Despite China’s more than 5000 years of history, the eight traditional regional Chinese cuisines – Cantonese, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Min, Hunan, Anhui and Lu – which embody the unique flavors of the regions across the country, were not classified absolutely until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912).
The embryo of the country’s culinary tradition dates back to the Emperor of the Five Grains (5000-4000 B.C.), when a few cooking utensils, such as the tripod, were invented. Later, during the Tang & Song Dynasty (618-1279 A.D.), saltiness in Northern cuisine and sweetness in Southern cuisine emerged. Eventually, during the Qing Dynasty, four great regional cuisines (Lu, Sichuan, Cantonese and Jiangsu) evolved into eight.
Thanks to the diversity of climates, geographies, histories, eating habits, and cooking methods across the regions, there are many other subdivisions of culinary traditions, such as Peking cuisine, Chinese Muslim cuisine, and Chaozhou cuisine. In fact, the total number of traditional Chinese cuisines is not known.
The Principles of Chinese Cuisines
China is divided into North and South by the Qinling Mountains-Huaihe River Line. In the North, noodles and other flour varieties are staples, while the South prefers rice, as agricultural structures differ. Moreover, flavours are salt oriented in the North, sweet in the South, spicy in the East, and more acidic in the West. What’s more, the Chinese have strong beliefs in the food therapy.
Take Cantonese soup for example, one of the most typical soups in summer is with the ingredients of white gourd, coix seed and pork rib, which is said to have health benefits and to help the body cope with heat and humidity.
Here are some guidelines to distinguish regional Chinese cuisines.
China’s third largest city, Guangzhou (Canton) is the home of Cantonese cuisine. The most prominent features are light, umami, delicate and refreshing, with fresh ingredients and more than 21 comprehensive cooking methods, such as steaming, frying, stir-frying, braising, and stewing. Typical Cantonese dishes include soup, seafood, noodles, dim sum, sit mei, lou mei, siu laap, and little rice pots.
Not all Sichuan dishes are spicy hot: they can be fish-flavoured, and fried tangerine-flavoured as well. Sichuan cuisine has six culinary cognitions – numbing, spicy, sweet, salt, sour, and bitter, and the sauces and condiments mainly contain sweet-sour, garlic puree, and red chili oil. Classic dishes include hot pot, fish filet in hot chili oil, mapo tofu, and kung-pao chicken.
Southeast China’s Jiangsu province is widely known as a fertile land of fish and rice, so a variety of fish from rivers are favoured. Jiangsu cooks are respectful of ingredients’ original tastes through stewing, braising, steaming, stir-frying, and compounding soups. The most brilliant feature in almost every single dish is the combination of saltiness, umami, and sweetness. Classic dishes include Jinling salty dark, stewed crab with clear soup, and Yangzhou fried rice.
As is adjacent Jiangsu province, fish from rivers predominates Zhejiang cuisine. The locals are addicted to the well-balanced saltiness and umami of trademark dishes are Dongpo pork, West lake fish, and Beggar‘s chicken.
East China’s Min province is a land of mountains and ocean, so the food refers to both, with strong and spicy tastes, and refreshing sauces and condiments packed with umami.
Chili is valued highly in Central China’s Hunan province. Dishes are oily and dark-colored, with spicy, sour and mellow flavours. The most common cooking techniques include simmering, stewing, salt-curing, steaming and stir-frying.
There are four remarkable features of the cuisine in East China’s Anhui province: Firstly, the locals love live ingredients, whether from the mountains, oceans, rivers, or poultry. Secondly, the locals more emphasis on controlling the cooking time and temperatures comparing with other classic cuisines. Thirdly, the top four cooking techniques are braising, stewing, steaming, salting. And finally, food here is seen as therapy.
Central China’s Shandong province is the home of Lu cuisine. Salt, soup and scallion are typical, as is deep-frying and candy flossing. Recommended dishes include braised sea cucumber with scallions, and cuttlefish roe soup.
Western Techniques Applied to Chinese Cuisine
Beautiful variants of these regional cuisines are now popular in and outside of China. One of the most typical innovations is French Chinese cuisine, meaning Chinese dishes inspired by French cooking techniques and presentation.
For example, top chef André Chiang of the now closed two-Michelin-starred Restaurant André in Singapore innovated modern Sichuan cuisine with his cooking philosophy when he came to China to consult for a local restaurant in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province.