While we often refer to “Chinese cuisine”, China is, in fact, a melting pot of different flavours, ingredients and dishes that are influenced by its cultures, geography and history. Here in the UK, our experience of “Chinese food” tends to be focused on Cantonese and Sichuan dishes: but from the sweet and salty offerings of Jiangsu to highly spiced dishes of Hunan, there is plenty more to discover.
The food of China is broadly divided into eight key culinary styles, with each having its own recognisable ingredients, flavours, methods of cooking and signature dishes.
Sichuan cuisine: bold and spicy…
With plenty of garlic, chilli and ginger – and, of course, Sichuan pepper – Sichuan cuisine is characterised by its pungent and spicy flavours. The area produces plenty of mushrooms, vegetables and rice, which form the basis of many of the region’s dishes, while pork, beef and rabbit are more popular here than elsewhere in China. Typical dishes include Kung Pao Chicken and Sichuan Hotpot.
Cantonese (Guangdong) cuisine: sweet and tender…
Huge numbers of Guangdong emigrants are responsible for the popularity of Cantonese cuisine in the UK: a cuisine that is characterised by the use of sweet sauces such as hoisin, sweet and sour and plum. Ingredients such as spring onions, rice wine, vinegar, sugar and salt are used for flavouring, and dishes are often served simply with plain white rice. Traditional dishes such as Cantonese fried rice and sweet and sour pork will be recognised instantly by British fans of Chinese food.
Zhejiang cuisine: mellow and diverse…
Full of mellow flavours and not at all greasy, Zhejiang cuisine (or Zhe cuisine) combines three main styles: Hangzhou (known for seafood and bamboo shoots), Ningbo (plenty of seafood) and Shaoxing, which uses a great deal of freshwater fish and poultry. Some of the mouthwatering dishes from the region include Dongpo pork, which is pan-fried before being braised in wine and soy sauce, as well as West Lake Fish, which is cooked in a sweet vinegar-based sauce.
Shandong cuisine: fresh, crispy and clean…
Shandong – or Lu – cuisine is considered to be one of the most influential Chinese styles, despite its relative scarcity outside of China. Flavours tend to be fresher than in other styles, and Shandong’s coastal location means that plenty of seafood is used. Dishes such as fragrant calamus in milk soup plus Dezhou grilled chicken exemplify this region’s style of cooking.
Fragrant and full-flavoured: Dezhou grilled chicken is cooked with a variety of spices – and the chewier the consistency, the better (Image credit: By 鼎好家常菜 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
Hunan cuisine: rich, sour and spicy…
Hunan, or Ziang, cuisine hails from the Hunan Province, which has an abundance of rice, fish and game. Dishes from this region tend to be creamy and rich, using seasonal local ingredients alongside chillies and sour flavours. Presentation is everything here, with meats and fish cut in a way that not only improves their tenderness, but which makes each dish visually pleasing too. For a true taste of the area, try Hunan Spicy Chicken and steamed fish head in chilli sauce.
Fujian cuisine: flavourful and light…
Light and full of flavour, Fujian (or Min) cuisine focuses on umami flavours and involves a wide variety of different soups: one local saying, in fact, states that “It is unacceptable for a meal not to have soup”. Fujian’s geography includes both mountains and coast, meaning that fish and seafood, mushrooms and bamboo shoots are abundant. Popular dishes include Buddha Jumps Over The Wall – a type of soup with a plethora of ingredients – as well as Fried Xi Shi’s Tongue, which is created from mussels.
Anhui cuisine: stewed local produce…
Local herbs from both land and sea are prevalent in dishes from the Anhui region: an area of Northern China that is full of uncultivated forests, mountains and fields. This type of cuisine focuses purely on local produce and natural foods, and also uses plenty of ingredients that are well-known for their medicinal properties. The stew known as the Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch is one of the region’s most popular dishes. Previously, the region also enjoyed braised masked civet, but SARS fears saw its popularity decline.
Jiangsu cuisine: fragrant, braised and stewed…
In the Jiangsu Province of South China, ingredients are chosen in accordance with the seasons, and particular importance is placed on ensuring that colours and shapes are matched in many dishes. Dishes tend to be light and mellow, and cooking schedules are incredibly precise. Dishes that exemplify the region’s cuisine include Butterfish in Creamy Juice, and Nanjing Salted Duck.
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