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Staples and Main Food Types

"Don't eat to live, live to eat" ---Chinese saying 

From the earliest times, the Chinese have divided their foodstuffs into two general categories: fan (cooked rice and staple grain dishes) and cai (cooked meat and vegetable dishes). This division dates back to the earliest recorded history, with bronze ritual vessels found in tombs from as early as the Zhou dynasty (1122-256 B.C) designed to hold one or the other of these foodstuffs.

Staples and Main Food Types


It includes the seeds of a wide range of plants. The earliest known grain appears to be millet, which was boiled or steamed. This was the staple of the early civilisation in the north of China, probably as early as Neolithic times (7,000-5,000 B.C), while by the Zhou dynasty, rice was the leading crop of the south. Wheat was also eaten in Neolithic China, but played a less prominent role than millet.

Archaeology provides little clear evidence about the vegetables Neolithic Chinese cooked with their pork and dog meat, the earliest domesticated sources of animal protein. Beef, mutton and goat came later, although wild deer and rabbit most likely appeared often on early menus. Fish and a variety of fowl were also used.

It can be said that the basic Chinese diet and means of preparation were in place about 6,000 years ago, although many imported ingredients-some transported over the Silk Road- entered the Chinese larder and new cooking methods were adopted.

A balanced mixture of grain and cooked dishes has been the ideal of a meal in China since time immemorial. The balance lies between bland, boiled or steamed grain on the one hand, and more flavourful and rich cooked dishes on the other. Further balances were sought between the yin (cooling) and yang (heating) qualities of the foods served. The notion of food as both preventive and curative medicine is deeply imbedded in the Chinese mind.

The specific proportion of grain and cocked dishes on a menu depends as much on the economic status of the diners as on the bulk of the calories, with cooked dishes serving as supplementary ornamentation and nutrition. The grander the occasion is the more cooked dishes and less grain. Even today, this tradition is maintained at banquets, where a small symbolic bowl of plain steamed rice is served after an extensive selection of other dishes.


It is perceived as something essential and almost magical. This is particularly true in South China, while wheat showers its blessings over the North, although this division is not hard and fast. One reason the Grand Canal was built in the 6th century was to transport rice from the fertile Yangtze delta region to the imperial granaries in the relatively dry North. And since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), an annual crop of short-grain rice has been grown in the suburbs of Beijing, originally for the palace and today for the military leadership.

Numerous varieties of rice are produced in china today, supplemented by more expensive Thai rice which is available at urban markets throughout the country. Southerners seem to prefer long-grained rice, which is less sticky then other varieties and has strong “wood” overtones when steaming hot.

Rice is served steamed, fried (after boiling) or made into noodles by grinding raw rice into rice flour. It is also cooked with a lot of water to produce congee or zhou (rice gruel), a popular breakfast food and late-night snack eaten with a number of savoury side dishes.

In early times, wheat was boiled like rice, but by the Han dynasty (220 B.C.-A.D. 200) the grain was ground into flour and made into noodles, pancakes and various forms of dumplings, some of the recipes having possibly been imported from Central Asia. It is unlikely the Marco Polo brought spaghetti, linguine and pizza to Italy from China. Although their prototypes existed in China century’s before he was born, there is written evidence of the existence of pasta in Italy before Polo’s left home for the East.

Regional Cuisines of China

A diversity of regional food that was originally quite distinctive can be found in many large Chinese cities. In all regions soups with herbs, seeds, and roots are made, and sometimes several soups are served during a large meal. Appetizers or small dishes called ping poon start most formal meals. Bat dai, bat siu are meals of eight small cold dishes and eight large hot ones. Congee -rice porridge- is served like polenta with various flavoursome or sometimes sweet side dishes. Fan, virtually any carbohydrate, rice, grain, bread, or noodles, and tsai, fish, poultry, meat, or vegetables, are served in as many combinations as there are cooks, although certain dishes have been handed down in accurate, unaltered, and ceremonial fashion for literally thousands of years.

Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of the southern province, Guangdong, is known for its rich agriculture and its pure, fresh cooking. Over the centuries, a great range of natural products have been produced here. Guangzhou has more restaurants than any city in China because of the abundance of fresh ingredients. Rice is plentiful here, along with a colourful variety of vegetables and tropical fruits, from leeches and melon to citrus. Fresh- and salt-water fish, shell-fish, duck, squab, quail and chicken are widely used in dishes of spectacular simplicity-often steamed or stir-fried and served with light, clean sauces that show off the natural flavours and colours of the ingredients.

Beijing in the north, once the seat of the imperial court and famous in the West for Peking duck, is not a rice region.

