Shandong Cuisine, known more commonly as Lu Cuisine, is one of the eight great cuisines "schools" of China, and one of the most influential such schools as regards the rest of China (when one places the eight great Chinese cuisine schools on a map of China, one immediately wonders what happened to the rest of China, i.e., one wonders what kind of cuisine is practiced in all of the cities - many of which are major metropolises - that do not belong to the eight great cuisine schools paradigm). The "Lu" of Lu Cuisine stems from the fact that present-day Shandong Province belonged partly to the Lu State, whose capital was, then and now, the city of Qufu during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty.
Not unlike the other cuisine schools of China, the Lu Cuisine school consists of multiple regional styles, or branches, each of which may, in turn, involve local nuances. Some sources suggest that Lu Cuisine consists of three separate cuisine styles, namely, those represented by the major cities of Jiaodong, Jinan, and Qufu, the latter being the natal city of the famous philosopher, Master Kong, or Kong Fu Zi - long since Anglicized to "Confucius" - which gives rise to the term Kongfu Cuisine.** However, the larger consensus, with all due respect to Master Kong, accepts that there are only two separate styles belonging to Lu Cuisine, the styles of Jiaodong and Jinan. Bowing here to the latter consensus, the Jiaodong style is composed of the dishes of the major cities of Fushan and Qingdao as well as those of the Yantai-Weihai coastal area, while the Jinan style is composed of the dishes of the major cities of Dezhou, Jinan, and Tai'an.
The Jiaodong and Jinan Styles
Roughly speaking the Jiaodong style (named after the peninsula that is more commonly known as the Shandong Peninsula today) is based on the readily available seafood resources of the coastal cities that dot the peninsula. Since most marine seafood have a delicate taste, the seasonings used to enhance their tastes must accordingly be light in order not to overpower the taste of the seafood itself, therefore the Jiaodong style is characterized by light and/or mild seasonings (i.e., if a strong seasoning, then it is administered with a light hand).
The Jinan style is similarly heavily influenced by its geographic location as a mountainous area that abounds in the wild game as well as in aquatic resources from its rivers and lakes. Since mountains are synonymous with valleys, the valleys of the Jinan area are rich in fruits and vegetables, both of which provide the raw ingredients for Jinan-style kitchens and restaurants. But the Jinan area is also known for raising specialized livestock such as the pig and the lamb. While Jinan style cuisine has an all-around character about it due to the availability of both wild game, domesticated animals, and aquatic products, the Jinan style is especially famous for its soups and for its use of soups and broths in preparing other dishes.
But both the Jiaodong and the Jinan style have as much in common as they have as separate cuisine styles, which leads us to...
The General Characteristics That Define Lu Cuisine
1 - Lu Cuisine makes use of a broad range of raw materials for its dishes. With modern-day transportation and refrigeration options, the restaurants of Jinan can as easily offer marine seafood as the restaurants of the Jiaodong Peninsula can offer the wild game. Seafood naturally dominates Lu Cuisine. These include clams, sea cucumbers, scallops, shrimp, and squid, not to speak of more conventional fishes. Lu Cuisine makes extensive use of grains, both in baking, in soup-making, and for porridge, or cooked breakfast cereal. It is especially known for its use of fine grains such as barley and millet in its soups, and for its use of oats, wheat, and sesame seeds in its bread, cakes, and pastries. Locally-grown vegetables common to Lu Cuisine include bell peppers, cabbage (including so-called sweet cabbage), eggplant, garlic, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, and tomatoes.
But Shandong Province is also known for its corn, or maize, which is quite unlike the so-called sweet corn of the U.S., though Lu Cuisine has its own "corn on the cob", i.e., whole ears of corn that are steamed or boiled. Shandong corn is said to be considerably starchier than its American counterpart, with a pleasant grassy aroma and a chewy texture. Since peanuts are grown in Shandong Province, they figure prominently on the Lu Cuisine menu. They are also used as a snack, either roasted-in-the-shell or as the usual shelled, salted and roasted peanuts known around the world.
Another specialty of Lu Cuisine is its vinegar-brewing tradition. Shandong vinegar is darker and more mellow than vinegar brewed elsewhere in China, making them a popular export item to the rest of the country.
2 - Lu Cuisine emphasizes taste experiences based on distinct flavor combinations rather than permitting everything to taste of a hodgepodge of "regional flavors". Onions are used judiciously alongside other seasonings to bring forth distinct taste experiences; "with Onions" is one of the most common additions to a dish's title in Shandong Province. Lu Cuisine excels in its soups, from clear, rich-tasting broths to hearty, creamy chowders and other soups made with milk or cream. It is claimed that nothing caps a hearty, creamy Shandong chowder better than a Shandong (Qingdao®) beer.
