The foods of China provide daily sustenance to more than one-quarter of the world’s population –almost a billion and a half people. More people in the entire world are eating Chinese foods than the foods of any other single culture. In all, the Chinese cuisine has more than ten thousand different kinds of dishes. Many dishes boast regional cooking styles and made of regional ingredients, which conform to regional characteristic tastes. There is no better way to understand this cuisine than to examine it geographically.
Some view Chinese food simplistically, that is, by the compass points of north, south, east and west. Others more knowledgeably speak of eight outstanding Chinese culinary styles linked to particular regions. Alphabetically, they are: Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang; however, there are far more regions in China than just these eight. Does each of these divisions have a distinctive cuisine? Most culinary aficionados would say no, but they do give credence to twenty-seven major regional culinary influences, and they include those eight mentioned above.
With roots in early Min food culture, Fujianese dishes benefit from the abundance of wild foods and herbs found in the mountains regions, fertile flatlands, and extensive coastlines. Rice, wheat, and sweet potatoes are culinary staples, and fish and meat are often mixed together to great effect. Fujian dishes are characterized by their tantalizing combinations of sweet and pungent flavours.
Savour popular Fujian dishes such as Braised Meat in Wine Sauce, New Year Money Bags, and Steamed Sea Cucumber Pockets. One of the region’s most famous specialities is Buddha Jumping the Wall, which combines ingredients from the land and sea, including shark’s fin, abalone, scallops, ham, chicken, mushrooms, yams, medlar, scallions, and garlic, to name a few.
In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province (Canton) in the south, rice, vegetables, and fresh fish from its lengthy shoreline are steamed, blanched, or poached and frequently served with the simple addition of vinegar, ginger, scallions, and Chinese parsley. Soy, hoisin, and oyster sauces are among the traditional ones used. There are also many forms of barbecue or lacquer-roasted poultry and meat.
Steamed, baked, or fried dumplings, dim sum made of pork, beef, sausage, vegetables, sweet lotus, or bean paste, and spring rolls are sold everywhere, from street vendors to elegant tea houses. In large hotels and restaurants, elaborate food design results in sculpted presentations of a variety of foods. By contrast, desserts are often simple sweet puddings, soups, or fruit.
Beijing in the north, once the seat of the imperial court and famous in the West for Peking duck, is not a rice region. Wheat prevails in noodles, dumplings, and bread. Duck and mutton or lamb, are mainstays in the diet. Its hot pots, like fondue but using boiling water instead of oil, as well as casseroles and dramatic sizzling platters, are filling comfort foods for the cold winter months.
Jiangsu province is a wealthy area and is not the land of rice and fish but, because of its location on the Grand Canal, has been influenced by northern, southern, and off-shore cultures. Both snacks and main dishes are well known. Steamed Mandarin fish and crab-roe dumplings are two examples. The cooking of Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai generally falls into the category of Huaiyang cuisine, which was developed by the great families of the imperially appointed salt merchants living in Yangzhou.
Huaiyang cuisine is not well known outside of China, perhaps because it rejects all extremes and strives for the “Middle Way”. Freshness (xian) is a key concept in the food of this region, but xian means more than just fresh. For example, for a dish of steamed fish to be xian, the fish must have been swimming in the tank one hour ago; it must exude its own natural flavour, and must be tender yet slightly chewy.
Xian also implies that the natural flavour of the original ingredients should take precedence over the sauce, and Huaiyang chefs achieve this by careful cutting and paying close attention to the heat of wok.
Some of the best known Huaiyang dishes are steamed or stewed and thus require less heat and a longer cooking time than most fried dishes; examples include Chicken with Chestnuts, Pork Steamed in Lotus Leaves, Duck with an Eight-Ingredient Stuffing, and “Lion head” Meatballs.
Shandong and Honan are included in what Westerners generally refer to as the “Mandarin” cuisine in the north. These regions were greatly influenced by Manchurian and Moslem cuisines and are famous for their aromatic lamb dishes. Some feast delicacies such as shark’s fin soup and bird’s nest soup originated elsewhere, but have long been elaborated on and served there.
The cooking of the Sichuan (Szechwan) region in south-west China is one of the great unknown cuisines of the world. It is legendary in China for its sophistication and amazing diversity, but known in the West only by a few famous dishes and its “hot-and-spicy” reputation. Chinese people say that “China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavour”, and local gourmets claim the region boasts 5,000 different dishes. The real Sichuan’s cuisine is unlike any other. Its most famous characteristic is its fiery spiciness, derived from the liberal use of red chillies and numbing Sichuan pepper.
However, hot and spicy food certainly isn’t all the region has to offer; local chefs boast of using twenty-three distinct combinations of flavour, which, applied to a wide variety of raw ingredients, create an extraordinary diversity of tastes.
Try authentic versions of the region’s most famous and best-loved dishes, including Twice-cooked Pork, Fish-fragrant Aubergines and Pock-marked Mother Chen’s Beancurd. Experience the delights of a Sichuan’s hotpot, spicy “Zhong” Dumplings and the intriguingly named Man-and-Wife Meat Slices.
Adjacent Hunan province produces more fiery dishes than Sichuan and uses more game, such as animal protein and boar. This may explain why the people who live there use chopsticks half again as long as any found in Asia.