If you only ever ate Chinese food from the multitude of Chinese takeaways and buffet restaurants that exist in the West, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Chinese food is only ever sweet, sticky, crispy and always served with water chestnuts and/or seaweed. You’d also be forgiven for assuming that fortune cookies and sesame prawn toast are in abundance in the PRC. Well, they’re not. In fact, when one eventually makes it to China, it can be quite a shock to see the enormous variations in regional cuisines: from hot-pot to barbeque, soups to cold appetizers, baked meats to stewed vegetables, spiced kebabs to flatbreads, a whole galaxy of stir-fried things and dumplings, be they fried, steamed, boiled or dunked in soup. Chinese people of different regions protect, praise and promote ‘their’ cuisine with a territorial, almost military fervour.
Laying down boundaries
If lines were to be drawn in the sand, the first would be across China’s girth, from West to East. This represents the ‘North-South’ divide, which arguably is prevalent in most countries, based on politics, dialects, beliefs, and other such whimsical nuances. But in China, it’s based on something much more crucial: food! “Them up there” have mainly wheat-based diets (i.e. noodles), whereas “Those down there” subsist on diets mainly consisting of rice. This divide has been present since time immemorial, and it’s still common to hear the question "Do you like rice or noodles?" As a foreigner, I’d never really given it much thought before, but to Chinese people, it has a deeper significance than mere preference. The south of China, with its humid weather, fertile red soils and high precipitation levels, is perfect for cultivating rice. The north, however, is arid, and the dusty yellow soil here can only support hardy crops like wheat or sorghum, perfect for making noodles.
From this broad distinction, Chinese cuisine can be further fragmented into almost countless sub-groups, but for the purposes of brevity, here we shall outline the main four schools of culinary tradition.
1) Lu 鲁 (Shandong)
Due to its proximity to the sea, a staple of Lu cuisine is seafood, and using fresh, simple ingredients to create clean, uncomplicated flavours. Lu is the oldest school of Chinese cuisine and encompasses Shanxi province, which is noted for its hearty noodle dishes and use of vinegar. Indeed, the vinegar of Shandong and Shanxi is considered so fine it can be enjoyed as a delicacy all on its own! China’s Dongbei (North-East), Beijing and Tianjin cuisines all fall under the Lu umbrella, and this also encompasses opulent Chinese Imperial cuisine (宫廷菜) and aristocrat cuisine (官府菜), which arose during the Ming and Qing dynasties as a result of Imperial officials residing in Beijing and bringing with them their private chefs (from all over China). The emphasis here was on presentation: exquisitely presented dishes using very rare or expensive ingredients and complicated cooking procedures. It can still be enjoyed in the capital these days, with Peking roast duck (北京烤鸭) being a prime example of Lu cuisine’s elaborate preparation techniques.
2) Su 苏 (Jiangsu)
Su cuisine covers the inland region just south of Lu, stretching up to Hubei and down to Zhejiang. Another coastal cuisine, fish and seafood feature heavily, as does pork. Emphasis is placed on texture and pairing in Su cuisine; dishes are ‘softer’ than in other cuisines, and the use of fresh, seasonal herbs and vegetables is prominent. They like to pickle things here, so your baozi (包子, steamed buns) may be filled with sour beans or vegetables, and suan cai yu (酸菜鱼, fish in sour vegetable broth) is a longstanding favourite of Su cuisine fans. Like Lu cuisine, you will seldom find spicy dishes. Preference is on sweet, well-rounded flavours, and often dishes centre around just one main ingredient which is embellished carefully with ingredients that complement it. The most famous Su dish — and allegedly one of Chairman Mao’s faves—is Hongshao Rou (sometime known as Dongpo Rou), big fatty cubes of pork belly cooked in a thick, sweetened soy sauce.
3) Yue 粤 (Cantonese)
Of the ‘big four’, this is the cuisine that Westerners are most savvy with outside of China due to the huge proportion of overseas Chinese originating from Guangdong/Hong Kong. They took with them their famous culinary skills and the typical Cantonese, or Yue cuisine, morphed to suit local tastes. Its roots can still be traced back to Guangdong though. Rest assured: your egg foo yung, chow mein and chop suey were all once created in family kitchens in China’s coastal south.
There’s a Chinese saying that in Guangdong ‘they’ll eat everything with legs, except tables.’ While this may be a somewhat crass generalization, it is true that you can find almost any part of any animal (or insect!) on menus around the region, although lamb is still rare, being cultivated mainly in North China. Because of this, and as a result of increased interaction with Western nations, Yue cuisine has adopted a multitude of cooking styles to suit each dish, and the sheer variety on display can sometimes be staggering. Flavours are complex without being too heavy, and salty and sweet flavours are preferred over anything too spicy or sour.
4) Chuan 川 (Sichuan)
Sichuan cuisine has already made a name for itself (usually under the older transliteration of ‘Szechwan’) in the West as being on the spicier side, but nothing can prepare you for the mouth-numbing, sweat-inducing, gut-wrangling fiery intensity of Sichuanese hotpot! Chuan cuisine is renowned for the combination of flaming hot red peppers that adorn most dishes and for the bizarre mouth-numbing properties of the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒) that are unique to the region. Eating Sichuan or Chongqing hotpot is an event in itself. A broth made up of soup stock, chillis and Sichuan pepper is placed over a flame, then you add whatever ingredients you desire, including vegetables, meats, greens and tofu, cooking the ingredients yourself. “The spicier it is, the better!” as the saying goes, but just make sure you’ve got nothing important to attend to the following day, because you’ll find that a large part of it will be spent clutching your stomach and writhing in pain.
Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁) is of Sichuanese origin, although Western versions are invariably watered-down. Chuan cuisine is one of the all-time favourites in China, and restaurants serving Chuan food can be found in practically every city, town and village.
Of course, this article only includes four of the major cuisines of China so far. To learn more about all the other wonderful cuisines, stay tuned for the second article of this two-part series (coming soon)!
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Keywords: eight Chinese cuisine different types of Chinese cooking four schools of Chinese cuisine
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