Possibly the most important thing to experience whilst in China is their diverse food cultures and cuisines. They are quite proud of their culinary abilities, and rightly so, perhaps born from doing a lot with a little, they have mastered the use of natural ingredients, balancing tastes and bringing out amazing flavors.
This brief guide is far from comprehensive, but it will do for an intro from which to explore further should you wish. The more knowledge you have about a cuisine area, the more rewarding your experiences will surely be. There are over 20 cuisines listed here, and I am sure there are more, and each one could is probably worthy of a whole book rather than just a paragraph!
Firstly, whether you are in China for a long stay or short, it’s useful to have a basic knowledge of the key 8 traditional cuisines:
Yue (Guangdong, Cantonese) (粤菜) Dim sum, or Dian Xin in Mandarin, is incredibly popular throughout Guangdong and Hong Kong, mostly its eaten at breakfast in particular on weekends as a family gathering. The portion sizes are small and on average 3 portions per serving which allows a group to order an array of dishes and experience a wide range of flavors. They are generally prepared using traditional cooking methods such as frying, steaming, stewing and baking. Popular dishes include rice rolls, lotus leaf rice, turnip cakes, buns, shui jiao-style dumplings, stir-fried green vegetables, congee porridge, soups, etc. Other popular dishes include Won Ton, BBQ spare ribs, Youtiao and Zhaliang (rice roll wrapped Youtiao), Dry-Fried Beef and Noodles.
Chuan (Sichuan) (川菜) originating in the Sichuan Province this cuisine is well known for it’s mouth burning and lip numbing qualities! Featuring bold flavors and spiciness via the use of lots of garlic and chili peppers, along with Sichuan peppercorn. Peanuts, sesame paste and ginger are also prominent ingredients in this style. Popular dishes include Hot Pot, Twice Cooked Pork and Kung Pao Chicken, Boiled Fish in Chili Oil (Feiteng Yu), Dan Dan Noodles.
Hui (Huizhou) (徽菜) Anhui cuisine (徽菜) is derived from the native cooking styles of the Huangshan Mountains region in China and is similar to Jiangsu cuisine, but with less emphasis on seafood and more on a wide variety of local herbs and vegetables. Popular dishes include Huangshan Braised Pigeon, Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch, Egg Dumplings, Stinky Mandarin Fish (Chou Gui Yu), Li Hongzhang Stew (Li Hongzhang Dazahui), Tea Fried Shrimp (Mao Feng Xiaren).
Lu (Shandong) (魯菜) With a long history, Shandong Cuisine once formed an important part of the imperial cuisine and was widely promoted in North China. However, it isn’t so popular in South China (including the more embracing Shanghai). Shandong Cuisine is featured by a variety of cooking techniques and seafood. The typical dishes on local menu are braised abalone, braised trepang, sweet and sour carp, Jiuzhuan Dachang, Dezhou Chicken, . Some consider it the most influential of all the cuisines.
Min (Fujian) (闽菜) Popular dishes include Fo Tiao Qiang (Buddha jumps over the wall), Oyster omelette, Popiah or Lunpiah, Fujian cuisine consists of four styles, which are Fuzhou: the taste is light, often with a mixed sweet and sour taste. Fuzhou is famous for its soups.Western Fujian: there are often slight spicy tastes from mustard and pepper and the cooking methods are often steam, fry and stir-fry. Southern Fujian: spicy and sweet tastes are often found and the selection of sauces used is elaborate. Quanzhou: the least oily but with the strongest taste/flavor of Fujian cuisine.
