There may be thousands of Sichuan, Cantonese and Hunan restaurants in the U.S., but most serve up a bastardized version of the real deal – adjusted over the years to fit American tastes and available ingredients. At a restaurant in the motherland, for example, you’ll rarely see a fortune cookie, let alone orange-glazed or sweet-and-sour chicken.
For first-timers, a dinner in China might be entirely unrecognizable, but curious gourmands will be rewarded with the extensive culinary canon that’s so diverse and complex it would take a lifetime to grasp. Assuming you have a couple of weeks, rather than a few centuries, you can get a taste of the best-known foods by seeking out the Eight Culinary Traditions: Guangdong, Sichuan, Shandong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Anhui.
“From what I understand, [the eight culinary traditions] is sort of an invented concept, since there are more than eight types of Chinese cuisine. But these are the ones that people often talk about” says John Carroll, a Chinese history professor at Hong Kong University. “It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no such thing as ‘Chinese’ cuisine. Within Chinese communities, there are different languages, foods, customs – it’s a highly diverse culture and each region has its own traditions.”
These eight only represent about a quarter of the massive country, leaving out favorites such as spicy Yunnan cuisine. But, despite its mysterious origins and sweeping omissions, this is the most commonly accepted categorization of Chinese cuisine to date.
From the southern riverlands to the northern mountain ranges, each region varies dramatically from the next when it comes to seasoning, cooking techniques and ingredients. Planning a food-fueled adventure through China? Here’s a primer to the eight greats and their delicious idiosyncrasies.
Guangdong Cuisine (better known as Cantonese)
Perhaps the most familiar type of Chinese cuisine internationally due to many waves of Chinese emigration, Cantonese food hails from the southern Guangdong province – easily enjoyed in cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Dim sum is among the quintessential Cantonese dining experiences, but there’s much more besides shrimp dumplings and taro cakes.
“Cantonese cuisine is famous worldwide after being brought to the U.S., London, Calcutta and many other countries,” explains Singaporean-Chinese chef Kent Lee, of Fang Fang restaurant in Hong Kong, who learned his craft from masters in China and Hong Kong. “It was the first to be introduced to the world and was followed by other Chinese cuisines. But there are still lots of rare dishes that many travelers won’t recognize, such as sea cucumber, abalone and different parts of pigs cooked a thousand different ways.”
The Cantonese cooking style typically involves lots of seafood (both fresh and dried), healthy soups, sauces (like hoisin, oyster and plum), barbecued or dried meats (often pork and goose), and subtle flavors. It’s all about subtlety, in fact – diners will rarely find overpowering seasonings in the aged, steamed, braised and deep-fried dishes, though marinades and time-intensive broths often make appearances.
Hugged by both the mountains and sea, the southeastern Fujian region is in the heart of China’s raw wilderness. And the cuisine follows suit: Typical ingredients skip from fresh fish and shrimp to forest-foraged herbs and mushrooms, garlic, bamboo shoots, mutton, duck, chicken, and sometimes even a splash of orange juice for a little complexity.
“Fujian cuisine is special because of its use of fermented products, which have subtle influences from Southeast Asia,” says Lee. “Fujian is also known as Hokkien cuisine and the Chinese food I grew up with [in Singapore] was strongly influenced by the Fujian province through the use of different herbs and spices.”
Reputed for its marinated dishes, soups, stews and stir-fries, Fujian dishes balance savory, sweet and sour flavors. Must-try staples include ‘drunken’ frog (or chicken) prepared in a Chinese rice wine sauce, sweet and sour squid, sea cucumber soup and oyster cakes.
Typically encountered in China’s Sichuan province – in cities such as Chengdu and Chongqing – Sichuan cuisine revolves around hearty stews and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, which have a citrusy flavor and distinct aroma.
“The most common ingredients found in these dishes are nuts, seeds, spices, garlic, air-dried meats, and of course the signature Sichuan peppercorns,” says Lee. “An ingredient that can numb the entire mouth, the Sichuan pepper tastes especially good in soup noodles and some stir-fried dishes.”
