Chinese cuisine is the most diverse in the world. It varies from region to region, dating back thousands of years and evolving according to changes in both the environment and the local preferences over time. Its location in the world means that China’s cuisine is influenced by the many cuisines of different cultures, and the ancient Silk Road helped to transport Chinese cuisine to the rest of the world.
While there are many different cooking styles in China, it is widely recognised that there are eight culinary traditions of China: these are classified due to a number of factors, including geography, history and influence. These eight culinary traditions are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang.
Su Cuisine – Suzhou, Jiangsu Province
Jiangsu cuisine is often simply referred to as Su or Su Cai cuisine, originating from the native cooking styles of the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu. While the province is the second smallest in China, it is one of the most densely inhabited with a population of 76 million.
With the Yangtze River passing through and a coast on the Yellow Sea, the region is abundant in freshwater fish and seafood. This is evident in the local ingredients used in many of the most famous and recognised dishes, such as the mandarin fish, deep-fried and intricately prepared, in the celebrated sweet and sour squirrel-shaped mandarin fish dish synonymous with the region.
Jiangsu cuisine is characterised by its emphasis on strict selection of exquisite ingredients according to the seasons, the matching colour and shape of each dish, and the use of meaty soups and bone broths to improve the dish’s flavour. It is these qualities that meant Jiangsu cuisine was once the second largest cuisine among ancient China’s royal cuisines, and it remains a major cuisine in the state banquets of China.
The cuisine in the Jiangsu Province consists of several different styles of cooking from different regions, namely Suzhou, Huaiyang, Yangzhou, Nanjing and Zhenjiang styles.
The city of Suzhou, located about 60 miles from Shanghai, is best known for the gardens and canals that once earned it the nickname ‘the Venice of the east’.
Suzhou cuisine is typically prepared with a delicacy that complements the quality of the ingredients. Broadly speaking, Suzhou belongs to the Huaiyang culinary region in the east, distinguished by its mild climate, abundance of produce and rich culture. The food from this region is recognisable for its selection of ingredients and the way they are prepared, specifically how they are cut, and the impact this has on the final look and taste of a dish. The cuisine is also well-known for utilising its famous Chinkiang vinegar, produced in the Zhenjiang region.
Huaiyang cuisine is widely accepted in Chinese culinary circles as the most popular and prestigious style of Jiangsu cuisine. In fact, it is considered one of the Four Great Traditions (四大菜系) that dominate the culinary heritage of China, along with Guangdong cuisine, Shandong cuisine and Sichuan cuisine.
Lu Cuisine – Beijing, Shandong Province
Lu cuisine originates from the native cooking styles of East China’s coastal province of Shandong. Its history dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221BC to 207BC), becoming one of China’s eight culinary traditions during the Song Dynasty (960AD to 1234AD).
The cuisine consists of two predominant regional styles: Jiaodong, characterised by light seafood dishes; and Jinan, a style that features heavily the use of soup and broths. Although it is less available in the West, Shandong cuisine is often considered one of the most influential styles of cooking in Chinese culinary history.
There are over 30 cooking techniques applied in the cuisine, among which Bao and Pa techniques are the most frequently used. The Bao technique involves deep-frying food in extremely hot oil over a very high heat. Once the food is cooked through, the oil is discarded and seasonings are added to the wok. The Pa technique is to stew ingredients, thickening the sauce with cornstarch rather than reducing and thickening through simmering.
Lu cuisine is typically salty and sweet, tender and crispy. Stewing, roasting and boiling are the main methods of cooking, and an abundance of peanut crops mean that it is a common sight at mealtimes to be served large platters of plain or roasted peanuts in their shells. However, Shandong’s greatest culinary contribution has been brewing vinegars, which are used to pickle and preserve ingredients while adding tartness and bite.
This cuisine is directly influenced by the cities of Beijing and Tianjin. In ancient times, Beijing was the gathering place of the literati, rich businessmen and officials. This persuaded the skilled chefs of the country to follow these esteemed people to the city, bringing with them different cuisines, in particular the cuisine from Shandong, greatly enriching the flavours and styles of the cuisine of Beijing.
The most well-known dish of Beijing is the Peking duck, but other celebrated dishes include mutton hotpots, cold braised carp, hot and sour soup, sticky and sweet Peking barbecue, and plain boiled pork shoulder.
Yue Cuisine – Guangdong Province
Yue cuisine is the culinary style of the Guangdong Province, the southernmost province in China. The province’s capital city, Guangzhou, is also known as Canton. It is due to the number of Chinese emigrants from this city that moved to the United States and Europe during the 1800s that the dishes most associated with Chinese food in the West originate from this area, and this is why most Chinese food in the UK or USA is in reality Cantonese food.
