Chinese cuisine is as ancient as you can get. Their culinary traditions can be traced back 7,000 years and continue to feed a modern food-crazed population of more than 1 billion daily. Numbers aside, there’s a clear reason why Chinese cuisine has lasted mostly in tack for so long- cooking and eating are embraced as a venerable art that can be loved by royalty and peasants equally.
At the center of all Chinese regional cuisines is rice, soy sauce, and vegetables. The base flavor profile is of soy sauce, cooking wine, and ginger is then enhanced by local meats, vegetables, ingredients, and techniques. The key flavors present in Chinese food are spicy, salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. Aside from being present in dishes, the Chinese cook’s aim is to have all five flavors work in harmony and balance to achieve optimal taste and health. Like most vast countries, wheat, in the form of noodles and wrappers, is the staple of the north, as rice is in the south. The protein-rich soy bean, in the form of soy sauce, bean curd (tofu), fermented black beans, and various sauces and pastes, has been at the core of Chinese cuisine for thousands of years.
Since the 1600s, there are eight great cuisines identified in China, each with multiple “schools”. The cuisines of this massive country are best understood by going back to the original four major cuisines culinary regions, each with vastly different in ingredients, techniques, and geography.
Southern China (Fresh, Natural, and Mild)
As the climate is very hot, the dishes from this region are clean and lightly seasoned. In general, Cantonese cuisine from the Guangdong province tastes fresh, natural, and mild. Cooks pay special attention to quality and natural tastes, and use seasonings only to highlight the original taste of the ingredients. The flavors of the original Cantonese food should be fresh, natural, mild and a little sweet. Cantonese cuisine is characterized by soy sauce, rice wine, seafood, pork, chicken, vegetables, and slowly boiled soups. Cantonese food was the first Chinese food style that was introduced to the West as the early days’ Chinese immigrants were mostly from the Guangdong province.
Notable Dishes – Egg Rolls (vegetable and meat filled fried pancake), Dim Sum (small plates of mixed foods), Beef Chow Fun (stir-fried beef slices in wide rice noodles), Chao Mian (stir-fried noodles, meat, onion, celery), Gu Lao Rou (Sweet and Sour Pork), Char Siu (BBQ pork strips), Cha Siu Bao (steamed sweet pork buns), Bao Zai Fan (clay pot rice), Choy Sum in Sauce (braised Chinese greens in oyster sauce), Hainan Chicken (boiled chicken with rice), Sweetheart Cake (thin crust pastry with sweet filling), Tang Yuan (sesame paste stuffed glutinous rice balls).
MHT Southern Chinese Recipes:
Eastern China (Delicate Foods with Sweet and Earthy Flavors)
Eastern China cuisine comes from the Yangtze Delta area known as the fertile “land of fish and rice”. Major cities of the region are Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Xiamen. Eastern Chinese food features an abundant use of seafood, fish, pork, poultry, and vegetables, and mainly achieves its sweet and subtle flavors through the use of sugar, wines, vinegars, and soy sauce.
The Yangtze river delta is a fertile region with rich farming land. It is nourished by the subtropical climate which allows for the production of a wide variety of vegetables. Both rice and wheat are common staples. Its proximity to the sea and a large number of lakes and river tributaries provides abundant fish and shellfish to this region as well.
Notable Dishes – Xiao long bao (Shanghai Soup Dumplings), Shanghai Spring Rolls (long crispy pork and vegetable rolls), Shanghai Noodles (pan-fried crispy noodles with toppings), Yangchow Fried Rice (fried rice with shrimp, diced ham, carrot, mushroom, bamboo shoot, egg, and corn), Salt & Pepper Prawns (shrimp coated in salt and peppers), Shanghai Rice (fried rice with vegetables and sausage), Red-Cooked Pork (pork soy stew with wood ear and bamboo), West Lake Fish (fish in vinegar sauce), Lion’s Head Meatballs (large minced pork meatballs), Nanking Duck (sauced salt water duck), Eight Treasure Rice (sweet steamed rice studded with fruit).
MHT Eastern Chinese Recipes:
Northern China (Rich, Bold, and Salty)
Northern China, which includes Beijing (Peking), experiences harsh, cold, and dry winters, as well as hot summers. Calorie and salt replacement is important. Strong seasonings and salty flavors predominate in the north. Generally, northern dishes are oiler and richer in meats than the other Chinese cuisines. Although rice is eaten, wheat is the staple crop of Northern China, and the cuisine has an abundance of wheat-flour foods in the form of noodles, dumplings, steamed and stuffed buns, and pancakes.