Ruthless winters and cold northern winds make this area unsuitable for growing rice, so the staple crops are wheat, soybeans, and other grains, which find their way to the table in an assortment of breads, dumplings and noodles. Aromatic roots and vegetables, such as garlic, leeks, ginger, onions, peppers and cabbage are used frequently, and this is the part of China where you are most likely to find beef, lamb and pork.

Shandong and Henan are included in what Westerners generally refer to as the “Mandarin” cuisine of 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 here.

Shanghai, the country’s largest port, is in the northeast. Shanghai is the culinary capital of eastern China, a region known for its mild weather, and abundant freshwater fish and shellfish, seafood, produce, rice and tea. Exquisite presentations and complex sauces, often sweetened with dark soy sauce, are the characteristic of Shangainese cooking, as well as slow-simmered soups and stews of pork and poultry. Rice wine from Shao Hsing, China’s wine capital is a prominent ingredient here, along with vinegar from Zhejiang and ham from Jinhua. In the fall, the local crabs and their roe are so popular that visitors travel long distances to taste them.

Sichaun (Szechuan), modern China’s largest province, is the northwest and its eastern plains are among the most fertile in China. Barley, corn, fruit, potatoes, rice, sugar cane, vegetables, wheat, and tea are harvested here in abundance. Piquant and spicy dishes using onions, garlic, anise, ginger, chillies, and peppercorns are copious. The chilli peppers are an addition imported from the Mediterranean and are only a few hundred years old. Some local dishes are cooked with fresh flowers. Chicken and pork are used a great deal, as are sautéed vegetables. Sometimes the meat is smocked or barbecued. Wrapped dishes are popular as well; bean flour paste noodles, pancakes, and lotus leaves may all be used as wrappers. It is an overall complex flavour that Sichuan chefs strive for. Sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts and cashews are popular here, and pickled, cured and smoked foods are a year-round mainstay.

Adjacent Hunan province produces more fiery dishes than Sichuan and uses more game, such as venison and boar. This may explain why the people who live here use chopsticks half again as long as any found in Asia.

Sawaddi cuisine is vegetarian and designed for certain Buddhists and others who abstain from animal, fish, or egg protein.

Keeping a well-stocked food store of Chinese dry goods, refrigerated and frozen ingredients enable to whip up an authentic Chinese meal on short notice. Stock up on the items below, and all is need to buy are a few fresh ingredients to make most of the Chinese recipes.

Canned Goods

  • Bamboo shoots: mild-flavoured tender shoots of the young bamboo widely available fresh or sliced or halved in cans.
  • Broth (beef, chicken, or vegetable)
  • Coconut milk: can be used when good-quality fresh coconuts are not available.
  • Leeches: fresh are available from July to September.
  • Mandarin oranges
  • Mushrooms, straw: have a delicate sweetness and a firm, meaty texture.
  • Water chestnuts: comes from an Asian water plant and looks like a sweet chestnuts, although the two plants are not related; sold fresh by some Chinese supermarkets, but are usually more readily available canned.

Dry Goods

  • Black beans, salted: Fermented are used to season a number of dishes, especially fish and beef. Sold in packets or tins.
  • Rice wine: Made from glutinous rice, Chinese rice wine is also known as yellow wine –Huang Jiu or Chiew- because of its colour. The best variety is called Shao Hsing or Shaoxing and comes from the south-east of China. Dry or medium sherry may be used as substitute.
  • Cloud ear: A shrivelled greyish-brown fungus also known as wood fungus.
  • Corn flour (cornstarch): fine white powder widely used to thicken sauces.
  • Ginger - candied: has a sharp distinctive flavour.
  • Mushrooms, black: Dried, either dark black or deep brown in colour. Do not substitute with European dried mushrooms, as the flavour is different.

Dried Chinese Mushrooms

Dried Chinese Mushrooms

  • Nuts (walnuts, cashews)
  • Rice, long-grain: one of the most basic foods used throughout china. Long-grain rice is the least starchy of all rice varieties and cooks up dry and fluffy with grains that separate easily. These characteristics make it the ideal rice for fried rice recipes.
  • Sesame seeds: Both black and white are used to flavour and add texture to a number of dishes.
  • Wood ears: dried edible fungi that have a crunchy texture, wood ears are widely available from Chinese supermarkets.

Wood Ears

Wood Ears


  • Bean thread noodles (dried): semi-transparent made from mung bean starch available in a number of different lengths and thickness.
  • Egg noodles, fresh (store in freezer): used throughout China, but most popular in the Northern region where wheat grows more abundantly than rice.
  • Rice stick noodles (fresh): made from long-grain rice flour and soft, pliable, and milky white.