3 - Lu Cuisine is characterized by its clear fragrances and tastes, its succulently tender fish, fowl, and meat cuts, and its crisp yet tender (al dente) cooked vegetables. Behind the success of this lies a mastery of the relevant cooking methods, whether it be boiling, stewing, steaming, sautéing, roasting, baking or stir-frying. Lu Cuisine is also famous for its snacks, one of which is Wu Ren Stuffed Bun which stems from the Jinan style. It consists of a bun stuffed with kernels/ seeds from the following: ginkgo, melon, sesame, peanut, and walnut. Other famous Lu Cuisine snacks available at fast-food eateries in the province include Stir-Fried Clam, Steamed Vegetables with Green-Bean Starch Noodles, and Chinese Fried Dumplings, the latter of which come in up to 30 different flavors (an American is tempted to call these "Baskin Robbins®" Chinese Dumplings, after the American-based ice-cream company with its "31 Flavors" slogan).
Shandong Cuisine is widely considered the most pervasive, most influential of the eight great cuisine schools of China since its cooking styles are mimicked all across northern China. For example, the Beijing, Tianjin, and Northeastern styles are all branches of Shandong Cuisine. Perhaps even more compellingly, the most typical dishes prepared in ordinary households all across northern China are simplified, or every day, versions of Shandong Cuisine.
Representative Lu Cuisine dishes: Braised Carp in Sweet & Sour Sauce, Braised Sea Cucumbers with Scallions, Fried Mutton Slices with Green Scallions (scallion tops), Braised Pig Elbow, Braised Snails and Fried Oysters in Brown Sauce, Baked Tofu, Braised Abalone with Shells (abalone is a hefty member of the mollusk family with a large round shell, many of which, such as in China, are edible), Quick-Fried Double Fats (a very traditional Shandong dish consisting of pork tripe and chicken gizzards), and Dezhou Stewed Chicken (Dezhou Stewed Chicken is a dish that is prized throughout the country; the chicken is so well cooked that the meat easily separates from the bone although the shape of the served chicken is preserved).
The other part of present-day Shandong Province was under the rule of the much stronger Qi State, which lay immediately north of Lu State, while the equally powerful Chu State lay immediately south of Lu State. The capital of Qi State was the city of Linzi, a suburb of present-day Zibo in Shandong Province. Not surprisingly, the capitals of Lu State and Qi State each lay on the edge of a mountain range, since mountains, with their deep ravines and narrow passes, offered protection from invaders. The entire central part of present-day Shandong Province consists of a mountainous area that stretches from the present-day city of Echeng in the west to the East China Sea in the east and from Zibo/ Linzi in the north to Zaozhuang in the south. The former Lu State capital, Qufu, lies on the edge of this mountainous area roughly midway between Zaozhung and Echeng.
Lu State ceased to exist when its territory was divided and annexed during the latter part of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (i.e., during the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period) by its powerful neighbors to the north and south, just as the states of Qi and Chu between them had earlier partitioned and annexed the Yue State. All of these smaller states were eventually subdued by the Qin State which then became the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, with the King of Qin, Shi Huang, having thereafter pronounced himself the "emperor of China", the first such instance of the rank and title of emperor of China.
** Kongfu Cuisine, according to the reigning consensus, is believed to belong to the Jinan style of Lu Cuisine, i.e., a more inland rather than a coastal cuisine style, yet with certain uniquely Confucian characteristics and also with many "seafood" dishes (aquatic foodstuffs) due to the presence of the rivers and lakes in the area (the Grand Canal, as well as Lake Dushan and Lake Zhaoyang, are less than 50 kilometers from Qufu, while three smaller rivers are within 5 kilometers of the city). A separate strain of Kongfu Cuisine is its banquet catering, but this follows the usual Chinese regime for banquets, which range from the elaborate to the relatively simple, designated respectively as Monarch, Minister, and Father & Son, the most elaborate of which uses the entire gamut of silverware and tableware, serving 196 courses (!) (which sounds like a Chinese version of the 1973 French film, La Grande Bouffe, where Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), Michel (Michel Piccoli), Philippe (Philippe Noiret) and friends tried to eat themselves to death!).
On one point, however, an argument can be made for listing Kongfu Cuisine as a separate style within Lu Cuisine: since it has direct links to Master Kong, or Confucius (BCE 551-479), it represents the oldest established cuisine form in all of China. By association, Lu Cuisine is therefore the oldest of the eight great cuisine schools of China.