A Culinary Tour of the Regional Styles of Chinese Cuisine by Andrew Armstrong
Just like one shouldn’t expect to get the same cuisine in Miami that is found in Dallas, Chinese cuisine features many different styles of cooking. Understanding the main regions of Chinese food can help you better understand the culture of the country. Here are eight of the most common Chinese cuisine styles.
Szechuan or Sichuan
Szechuan cuisine features chilies, garlic, ginger, and peanuts. It’s generally very spicy food, like Kung Pao chicken or Dan Dan noodles. Tea-smoking is a popular technique because the region is very warm and humid. Beef is more common in Szechuan food because of the oxen needed for farming. The meat is tough. It’s either braised or sliced thin for a stir-fry.
Cuisine from the Guangdong Province is known as Cantonese. This style of cooking is probably the most popular version of Chinese food around the world. It features sweeter sauces, lightly cooked fresh vegetables, and seafood, because it’s so close to the water. It’s a mild style of cooking, without a lot of spices and oil. The chef’s goal is to highlight the ingredients. Sweet and sour pork, Chinese steamed eggs, and dim sum are traditionally Cantonese food.
Although Hunan style cuisine is often thought to be similar to Szechuan, there are differences. Hunan cooking offers long-cooked dishes that are spicy. Dishes have more variety than the Szechuan region, because there are more local ingredients available. Common dishes you may have seen on a menu are Mao’s braised pork or oxtail porridge. Hunan cooks don’t use the “numbing-hot” chilies of Szechuan, but often pickle the chilies in vinegar for a hot and sour combination.
Because Shanghai is one of the newer cities in China, it has assimilated many different styles of cooking into its own culinary style. Sugar and soy sauce are important to the flavors in Shanghai. One of the most popular snacks in the area is Xiaolongbao, an inside-out soup dumpling. Chou Dou Fu, smelly tofu, is another type of street food found in Shanghai.
Peking duck is the most famous dish from this region. Restaurants in Beijing that serve the dish tend to focus more on the crispy skin than the duck, but you can’t go wrong either way. For other dishes that go with this style, think fried foods that are served in smaller portions. Jiaozi are traditional dumplings filled with meat and vegetables. The combinations are as endless as the number of cooks.
Because the Fujian province is on the Pacific, this style of cuisine features a lot of seafood, especially soups. The region is also home to many exotic ingredients, wild herbs, mushrooms, bamboo, and sea creatures like the sea cucumber, sea slugs, and sea vegetables. The food tends to be nutritious, and chefs are precise with their seasonings. Flavors tend to be lighter, with sweet, salty, and sour profiles. The emphasis is on food presentation.
The Shandong province style puts an emphasis on keeping the ingredients fresh. It also has a long coastline and many rivers, so seafood features prominently. Although rich flavors like ginger and garlic are used, Shandong cooks tend to be very judicious in the use of spices. They do use vinegar very heavily, enjoying the sour flavors. In fact, people in region often drink a dark connoisseur vinegar as a medicinal drink. Stir frying is one of the most popular cooking methods.
The Anhui province is a poorer, inland region west of Shanghai. The food tends to be hearty, but healthy, using wild ingredients found in the mountains. Frogs, turtles, and other small animals are stewed for the peasant families. Wild mushrooms are also valued for adding flavor and nutrition to boring dishes. Many wild herbs and bamboo are also added to cuisine.
Rice is the main grain in China, and rice farming led to the development of the agricultural culture in China. For the Spring Festival, families make a special New Year’s cake called “gao” made out of a rice flour. Rice dumplings are common in many regions, and porridge made from rice is a breakfast staple.