The region is bordered by mountain ranges to the north and the South China Sea to the south, and used to be inhabited by the Baiyue tribes, a group of nomadic people who travelled around depending on the seasons. The dietetic culture of Guangdong has retained many of the Baiyue peoples eating habits and customs, including the ethos that everything that walks, crawls, flies or swims is edible. Yue cuisine incorporates almost all edible meats, including chicken feet, duck’s tongue, snakes and snails. However, due to availability, lamb and goat are rarely eaten, unlike in the cuisines of northern or western China.
Due to Guangdong’s proximity to the South China Sea, the people of the region have access to a plentiful supply of imported food and fresh seafood. As the climate in Guangdong is hot, Cantonese food doesn’t include many spices; the cuisine tends to be fresh, crisp, tender and lightly seasoned.
The unique culinary tradition of dim sum originated in Guangdong, and is intrinsically linked to the Chinese custom of ‘yum cha’ or tea drinking. Teahouses were built to accommodate weary travellers journeying along the Silk Road route. Rural farmers, exhausted after long hours working in the fields, would also head to the local teahouse for an afternoon of tea and relaxing conversation. It took several centuries for dim sum to develop. At one time, it was considered inappropriate to combine tea with food as people believed it would lead to excessive weight gain. However, people later discovered that tea aids digestion and cleanses the palate, therefore teahouse owners began to offer a variety of small eats with the tea they served, and the tradition of dim sum was born. Historically, dim sum was traditionally served at breakfast or lunch, and dishes include barbecued char siu, sticky and burnt red in colour, and clear broths intensely flavoured with meat stock.
Min Cuisine – Fujian Province
Min cuisine dates back 5,000 years and consists of four styles: Fuzhou, which is light and often sweet and sour; Western Fujian, slightly spicy with mustard and pepper flavours; Southern Fujian, which is spicy and sweet; and Quanzhou, characterised by stronger tastes and flavours and an emphasis on visual presentation.
The cuisine originates from South China’s Fujian Province. The region’s abundant natural resources mean that cuisine is rich in high-quality ingredients. The food is influenced by its coastal position and mountainous terrain, and ingredients such as woodland mushrooms, bamboo shoots, fish, shellfish and turtles are used regularly.
The cuisine in this area is known to have particular emphasis on umami taste; the dishes are notoriously light and flavourful.
The cooking techniques from this region are wide and varied, including pan-frying, deep-frying, boiling, baking, stewing, sautéing with wine, simmering, stir-frying, smoking, braising and salting. Fujian cooks are adept at knife-skills: chefs can cut thin jellyfish into three pieces and very fine thread. However, Min cuisine is most notorious for its soups and an expertise in applying various kinds of seasonings.
One of the most famous dishes of the region is a soup known as ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’. The name of the dish is owed to the Chinese legend of a travelling monk who was so overcome by the smells of the dish that he jumped over the wall of his wayside inn and abandoned his vegetarian diet just to taste this spectacular soup.
Xiang Cuisine – Hunan Province
Xiang cuisine consists of the cuisines of the Xiang River region, Dongting Lake and the western Hunan province of China, a region that has the reputation of being a “land of fish and rice”.
The salient features of Xiang cuisine are richness, creaminess and moistness. The food is fragrant, and the use of fresh vegetables that are cooked until they are al dente – that is, not much at all – is common. It is said that the cuisine from the Hunan Province has the saltiness of the dishes of North China and the sweetness of the dishes of South China, alongside the spice and tanginess of the dishes unique to the local area.
Xiang cuisine contains more than 4,000 dishes, and each uses many fresh, local and varied ingredients the region enjoys due to its high agricultural output. Common cooking techniques include stewing, frying, pot-roasting, braising and smoking. An important aspect of the cuisine is the art of cutting meats and vegetables, both for presentation purposes and to enhance the tenderness of the final dish.
Like Szechuan cuisine, Hunan food is renowned for being hot, sour and spicy, with garlic, chilli peppers and shallots used liberally throughout most dishes. However, unlike Szechuan cuisine, the food from Xiang is known for being purely hot, and consequently easier to eat, as opposed to the searing, numbing heat indicative of Szechuan cooking. However, Xiang cuisine is often spicier by pure chilli content than that of Szechuan cuisine.
The dishes of the region typically change with the seasons: during the heat of the summer, a meal will usually begin with cold dishes or cold meats with chillies. In winter, a popular dish is the hot pot, thought to heat the blood in colder months.
