A 5,000 year-old food culture
To declare a love of ‘Chinese food’ is a bit like remarking you enjoy European cuisine. What does the latter mean? It encompasses the pickle and rye diet of Scandinavia, the sauce-driven indulgences of French cuisine, the pastas of Italy, the pork heavy dishes of Bavaria as well as Irish stew and Spanish paella. Chinese cuisine is every bit as diverse as the list above.
China, with its 1.4 billion people, has a topography as varied as the entire European continent and a comparable geographical scale. Its provinces and other administrative areas (together totalling more than 30) rival the European Union’s membership in numerical terms.
China’s current ‘continental’ scale was slowly pieced together through more than 5,000 years of feudal warfare, uprisings, invasions and subsequent peace treaties. This is why remarkable differences still exist across provinces in terms of language, local customs and, naturally enough, cuisine.
So where should a budding Chinese food enthusiast begin? Fortunately, there are general rules of thumb to follow. Rice is the main staple in southern China, where the warmer and wetter climate is conducive for its growth. On the contrary, flour-based dumplings and noodles are favoured in the drier, colder climates in northern China. Imported spices are generously used in the western areas of Xinjiang and Gansu that sit on China’s ancient trade routes with Europe, while yak fat and iron-rich offal are favoured by the nomadic farmers facing harsh climes on the Tibetan plains.
For a more handy simplification, Chinese food experts have identified four main schools of Chinese cooking termed the Four “Great” Cuisines of China. They are delineated by geographical location and comprise Shandong cuisine or lu cai, to represent northern cooking styles; Sichuan cuisine or chuan cai for the western regions; Huaiyang cuisine to represent China’s eastern coast; and Cantonese cuisine or yue cai to represent the culinary traditions of the south.
Cantonese cooking, or yue cai, is the most visible strand of Chinese cuisine around the world today, thanks in large part to early emigrants from the port cities of southern Guangdong province and neighbouring Hong Kong and Macau, who set up Chinese restaurants when they made their homes in the West.
Guangdong is a largely coastal province by the South China Sea and its (historically) more global-minded trade-focused residents have had better access to imported premium ingredients and a generous supply of fresh seafood. Its cuisine is defined by natural and light flavours that keep the spotlight on their purity.
Vegetables are served bright and crisp, fish and seafood are often steamed, and meats are either roasted or else boiled in clear soup to accentuate their natural flavours without leaving diners with a greasy aftertaste. A signature of Cantonese cooking is the presence of wok hei, or wok’s breath. It is a charred smoky flavour achieved by quickly wok-frying ingredients at ultra-high temperatures.
Popular dishes include dim sum, or little morsels of food typically served steamed in bamboo baskets with tea for breakfast or lunch; char siu, or roasted pork with a honeyed, reddish glaze; and tang or clear broths flavoured with dried seafood, medicinal herbs and bones of meat and poultry.
Fresh herbs rarely feature. If they must, Cantonese chefs prefer to use rice vinegar and salted and sun-dried seafood to accentuate a dish, rather than a heavy hand with spices. Another hallmark of the cuisine is the array of condiments such as hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, plum sauce, sweet and sour and even Worcestershire sauce that are served as dipping sauces to complement the food rather than to mask its taste.
The Cantonese are known for their adventurous palates when it comes to their selection of ingredients, so much so that an old joke prescribes that they will “eat anything that has four legs other than a table, anything that flies other than an airplane, and anything that swims other than a submarine”. Insects, bird’s nest (harvested from saliva strands in swallow nests), less premium meats such as pigeon and snake, and off-cuts and offal including animal feet, testicles and brains are found on menus alongside pricey delicacies such as abalone and lobster. You could say that the Cantonese championed nose-to-tail dining long before the concepts became culinary trends in the West.
There’s much more to Sichuan cuisine, or chuan cai, than the bold flavours and fiery levels of spice it has achieved renown for. In fact, two-thirds of the dishes from this southwestern province of China are delicate and non-spicy.
From sweet to sour, brining to pickling, the diverse array of flavours and techniques used in its cooking is a reflection of the region’s uneven topography. Sichuan is also home to 1,300 rivers and comprises one of China’s larger basins.
According to historians, chillis were not actually used in China until New World traders introduced them in the 16th century. The chillis quickly found their place in Sichuan cuisine as a balance to the tongue-numbing hua jiao, or Sichuan peppercorns, which were already iconic to the cuisine.
Another lesser known fact: the pinkish-red Sichuan peppercorns are not technically from the pepper family, but are instead dried berries from the Chinese prickly ash bush. Besides their ability to cause a unique, tingling sensation of numbness in the mouth, they are also intensely fragrant with subtle notes of citrus.
