Your Complete Chinese Food Guide
Freshly steamed dim sum, stir-fried vegetables straight from the wok, bites of crispy, tender duck, smoky noodles, piping hot soup… the list goes on and on. It’s hard to know where to start with this Chinese food guide, after all it’s a massive cuisine, sometimes so simple and sometimes so rich in flavor and depth, befitting its history, heritage, heritage and place in our world .
While food plays an important role in Chinese culture, due to China’s ancient empires and geographic location, its cuisine has influenced many other countries across Asia. As the Chinese moved around the globe and explorers came and went, their food traditions began to travel across the continent and beyond. Chinese favorites like rice, noodles, and tofu, for example, became a feature of many different cuisines. Today, Chinese food is adapted for both Western palates and South Asian tastes, and its ancient cooking techniques inspire chefs from around the world.
Not that you really need advice on how to eat your way through one of the world’s most popular cuisines, but to make it that little bit better, here’s your Chinese food guide.
An overview of Chinese cuisine in one minute
Located in East Asia, China is one of the most populous countries in the world. It is huge and features a topography of mountains, rivers, forested areas and even desert. The south has a tropical climate and the north has freezing temperatures. All of these factors have influenced Chinese food.
In addition to geographic diversity, religion and philosophy have also influenced the development of Chinese cuisine. For example, in the Taoist diet, food plays an integral role in belief, and certain foods have spiritual, mental, and physical benefits. China is also influenced by Chinese Buddhism and this gave birth to Buddhist cuisine, a vegetarian cuisine that emerged from monasteries. Due to the large number of Muslims residing in the country, Sino-Islamic cuisine emerged. Chinese medicine also affects the way people eat; For example, in traditional Chinese medicine, eating cooked vegetables is preferred over raw ones.
China’s diversity has given rise to regional food variations that reflect climate, geography, history and lifestyle. Before being introduced to the rest of the world, different styles of Chinese cuisine, spices and cooking techniques were born in different regions and still play a big part in the country’s cuisine today.
There are eight regional culinary traditions in Chinese cuisine:
However, it’s worth noting that these eight variations only make up about a quarter of Chinese food, and while the origins of this categorization are unknown, this is the dominant school of thought in Chinese cuisine.
Cantonese or Guangdong or Yue cuisine originated in the southeastern coastal province of Guangdong. It is considered the most commonly served type of Chinese cuisine, and one of the most popular Cantonese dishes is dim sum. This culinary tradition is characterized by lightly cooked ingredients and sauces that are both salty and sweet, and the most commonly used cooking techniques are frying and steaming.
Spices and flavors such as ginger, chives and black pepper are deliberately kept light and only used to bring out the flavor of the food. Visitors used to what’s served outside of China may find that traditional Cantonese food is very different from what they eat at home!
What to eat:
- Char siu: Grilled pork
- Cantonese Seafood Soup: A thick, silky soup made from various fish
- White cut chicken: Whole chicken marinated in salt, which is then poached in hot water or chicken broth with ginger
Located in eastern China, Anhui is home to the Huangshan Mountains, fields and forests. The dishes from this province are rustic and hearty thanks to common cooking techniques such as braising and steaming. The ingredients come straight from the land: Local game, wild plants, herbs and mushrooms from forests and fields are used in cooking and add flavor to Anhui cuisine. If you like pork or tofu, Anhui enjoys both, and many dishes contain these proteins.
What to eat:
- Smelly tofu: Fermented tofu with a pungent flavor that is often eaten as a snack
- egg dumplings: Pork stuffed in an egg wrapper instead of flour
- Li Hongzhang stew: A complex and heavily flavored stew made from seasonal vegetables and meats such as chicken and ham
Famous for its use of Sichuan pepper, hence the nickname, this cuisine originated in southwest China. In addition to pepper, spices such as chili, shallot, and garlic play an important role in this cuisine, as well as ingredients that are preserved through salting, pickling, and drying. A number of cooking methods are used in the preparation of Sichuan cuisine, including frying, steaming, braising, baking and the most popular of all: quick frying.
What to eat:
- Mapo doufu: Tofu simmered in a broad bean and chili paste – an essential Sichuan ingredient
- Dandan noodles: Smoked noodles coated in chilli oil, served with vegetables and pork
- Kung Pao Chicken: Chicken cubes, fried, served with peppers and peanuts
Being on the coast, Jiangsu cuisine uses plenty of seafood (including aquatic creatures you may have never eaten before), but thanks to many lakes, the province also has ingredients like water bamboo and water chestnuts on hand. The best way to make the most of your meals in Jiangsu is with an adventurous appetite: open to the elements and the unknown. Subtle colorful dishes that are not heavily spiced will take your taste buds on an aromatic journey across land and sea.
What to eat:
- Hóngshāo páigǔ: Braised spare ribs melt in your mouth
- beggar chicken: Chicken baked in lotus leaf
- Sweet and sour tangerine fish: Whole fish cooked in a sweet and sour sauce
Located between the mountains and the sea in Southeast China, Fujian cuisine takes the best of both worlds: the waves and the forests. The mountains offer mushrooms and wild herbs, while the coast supplies the locals with seafood. Soup dishes, fermented fish sauces and dishes cooked in red rice wine are key to immerse your taste buds in the culinary traditions of Fujian cuisine.
What to eat:
- Drunk Ribs: Pork ribs marinated in wine
- Local soups: Fujians eat soup with pretty much every meal
Shandong was one of China’s earliest developed societies and set the tone for cooking traditions in surrounding regions, particularly Beijing and northeastern China, where Shandong cuisine influenced imperial cuisine (food for kings).
Developed during the Yuan Dynasty, Shandong cuisine uses scallions, garlic, ginger and red pepper to flavor dishes. Shandong people’s favorite cooking methods include bao (high-heat quick frying) and liu (cornmeal quick frying).
What to eat:
- Dezhou Braised Chicken: Whole chicken, dusted with spices and fried in oil until the skin is slightly charred
- Four Joy Meatballs: One of the oldest meatball dishes in the world
Located in the mountains, Hunan’s natural beauty is breathtaking. The province’s cuisine is marked by the seasons: in hot weather, meals start with cold dishes, and in winter, chili is used to warm the body. In fact, Hunan cuisine is sometimes even spicier than Sichuan, but it’s also known for being acidic and using smoked and cured ingredients.
- Roasted Paprika Pork: Stir-fry made with pork belly, green pepper, fermented black beans and other spices
- Chopped chili: A condiment prepared with vinegar, chili peppers, and salt
- Dong’an chicken: Typical Hunan dish of poached chicken seasoned with chili, vinegar, scallions and ginger
Located south of Shanghai, Zhejiang is a wealthy eastern province along the coast. Zhejiang cuisine includes three styles, all of which originated in a big city: Hangzhou-style (most dishes contain bamboo shoots), Shaoxing-style (poultry and freshwater fish), and Ningbo-style (salty and fresh seafood dishes). When preparing food, the most commonly used cooking techniques are braising, steaming and sautéing.
What to eat:
- Dongpo pork: Fried pork belly braised in soy sauce and wine
- Longjing shrimp: Shrimp boiled in Longjing tea
- beggar chicken: Although it originated in Jiangsu, the beggar chicken became popular in Hangzhou
Have we tempted you on a culinary adventure in China? Or maybe look a little further afield than your favorite food at home? Which dish will you try?
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