Hui Cuisine – Anhui Province
Hui cuisine is derived from the native cooking styles of the people located in the Huangshan Mountains region in China. These mountains are also known as the ‘Yellow Mountains’ and are a world-famous tourist attraction.
It consists of three styles: the Yangtze River region, Huai River region and southern Anhui region. Among them, it is the South Anhui style of cooking that is the most notable.
Anhui is a region notable for its uncultivated fields, mountains and forests, providing the area with high-quality local ingredients. The Yellow Mountains are abundant in raw ingredients suitable for cooking. Wild herbs are readily available and widely used, alongside ingredients yielded from the local area such as mushrooms, tea leaves, bamboo shoots and sweet dates.
The cuisine places a great deal of emphasis on natural foods and uses traditional methods of cooking. Most of the ingredients used in Hui dishes are also used for medicinal purposes.
Hui cuisine is particular about controlling cooking times and temperatures – high, medium or low heat is applied according to the quality and characteristics of the different ingredients and flavour requirements. The food requires skill in sautéing and stewing to achieve a delicate lightness in taste.
Zhe Cuisine – Zhejiang Province
Zhe cuisine derives from the traditional ways of cooking in the Zhejiang Province in China, south of Shanghai and around the former Chinese capital of Hangzhou.
It is recognised for being fresh and light with a mellow taste rather than greasy. It consists of at least four styles of cooking: Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Ningbo and Shanghai. Among these styles of cooking, it is the Hangzhou style that is the most notable: the food is delicate yet richly flavoured, with emphasis on freshness, tenderness and purity of taste. The dishes require an expertise in the cooking techniques of quick-frying, stir-frying, braising and deep-frying.
There are many beautiful folk stories about the famous dishes in Zhe cuisine, such as the story behind the dish Jiaohua ji or Hangzhou roast chicken, also commonly known as Beggar’s chicken. The chicken is stuffed, wrapped in pork fat, lotus leaves and finally mud or clay, before roasting for a couple of hours. Legend has that one day a beggar was so weak that he couldn’t stand up without fainting, so onlookers collected wood and built a fire to try and warm him up. One person took out the last remaining chicken and prepared to cook it for him, but without any conventional cooking tools they were worried they weren’t going to be able to do so. Another beggar had the idea of wrapping the chicken up in mud before putting it on top of the fire to roast. Finally, they cracked open the mud coating and to everyone’s surprise revealed a perfectly cooked chicken whose smell drifted through the entire neighbourhood, drawing people out of their homes to praise the beggars’ cooking skills.
Dongpo pork is another traditional Hangzhou dish that is made by pan-frying and then red cooking (or Chinese stewing) pork belly. The folklore story that surrounds this particular dish involves Su Dangpo, a Chinese writer and artist, who was banished to Hangzhou for a life of poverty. He improved on the traditional pork dish by braising the pork, adding Chinese fermented wine and slowly stewing it on a low heat.
Chuan Cuisine – Szechuan Province
Chuan cuisine originates from the Szechuan Province in southwestern China, and it has four main styles of cooking including Chongqing, Chengdu, Zigong and Buddhist vegetarian.
Szechuan cuisine is renowned for its use of bold flavours; chilli, garlic and the aromatic Szechuan pepper, Hua Jiao (meaning ‘flower pepper’ from the prickly ash tree), are used liberally throughout the dishes. The pepper has a unique taste: it is intensely fragrant, citrusy and causes a numbing sensation in the mouth.
The cuisine receives universal praise for its pleasing, lingering spicy-hot taste, a flavour that is rare in other regional cuisines. This unique spiciness is achieved by a mixture of dry ingredients such as crushed black, white and red peppercorns and crushed dried chilli, as well as Szechuan pepper that is first dried and then crushed.
The Szechuan Province is known as the ‘heavenly country’ due to its abundance of food and natural resources. Although the region is not near the sea, the area farms freshwater fish and crayfish. The ingredients used are great in variety, from poultry, pork and beef to fish, vegetables and tofu. The methods of cooking vary according to the texture of the ingredients, and the techniques include baking, sautéing, steaming and fast frying.
Most Szechuan dishes are spicy, although a typical meal includes non-spicy dishes to cool the palate. The cuisine is divided into seven basic flavours: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty. The food itself is divided into five different types: sumptuous banquet, ordinary banquet, popularised food, household-style food and food snacks.
Chuan cuisine enjoys a reputation as a cuisine that is “one dish with one flavour and one hundred dishes with one hundred flavours”.