Garlic, ginger and peanuts are necessities in larders in Chengdu and Chongqing, the latter once part of Sichuan province before it was spun off as a provincial-level municipality. The same goes for Sichuan doubanjiang, an oil-based umami-rich sauce made with chilli and fermented broad beans (or yellow soybeans) often called the “soul of Sichuan cuisine”, particularly when they are of the prized variety from the county of Pixian.
It is often said that the true test of skill for a cook in Sichuan is if all seven flavours – spicy, sour, salty, sweet, bitter, tongue-numbing and aromatic – can be detected in the same dish.
Shandong cuisine, or lu cai, may not be as widely recognised outside of China as Cantonese or Sichuan cooking, but it is considered the most storied and influential within the country. It was once the preferred cuisine of the royal court and has the longest history among the Four Great Cuisines. Some have claimed that the origins of Shandong cuisine date back to 220 BC.
As one of the earliest civilised regions in China and a key cultural centre – it is the homeland of the father of Chinese philosophy and thought, Confucius – Shandong and its cooking traditions were often held as a revered model for Beijing, Tianjin and other parts of northern and northeastern China. However, the cooking style is less commonly found in southern China and other parts of the country, even today.
The province sits on the border between the temperate north and the semi-tropical south, so the cuisine can be thought of as a middle ground between the hearty and heavy cooking of Northern Chinese cuisine and the lighter flavours in the south. As far as native ingredients go, Shandong could not be better placed for them. Wheat, corn, millet and other temperate grains are rendered into wheat noodles, porridge, dumplings and steamed pastries and enjoyed as staples in many meals.
Due to Shandong’s long coastline, fish and shellfish feature as central ingredients in many local dishes, with particular emphasis on keeping the seafood’s freshness and natural briny flavours intact.
The province’s location on the lower reaches of the Yellow River, where the mild climate is conducive to fruit and vegetable production, also helped Shandong earn its nickname as “one of the world’s three largest vegetable gardens”. Vegetables include Zhangqiu green onions, Cangshan garlic, Jiaozhou cabbage, Weifang radish; add to this Shouguang leek fruits such as the Yantai apple and Laiyang snow pear which grow in abundance and are prized across the country and abroad.
Finally, the area has a long tradition of brewing. Over a hundred producers have over a hundred different methods of brewing sweet bean paste, vinegars and liquors, which are used in cooking or sipped for their medicinal properties.
Some of the most famous Chinese cooking techniques today, such as pa, or frying food with a coating of cornstarch; da fan shao or tossing the wok with a single flick of the wrist so the ingredients within flip 180 degrees; and red braising or stewing food in a casserole with caramelised sugar, first originated in Shandong cuisine.
Huaiyang is derived from the cooking styles of the traditionally affluent regions around the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze rivers.
It is the most respected of the cuisines to emerge from Jiangsu on China’s east coast – though it predates the creation of that province by many centuries (Jiangsu cuisine, a little confusingly, is a more modern term that often gets used somewhat interchangeably with Huaiyang).
Huaiyang is a popular choice for officials who need to impress at government banquets, and was served at many milestone meals in the history of modern China, such as the very first state feast at the Beijing Hotel to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and at the celebratory meal that marked the country’s 50th anniversary. And for good reason: the mark of Huaiyang cuisine is its emphasis on precision, whether in its aroma, in the execution of meticulous cooking techniques or in the elaborate knife skills required to turn out colourful, highly visual presentations. Even the way an ingredient is sliced is said to affect its taste.
The higher incomes and education levels in Jiangsu relative to other provinces in China mean that the refinement demanded of the cuisine goes beyond aesthetics. Many say that Huaiyang cuisine is the true test of a chef’s competence, as the cook needs to be well-read on the medicinal benefits of the ingredients and astute in balancing their delicate flavours. Chefs also must be deft with their hands in preparing the meal.
Fresh seafood is an obvious highlight of this coastal cuisine, but the non-mountainous province is also home to many rivers, lakes and ponds, so water-bred ingredients such as lotus roots, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots are menu mainstays. A hallmark of the cuisine is its ability to elevate humble ingredients such as common shrimps, Chinese yams and edible wild herbs into state banquet-worthy fare through intricate cooking techniques. Eels found in the rice fields of Huai’an, for instance, can feature in banquets where as many 108 dishes containing eel are served.
Common cooking techniques include stewing, braising and simmering to bring out the natural flavours in the wide range of ingredients while preserving their health benefits. Chinkiang vinegar produced in the Zhenjiang region features in many dishes, but other seasonings such as salt, sugar or chilli are used only sparingly. Flavours may veer towards the sweet but are almost never spicy.
In the pages that follow we feature many of the more storied dishes derived from these ‘Four Great Cuisines’ as well as a representative selection from other parts of China. In each case we describe the historic origins of the dish, how it is prepared and some of the best restaurants to sample it.
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