Where to start? Beef noodle soup with Sichuan peppercorns is a popular choice, as is mapo doufu (tofu in a bright red chili sauce), spicy Chongqing chicken (served on the bone in a mountain of chili pepper husks), and fresh fish stews (typically cooked in a bowl of oil and a layer of chilies).
A land-locked agricultural hub in south-central China, the Hunan region might be known as the “Land of Fish and Rice” but you’ll find much more than these two ingredients in the eponymous cuisine. Thought to be even spicier than Sichuan cuisine, Hunan food balances ubiquitous chilies (preferred fresh and fiery) with sour flavors, heaps of garlic, shallots, and a peppering of smoked meats.
“Hunan cuisine is known for its stewed, fried and pot-roasted dishes,” says Lee. “There are so many interesting ingredients to sample – cured hams, fermented bean curd [tofu], and so much more.”
Travelers will enjoy the traditional hot pot experience, as well as the rich flavors of dishes like Dong’an chicken (poached chicken with chili and wine sauce), hongshaorou (braised pork in a marinade of soy sauce and brown sugar), and fish head in chili peppers.
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Light, fresh, sweet and colorful, Jiangsu cuisine can be sampled in the areas around the Yangtze River, including Suzhou, Yangzhou, and Nanjing – northwest of Shanghai.
Often the go-to for elite banquets and state dinners, refined Jiangsu cuisine celebrates meticulous cooking techniques, seasonal produce, artistic presentations and highly aromatic dishes.
Soups make an appearance on most menus, alongside rich and slightly sweet sharing dishes – think salted dried duck, sweet and sour spare ribs and beggar’s chicken (baked chicken in lotus leaf).
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Unlike Jiangsu, to the north, Zhejiang tends to keep its food free of frills. Found in cities like Ningbo, Hangzhou and Shaoxing – in the Yangtze River Delta just south of Shanghai – Zhejiang cuisine revolves around stir-fried, steamed and braised dishes, plus lots of seafood.
“A lot of different styles of fresh seafood are used in Zhejiang cuisine,” says Lee. “This cuisine boasts simple and easy preparation – there’s effort in the prep stage, but not much expended during the actual cooking process.”
Though lightly seasoned in general, dishes veer on the salty side and accompaniments almost always include tender bamboo and crispy seasonal vegetables. Meanwhile, mellow marinades are usually pared back – often just a mix of vinegar and sugar.
A sampling of Dongpo pork (thick-cut braised pork belly), Longjing-tea-infused shrimp, and beggar’s chicken should provide a tasty introduction to the cuisine.
Southwest of Shanghai, the inland Anhui region calls upon its vast natural resources – from forests to farmland and even the Yellow Mountains – to create its humble, rustic cuisine. While you won’t find much seafood here, there are lots of surprising wild herbs, gamey meats, berries, and woodland vegetables – often prepared with hearty cooking techniques such as stewing, braising and roasting.
Fresh bamboo makes an appearance in most dishes, as does cured ham, mushrooms and mutton. For a taste of China’s mountain region, try sausage with bamboo shoots and dried mushroom, salted fish, braised pigeon, stinky tofu (fermented tofu), stir-fried foraged vegetables (often including daffodil leaves) and Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch – a stew of leftovers (often chicken, mushrooms, tofu and ham) named after a local politician.
Shandong cuisine can be found in northeastern China – in Beijing, Tianjin and up along the Yellow Sea. The historic cuisine is one of the earliest in China, dating to the Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BC), and tends to take its cues from the coastline.
When navigating Shandong menus, you’ll commonly encounter fresh seafood that’s often deep fried or stir fried to crisp the exterior. Aside from seafood – anything from scallops to sea cucumbers to squid – the common ingredients include pig offal, hearty grains, bread (as opposed to rice), peanuts, eggplant, onions, starchy corn, vinegar and noodles.
“The historic methods behind Shandong cuisine are unique. Dishes are cooked in a three-step process that involves first stewing the ingredients, then frying and baking them,” says Lee. “The food from this part of China has a very memorable, pungent taste because rice vinegar is frequently used.”