  • Chilli oil: used to enliven some Sichuan dishes.
  • Cooking oil: Blended vegetable oil (but never olive oil) used by Chinese cooks for frying; peanut oil is sometimes specified for its distinctive flavour.
  • Sesame oil: more used for flavouring than for cooking; very intensely flavoured so only a little required.

Sauces & Condiments

  • Black bean sauce: ready-to-use sauce made from salted black beans and rice wine. May contain garlic or hot chillies.
  • Chilli sauce: similar in texture to tomato sauce (ketchup).
  • Hoisin sauce: sweet reddish-brown made of soya beans used to season meat and also served as a dipping sauce.
  • Oyster-flavoured sauce: Made from oyster extract is used in many fish dishes, soups and sauces.
  • Plum sauce: sweet and sour sauce with a unique fruity flavour.
  • Vinegar: Black, red or white Chinese vinegars are all made from rice.
  • Soy sauce: Made from the naturally fermented soya bean is an important ingredient in Chinese cooking. Dark soy sauce is rich and used to add both colour and flavour to many sauces and marinades. Quite salty and often used instead of salt to season a dish. Light soy sauce is thinner, lighter and has a fresher taste; also saltier. Used in cooking, as a table condiment and as a dipping sauce.
  • Sweet and sour sauce: used as a condiment or for seasoning food during cooking.

Cockwise from top left yellow bean sauce, black been sauce, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce and hoisin sauce

Cockwise from top left yellow bean sauce, black been sauce, oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce and hoisin sauce

Spices & Seasonings

  • Crushed red pepper
  • Dried tangerine peel: gnarled, brittle, rusty-orange-colour peel that adds a light citrus flavour to sauces, soups, and braised dishes.
  • Five-spice powder: mixture of five or more ground spices, including star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon and Sichuan pepper.
  • Mustard powder
  • Szechuan peppercorns (farchiew): aromatic red peppercorns best used roasted and ground; not as hot as either white or black peppercorns, but do add a unique taste to food.
  • Star anise: star-shaped brownish black spice with eight points, each containing a shiny seed, this has a pronounced aniseed flavour and is often cooked with beef.
  • White pepper

Wrappers(Store in freezer)

  • Egg roll or Spring roll wrappers: Paper-thin, made from wheat or rice flour and water; available from Chinese supermarkets. Wheat wrappers are usually sold frozen; Rice flour wrappers are dry.
  • Wonton wrappers: paper-thin squares of yellow-coloured dough; available from most Chinese supermarkets.

Clockwise from top: fresh bean curd or tofu, dried bean curd sticks and aduki beans – just some of the protein-rich components of many Chinese recipes

Clockwise from top: fresh bean curd or tofu, dried bean curd sticks and aduki beans – just some of the protein-rich components of many Chinese recipes.



Canton Gourmet is a Cantonese restaurant in Flushing that is famous for its garlic crab, garlic chicken and golden fried rice; located on Prince next to Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.


Banxi, 151 Long Jin Xi Lu; one of the oldest restaurants in Guangzhou: 1,000 varieties of Dim Sum.


Located in Beihai Park, Fangshan Restaurant is the most famous one offering the luxurious Imperial Court Cuisine.

Bianyifang, 2a Chonguenmenwai Dajie, has fantastic Peking Duck roasted in a variety of different methods.


Shanghai Lao Fandian (Old Shanghai Restaurant)

242 Fuyou Lu (near gate of Yu Yuan Garden)

Meilongzhen Jiujia Sichuan Restaurant, Nanjing Xi Lu 1081


Xi’an Hotel is the place to be if you want to have to taste of Shaanxi’s local culture and local food.

Qing Yazhai Restaurant specializes in lamb and vegetables dishes. Especially good are Lamb dumplings.

Hong Kong

Mak’s Noodles – 77 Wellington Street- Great Noodle restaurant has set a standard that others can only strive towards. Come early for dinner because it closes at 8pm. 

Cleveland Szechuan Restaurant, 6 Cleveland Street, Causeway Bay

Yua ma Tei Street daipaidong street food stalls, shopping, and street entertainment.


Lou Wai Lou Restaurant,N*30 Gushan Road, Xihu District.

With a history of more than a hundred years, this restaurant is also known as “the best restaurant in the south of Yangtze River”. It’s a signature dishes cover almost all representative dishes of Hangzhou cuisine.

Our local experts are always ready to create you a hassle-free tour. Get an authentic experience by contacting one of our travel advisors.