Northerners tend to eat more (red) meat, as the calories, fat, and protein strengthen their bodies against the chilly weather. Most meat dishes are based on mutton, pork, beef, chicken, duck, and fish. There are less fresh vegetables available because of the cold weather. People prefer to preserve some vegetables for winter by drying and pickling, though root vegetables keep well in the cold climate. Northeastern dishes are also famous for making use of pickled vegetables. Common vegetables include Chinese cabbages, carrots, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, green beans, and chives.
The most popular seasonings are soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, scallions, ginger, leeks, star anise, sweet bean sauces, chili peppers, and sesame oil. Northern cooks are known for their skillful use of seasonings to add richness to its dishes without covering up the natural flavor of the ingredients.
Notable Dishes – Beijing Kǎoyā (roast Peking Duck), Jiaozi (steamed dumplings), Scallion Pancakes, Jingjiang Rousi (sliced pork in a sweet bean sauce and soy bean wraps), Zhajiang mian (hand-pulled noodles, vegetables, pork), Tudou Si (Shredded Potato), Shredded Lamb with Scallions, Pork in Capital Sauce (quick-fried shredded pork in a soy-vinegar sauce), Mongolian Hot Pot (table-top fire-pot with broth to dip and cook meats and vegetables), Meringue Balls (coated bean paste balls).
MHT Northern Chinese Recipes:
Western China (Pungent, Spicy, and Hot)
“Once we develop a taste for hot food, which provides a high, there is no going back,” says renowned Indian cook Madhur Jaffrey. “It turns into a craving”. Sichuan (aka Szechuan) is is the largest province in China. It and the Hunan province combine to make the cuisine of the west-central China the most popular cuisine in China. With their warm, humid climate, crops can be grown year-round. Spices and vegetables grow in abundance as well a chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. As a way to preserve foods in the humid climate, the region has developed techniques such as salting, drying, smoking, and pickling. Sichuan cuisine, with its food crazy capital of Chengdu, is famous for its particularly numbing and spicy flavors resulting from the liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the unique numbing flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. Hunan cuisine is similar to Sichuan cuisine, but generally even spicier. It has a great variety of ingredients due to the high agricultural output of the region.
Sichuan food is most well-known for its hot and spicy flavor, though it may sport sweet and sour flavors too. The most commonly used spices you can find in most households and eateries are “The Five Fragrances” which consist of fennel, pepper, aniseed, cinnamon, and clove. Sichuan cuisine also depends heavily black pepper, chili peppers, Doubanjiang (broad bean chili paste), shallots, ginger, and garlic.
Notable Dishes – Zhong Shui Jiao (dumplings in red sauce), MaPo Dofu (“Pockmarked grandmother”-stir-fried tofu in red chili sauce), Yu Xiang Qie Zi (fish flavored eggplant), Ants Climbing a Tree), Gongbao Jiding (“Kung Pao Chicken”-spicy diced chicken with peanuts), Dandan Mian (“Dandan Noodles”-noodles in chili oil with vegetables, Sichuan pepper, and minced pork), Ganbian Sijidou (dry-fried green beans), Huí Guō Ròu (twice-cooked pork), Yu Xiang Rou Si (pork in Yuxiang sauce), Zi Ran Yang Rou (cumin lamb), Huo Guo (Sichuan Hot Pot), La Zi Ji (chicken with chilies), Kou Shui Ji (“Bang-Bang”-cold chicken in red-hot chili oil), Ji Si Liang Mian (cold noodles with shredded chicken), Chairman Mao’s Red Braised Pork (caramelized pork belly braised in spiced soy), Paocai (pickled vegetables), Pai Huang Gua (smashed cucumbers).
MHT Western Chinese Recipes:
The Chinese Table
Food culture is deeply rooted in Chinese history, especially the respect for others, including elders, teachers, and guests. Dishes are almost always shared communally. Place settings are basically the same at home as they are at restaurants and banquet halls: small tea cups, a large plate with an empty bowl for rice, chopsticks, a napkin, and glass for beverages. In the south and east, breakfast is usually a bowl of congee (rice porridge), with small bowls of pickled vegetables, dried pork, thousand year old egg, and green tea. The north and west like steamed pork buns and soups with noodles and a meat.
Round tables with a Lazy Susan in the middle are common in restaurants to facilitate easy sharing. It is proper that the guest or elder sits near the best dish and for the group to begin digging in only after that person says “let’s eat”. After the guest of honor has chosen, everyone else places a small serving of what they’d like in their bowl of rice and scoop up a bite full of both with their chopsticks.
The sequence for more a formal dinner is: tea is poured first, then 2-3 appetizers, soup (before or after main course), rice and shared main dishes (one per person). Sweet deserts are usually not served, although fresh fruit is often offered. Towards the end of a meal, a starchy, filling dish like dumplings, noodles, or bao are brought out to ensure the guests are full. In extremely formal meals, only a tiny bite of this final dish is eaten to reinforce that it was not necessary as the host was way too generous.