penhui, the 2012 winners of Lanzhou's annual pulled noodle competition. The halal restaurant makes noodles spicy enough to satisfy even the most hardened heat-seekers.
Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
The birthplace of Cantonese food, Guangzhou is thought by many as the best place to eat in China. The city of 12 million has a passionate food culture, with equal excitement reserved for the opening of a hole-in-the-wall congee joint and a high-end restaurant.
The local cuisine is characterized by fresh clean flavors, seafood, barbecued meats and the wonderful tradition of yum cha, which is tea drinking accompanied by dumplings and small dishes.
Congee is the way locals love to start their day, and one of the most popular vendors is Ru Xuan Sha Guo Zhou. Here, one can get a bowl of signature seafood congee any hour of the day.
Yum cha addicts are spoiled for choice but the extensive selections at both North Garden Restaurant and Bing Sheng are exemplary. Roast meats are Bing Sheng's most popular order — their roast goose is marinated with five-spice, boiled, air-dried, then roasted by a flame oven to give a succulent crisp skin.
For something more home style and removed from the madness of downtown, head to Ji Cun for steamed chicken and simple farmer-style dishes.
Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region
Lying on the northern Silk Road en route to the trading hub of Kashgar, the laidback town of Turpan has the best Uyghur food in Xinjiang. Dozens of open-air restaurants serve halal fare next to the main bazaar.
Browse the stalls for central Asian specialties like lamb kawop and crispy rounds of nang bread, served alongside less well-known local favorites like banshi (mutton wontons served in a light tomato broth topped with black-eyed beans and cilantro) or lamb, which is marinated in saffron and yoghurt and cooked until it falls tenderly apart in the tonur oven.
The extremely dry county grows China's sweetest grapes with the harvest spectacle taking place in early to mid-September.
Datong, Shanxi Province
Shanxi is home to one of China's great eight cuisines, jin cai, characterized by the liberal use of vinegar, round breads and pastries (known as bing) and hundreds of varieties of noodles.
Located in north of the province, industrial city Datong is an unassuming choice for dedicated Chinese foodies, with a burgeoning number of restaurants serving innovative and elegant jin dishes.
Specialties are the delicate chrysanthemum shao mai, and the unusual yangsheng hulusi, which is carefully coiled shredded bottle gourd dressed with aged Shanxi vinegar, chilies, and finely sliced scallions.
Across town the 500-seat Yonghe Fine Food City gives a new spin on traditional dishes, with must-tries like golden millet pudding studded with tiny orange sea buckthorn berries.
Qingdao, Shandong Province
This is one of China's best seafood cities. There is no better accompaniment to the city's refreshing brew, Tsingtao, than the local shrimp, clams, geoducks, sea cucumbers and crayfish.
At Qingdao's Haidao restaurant, choose the catch of the day from the tanks, request a method of cooking, sit down with a jug of beer then wait to see what turns up.
The emphasis is on preserving the seafood's fresh taste so don't expect a lot of complex heavy sauces. Instead, enjoy gala (local clams cooked with garlic and a little chili), or wok-fired shrimp with scallions.
For those who love to smell brine and hear the creak of rigging with your seafood, Xiao Gang Pier in northern Qingdao is lined with fishing boats selling directly from their decks.
Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province
This ancient canal city is home to huangjiu, an amber-colored rice wine that's ubiquitous in Chinese cooking.
Experience the history of 2,000 years of winemaking and taste aged wines at the Yellow Rice Wine Museum before enjoying a meal at the legendary Xianheng restaurant. Open since 1894, the dining chain is known by almost every Chinese for its appearance in early 20th century novels by Chinese literati Lu Xun.
Xianheng's delicacies include crispy-skinned chicken, smoked red dates in rice wine, beans flavored with fennel, and crispy bream in rice wine.
Fried fermented tofu is also a local specialty, which is available all over town at small street stalls including one just outside Xianheng.
Dazhai, Guangxi Province
Not technically a city, but Dazhai is the best destination in China to enjoy fresh food as well as a stunning natural landscape on one trip.
The village is about three hours from Guilin by car and is at the base of the remote "Dragon's Backbone" rice terraces.
Here, the Yao minorities grow, make and forage everything they eat, including rice, tea, fern shoots, wild mushrooms and liquor brewed from wild berries. Vegetables are plucked by farmers from the earth next to dining tables which overlook spectacular centuries-old rice fields.
Farmer Li's guesthouse is one of many lodgings that serve simple home-cooked dishes according to the season, for example: stir-fried pumpkin with fern shoots, or sticky rice cooked inside bamboo.