Su (Jiangsu, Huaiyang) (蘇菜) Known for it’s soft texture and use of ingredients according to the seasons. Jiangsu cuisine consists of many styles with Huaiyang cuisine being the main type. Other styles include: Nanjing: its dishes feature a balanced taste and matching colour, with river fish/shrimps and duck being popular ingredients, Jinling salted dried duck is one of the most popular dishes. Suzhou: emphasis on the selection of material, stronger taste than Nanjing cuisine, and a little on the sweeter side. Wuxi: fresh water produce is common. Other notable dishes include Yangzhou steamed Jerky strips (dried tofu, chicken, ham and pea leaves), triple combo duck, dried duck, and Farewell My Concubine (soft-shelled turtle stewed with many other ingredients such as chicken, mushrooms and wine). Other popular dishes include Lion Head (Shizi Tou), Huangqioa Sesame Pancake ( Huangqio Shoabing), Yangzhou Fried Rice (Yangzhou Chaofan),
Zhe (Zhejiang) (浙菜) The dishes are not greasy, having but instead a fresh, soft flavor with a mellow fragrance. The cuisine consists of at least four styles, each of which originates from different cities in the province. Hangzhou: characterized by rich variations and the use of bamboo shoots. Shaoxing: specializes in poultry and freshwater fish. Ningbo: emphasizes freshness and salty dishes and specializes in seafood. Wenzhou: a source of seafood and poultry and livestock. Popular dishes include Beggars Chicken, Steamed Pork in Lotus Leaf, West Lake Vineger Fish (Xihu Cu Yu), Stuffed Lotus Root (Nuomi Ou), Stir Fried Pork (Dongpo Rou), Fried Shrimp in Longjing Tea (Longjing Xiaren), Braised Ham with Sugar (Mi Zhi Hua Fang).
Xiang (Hunan) (湘菜) Hunan cuisine, sometimes called Xiang cuisine, consists of the cuisines of the Xiang River region, Dongting Lake and western Hunan Province, in China Hunan cuisine is well known for its hot spicy flavor, fresh aroma and deep color making it similar to Chuan cuisine. Hunan Cuisine is often spicier using a lot more chilli, contains a larger variety of fresh ingredients, and tends to be oilier. Hunan cuisine often uses smoked and cured goods in its dishes. Popular dishes are Dry Wok Chicken, Changsha Rice Vermicelli, Dongan Chicken, Beer Duck, Lotus Seeds with Rock Sugar, Steamed Fish head with chiped chili (Duojiao Yutou).
Tibetan Cuisine (西藏美食) – Dishes include Roast mutton chops, Yak meat, Pickled Radish, Shapale which is like a meat pie and momos which are a dumpling available with either meat or vegetable filling. Drinks include Barley Wine and Buttered Tea.
Hakka cuisine (客家菜) – is the cooking style of the Hakka people, who originated in the southeastern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, but may also be found in other parts of China and in countries with significant overseas Chinese communities. Dishes include salt baked chicken, duck stuffed with rice, Yong Tao Foo which are noodles in clear consume with all sorts of bits and bobs like tofu, fish balls, meat etc.
Mongolian cuisine (蒙古美食) – With Mongolia itself having an extreme continental climate and the people traditionally having a nomadic lifestyle the cuisine primarily consists of dairy products, meat, and animal fats and the use of vegetables is perhaps limited by lifestyle and conditions. Mongolian cuisine is also influenced by Chinese and Russian cuisine.
Dongbei (东北菜美食) – the region has a cuisine which has been influenced by it’s history and the interactions between neighboring countries including Korea, Mongolia, Russia and even Japan. Noticeably missing is rice and you’ll see lots more dumplings or potatoes as the staple. Popular dishes include dao shao mian (wheat noodles), shui jiao (dumplings), liang mian (cold noodles), Dongbei dala pi (cold rice and noodles), Guo bao rou (sweet & sour pork), Chinese saurkraut and pickled foods are also popular.
HK cuisine (香港美食) – Hong Kong cuisine has Cantonese cuisine (Yue) at it’s core with history having played a role in it’s cuisine expansion to become a melting pot of global food culture. Along with Cantonese cuisine, in HK you’ll find western foods, many types of cuisines from mainland China, Japanese, Korean, Indian are all easy to find, there’s also lots of fusion between European, Western and Asian food cultures which is a fantastic thing. A few unique Hong Kong specialties include Pineapple buns, Lap Cheong (sausage), Hong Kong Milk Tea and Yin Yang (coffee and tea), Hong Kong-style French toast.
