Grains form the main staples of the Chinese diet, with rice being the most popular and widely consumed food. You will often find soups, consisting of a broth with numerous vegetables, meat or tofu inside the soup. However, you should expect the food to be quite different to your local Chinese takeout, and regionally, the food will vary substantially within China itself.
In Beijing, you will find a wide selection of cuisine, testament of just how cosmopolitan the city has become. From fast food joints to some of the most famous and delicious food from everywhere in China, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Broadly speaking, there are Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese cuisine.
The Guangdong province (including Hong Kong) are known for their fine seafood and rice dishes, among a wide variety of light and fresh foods. Cantonese food is only lightly seasoned in order to preserve the original flavours of the vegetables and meats, and is therefore not known for strong flavours.
Popular and internationally renowned Cantonese dishes include Dim Sum (dumplings) and Char Siu (barbecued pork).
The abundance of fresh vegetable and grains in the Sichuan region make for a slightly wider range of ingredients than found in other typical Chinese cuisines – such as the use of beef and rabbit, which are not ordinarily consumed among the other regions.
Sichuan dishes are known for their liberally applied flavourings such as chilli, garlic and pepper resulting in pungent hot, spicy and peppery flavours. Sichuan dishes also often include the use of peanuts.
Popular dishes include Hot & Sour Soup, Ants Climbing a Tree and Kung Pao Chicken.
Jiangsu cuisine is known for its sweet sauces and glazes, such as those found in ‘sweet and sour’ dishes. Jiangsu is notably more colourful and visually striking that other Chinese cuisines, and is often prepared with great precision in order to maximise the visual effect.
Jiangsu cuisine is often largely seafood based, including some of the lesser known seafood varieties.
Popular dishes include Sweet & Sour Mandarin Fish and Braised Meat Balls in Brown Sauce.
Mellow flavours and fresh, al-dente textures dominate Zhejiang cuisine. Zhejiang cuisine is often likened to Japanese food for its use of crispy and seasonal vegetables, and salty broths. Zhejiang cuisine is very rarely oily.
Popular dishes include Dongpo Pork and Beggar’s Chicken.
Fujian Province is known for great seafood and soups and the precise use of invigorating but not tongue numbing spices, and umami-rich ingredients. Using a wide variety of delicacies from the sea and mountains gives Fujian dishes their distinctive flavours. One saying in the region suggests “It is unacceptable for a meal to not have soup”.
Typical dishes might include Buddha Jumps Over the Wall and Fragrant Snails in Wine.
If you like Sichuan food, you’ll probably like Hunan food too since it is even hotter. For people who are sensitive to Sichuan peppercorns it is even more delicious because they don’t use the mouth numbing ingredient.
Thanks to the areas rich agricultural traditions, there are a broad range of vegetables and herbs used in the Hunan cuisine, along with the use of smoked and cured goods.
Typical Hunan dishes include Red Braised Pork Belly, Changsha-Style Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup and Cured Ham with Cowpeas.
The mountainous and inland Anhui region is largely similar to other mountain cuisines – that is, heart warming concoctions of inexpensive and/or wild plants and animals.
Typical dishes include generally non-offensive Egg Dumplings, and the perhaps questionable Stinky Tofu and Hairy Tofu.
Shandong was one of the first civilized areas, and it set the pattern for northern styles of cooking. With a long coast, seafood is its forte.
They preserve the original taste of the seafood by using simple ingredients and braising, and they like vinegar and salt. Unlike southern cuisines, they serve much more wheat and maize based accompaniments.
Shandong is also known for its complex vinegar, developed with unique brewing methods over centuries, and the use of the vinegar in its dishes.
Typical Shandong dishes include Braised Intestine in Brown Sauce, Cuttlefish Roe Soup and Braised Sea Cucumber.
Pilot’s Chinese Recipes
Main image: Seafood Noodle Soup, Joe Loong, Flickr Creative Commons