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 flavours 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. Cantonese cuisine also utilises a number of dried or preserved ingredients as well, including pickled cabbage, fermented tofu, salted duck and pork, and 'century egg', a type of preserved egg. Typical Cantonese dishes include soup, seafood, noodles, sit mei, lou mei, siu laap, dim sum (meat dumpling recipe below) and little rice pots.
- Mix minced pork, shrimp and bacon with finely chopped celeriac, carrots and spring onions, as well as the bean paste, ginger and coriander. Add salt and pepper.
- Cover wonton wrappers with cling wrap before brushing them with water and spooning the filling in and wrapping them.
- Steam the dumplings, preferably in a bamboo steamer, for 8 minutes. Serve with preferred dipping sauce.
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 chilli oil. Other prominent ingredients are Sichuan peppers, garlic, ginger and chilli peppers, as well as mushrooms, pork and rabbit. Classic dishes include hot pot, fish filet in hot chilli oil, mapo tofu, and kung-pao chicken. This classic recipe for kung-pao chicken will give you a taste of Sichuan’s regional cuisine:
- Heat peanut oil in a pan, then take washed chicken breast and seeded, diced chilis and brown together in the pan over high heat.
- Add sugar, peanuts, garlic and spring onions and continue frying.
- After 1-2 minutes of cooking, add rice wine and water and fry until the meat is cooked through.
- Season with salt and soy sauce as desired, then serve.
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. Common ingredients like water chestnuts and bamboo shoots are similar to those in other regions, with many varieties of fish and seafood making appearances frequently. Classic dishes include Jinling salty dark, stewed crab with clear soup, and Yangzhou fried rice (see below).
- Fry chopped spring onions, chilli peppers and a little sesame oil in a pan for 2 minutes.
- Add sesame oil to basmati rice, cover with water, and boil for 15 minutes on medium heat.
- Beat eggs with chopsticks in a frying pan with a bit of oil for 1 minute on a lower heat until the eggs are scrambled well.
- Combine the cooked rice with soy sauce in a pan and briefly fry the rice until a little crispy. Then add the eggs and the spring onions and serve while warm.
As it is adjacent to Jiangsu province, fish from rivers predominates Zhejiang cuisine. Staples used in this cuisine include garlic, bamboo shoots, shallots, vinegar, and especially Shaoxing yellow wine, which comes from the province. The locals are addicted to the well-balanced saltiness and umami of trademark dishes are like Dongpo pork, Beggar’s chicken and West lake fish, recipe below.
- Burn off the alcohol in a pan from a mixture of rice wine, water and ginger at 90°C. Poach the marble goby in the water, removing frequently with a slotted utensil.
- In a separate pan, combine soy sauce, vinegar, rice wine, rice wine vinegar, ginger and scallions, reduce and then add cornstarch to thicken further.
- Gently heat the fish in the pan again if it has gotten cold, then serve warm with the sauce on top.
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. Frequently used ingredients include fermented fish sauce, shrimp paste, bamboo shoots, peanuts, red yeast rice, sacha sauce, various types of mushrooms and preserved apricots.
Chili is valued highly in Central China’s Hunan province. Dishes are oily and dark-coloured, with spicy, sour and mellow flavours. The most common cooking techniques include simmering, stewing, salt-curing, steaming and stir-frying, and some common ingredients include garlic, shallots, green peppers, fermented black beans and, of course, lots of chilli peppers. This stir-fried beef with carrots and broccoli recipe is a broad nod to Hunan.
- Marinate slices of steak with salt, pepper and sherry for 5 minutes.
- Fry chopped onion in a pan with vegetable oil for several minutes, then add crushed garlic, ginger and chopped carrots for 2 more minutes.
- Add the beef and chopped broccoli and cook for 3 more minutes. Finally, add the oysters sauce and reduce for 1-2 minutes.
- Serve warm with boiled rice.
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 or rivers
Central China’s Shandong province is the home of Lu cuisine. Salty, sweet, sour and umami flavours are all prominent, soups are quite popular, and maize, grains, sweet cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, peanuts and seafood are typical ingredients. Cooking methods include braising and 'flash-frying', where meat or vegetables are quickly fried in oil or another liquid at a high temperature. 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.
Blending of techniques and influences on Asian cuisine more generally have transcended any East-West division, however. Cucumbers, although widely circulated in the West since ancient times, originated in India and have made their way into many Asian dishes, like this Asian cucumber salad. Stir-fry dishes and salads used to be different concepts entirely, but now combinations like these are less rare, as with this chicken and shrimp salad. Also, gastronomy and the rise of food competitions has truly brought a globalised, cosmopolitan feel to recipes like this grilled tachiuo, pineapple kerabu salad, scallop crudo & red plum sambal belacan, which takes Malaysian dishes and brings other South Asian influences to bear on them.