Hubei cuisine (湖北菜) – Hubei cuisine is known for it’s attention to detail in presentation and use of steaming techniques. Hubei cuisine also uses various peppers and spices to boost the taste. There are three distinct styles: Wuhan style, which specialises in soups and noodle dishes. Huangzhou style, which is more oily and tastes more salty. Jingzhou style, which specialises in fish dishes and the use of steaming. Popular dishes include Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles, Minyang Three Steamed Dishes and Shaomei (dumpling).
Jiangxi cuisine (赣菜) – Jiangxi Cuisine (Gan Cuisine), it, like neighboring regions makes liberal use of chilli and tea oil for cooking. Most of the dishes are served hot and fish, tofu and black beans feature prominently. Popular dishes include Xunyang Yupian ( Braised Shredded Herring), san bei jiao yu (fish with three sauces), lu shan shi jī (braised frog).
Jing cuisine (京菜) – being the capital city of China it’s cuisine has had influences from all over the country, especially Shandong, along with cuisines that grew from the days of the “Emperor’s Kitchen” inside the Forbidden City. It’s very snack orientated such as Beijing yoghurt served in stalls or Xian Bing which is a wheat based dough that can have a variety of fillings. Popular dishes include the well known Beijing Duck or Peking Duck, Zha Jiang Noodles, Mongolian Hot Pot.
Qingzhen cuisine (清镇美食) – Northern Chinese Islamic cuisine originated in China and is heavily influenced by Beijing cuisine, with nearly all cooking methods identical, and differs only in material due to religious restrictions. Key ingredients are beef, lamb and mutton, with noodle soups being popular. Popular dishes include Lamian, Yang rou chuan (lamb kebabs), Nang (bread).
Shanxi cuisine (山西美食) – or Jin cuisine, is derived from the native cooking styles of Shanxi province in China, and it is famed for noodles, its fried flatbread and its vinegar production. he methods of cooking include deep-frying, stir-frying, quick-frying, grilling and braising. Dishes include Guo Shao Yang Rou (Braised Mutton), Fu Ru Rou (Braised Pork with Pickled Bean Curd Sauce) and Tang Cu Yu (Sweet and Sour Fish), Daxiaomian (hand shaven noodles) and Tou-nao Lamb Soup.
Yu cuisine (俞美食) – The Yu cuisine, typical of Zhengzhou and Henan, takes as its inspiration the flavors and textures of the grains and animals of the region. A popular local dish is He Ji Hui Mian, the hand-stretched wide noodles in a mutton broth that includes goji berries, cilantro and tofu skin. Also popular are Zhengzhou roast duck, Hu La Tang (foreign spicy soup) and Guo Guo Yang Rou Tang (Guo country mutton soup), Liyu Sanchi (fish).
Dian cuisine (滇美食) – Yunnan cuisine. Popular dishes include Crossing Bridge Noodles whose common ingredients include thin slices of ham, chunks of chicken, chicken skin, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles. Other popular dishes include Steam Pot Chicken, and the area is also of course famous for Pu’er tea.
Qian Cuisine (黔菜) Guizhou cuisine is known for its spiciness and sourness, popular dishes include Fish in Sour Soup, Crackling Fish with Zao Pepper, Huaxi Beef Rice Noodles.
Macanese cuisine (澳门美食) – is unique to Macau and is a fusion of southern Chinese and Portuguese cuisines. Common cooking techniques include baking, grilling and roasting. Typically, Macanese food is seasoned with various spices including turmeric, coconut milk, cinnamon and bacalhau. Famous dishes include Galinha à Portuguesa (Portuguese-style chicken), Galinha à Africana (African chicken), Bacalhau (dried and salted cod), Macanese Chili Shrimps and Stir-fry Curry Crab. The most popular snack is Pork Chop Bun. The most popular dessert is Ginger Milk and of course Egg Tarts.