Several cuisines from China make up Chinese food. Get to know the most beloved eight culinary traditions of this ancient culture.
Food is such an essential part of Chinese culture.
For example, we have so many festivals, and each festival has its kinds of food!
In other words, Chinese culinary traditions are diverse, widely distributed, and enjoyed wholesomely around the country.
Chinese people all have their favorite chefs, street vendors, and restaurants.
As a result, I talked to Chef Zhang, a chef at one of my favorite restaurants in Beijing.
“I have been cooking since I was a boy,” he told me many years ago. “Food is how I communicate with the world,” he added.
And what a great food creator he is!
So, I chose him because he is highly knowledgeable about Chinese food, as you will see.
Meanwhile, other experts will also show up.
Because there is so much confusion about Chinese food, we will explore several identity terms along the way.
So there is a country in Southeast Asia called China, and its citizens are known as Chinese.
However, these citizens don’t call themselves Chinese, and they don’t refer to their country as China.
Instead, the people call themselves zhōngguó rén or the “people of Zhōngguó.”
Of course, the country is Zhōngguó.
But that is only talking about Mainland China.
Meanwhile, Chinese people are also in islands like Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc.
Likewise, there are “Overseas Chinese” or what the Chinese would call hǎiwài huárén.
For example, that would include Chinese people in Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, etc.
Similarly, it would include Chinese people in other parts of the world.
It is essential to understand the identities because this article is about food from Mainland China.
As you may already know, China is a big country and is home to the largest population in the world.
Meanwhile, not every “Chinese” food is actually of China origin.
“If you grew up eating Chinese food in America, then you might be surprised to learn you likely wouldn’t find your favorite dishes on a visit to China,” writes Naomi Imatome-Yun, author of Essential Wok Cookbook.
She is so right.
So, the Cultures of its ethnic groups highly influence Chinese food.
Han Chinese, the majority here, account for the biggest ethnic group globally.
As a result, when you think of “Chinese,” you probably think of a Han person.
However, there are many other ethnic groups here.
For example, the Qing dynasty, which is the most successful Chinese dynasty, was not even Han.
They were Manchus.
And, of course, the Qing dynasty influenced the food of China!
Because of the country’s diverse history, there are recognized eight cuisines in China today.
The Eight Cuisines
Chinese cuisines divide into north, south, west, and east in the minds of the local people.
However, it is not correctly following the map of today.
Moreover, you will see it is not just four but eight.
So, the phrase bā dà cài xì, which means “eight big food systems,” is associated with these cuisines.
Let’s explore them based on the region.
So, in the north, you have Shandong, known as lǔ cài in Chinese.
Shandong is a historical province. For example, this is where Confucius was born.
“The province is also home to Mount Tai, the holiest mountain,” says Chef Zhang.
Also, “north” in Chinese culture represents the emperor. So, you will see many things connected to the northern direction as being auspicious.
As a result, people have a deeper connection to this cuisine.
Meanwhile, this is a cuisine characterized by its coastal reality, as it has a lot of seafood.
Try xiārén shuǐjiǎo or shrimp dumplings, says Chef Zhang.
If you’re stronger, try dàzháxiè, which are the hairy crabs or mitten crabs from the region.
Of course, it is not just seafood.
“One of my favorite things is the full chicken cooked in leaves,” says Chef Zhang.
He is talking about a dish called zòng yè jī.
“Because this is a cuisine that is not spicy, it is comfortable for non-Chinese to try,” says Chef Zhang.
But, of course, keep your seafood appetite for this region!
Recipe: Fried Prawns
A popular and simple recipe to try from the Shandong cuisine is fried tiger prawns or yóu mèn dà xiā.
Ingredients required include tiger prawns, rice wine, and vinegar. Likewise, you will need ginger, salt, and oil. Of course, water and sugar, too!
Follow along with Eva Tong at Mademoiselle Patate.
Of course, in the south, you would have Cantonese and Fujian.
“When I think of Cantonese cuisine, I think of dim sum,” says Chef Zhang.
Cantonese cuisine, called yuè cài in Chinese, is characterized by dim sum.
Dim sum is a traditional meal made of steamed items and often enjoyed with tea.
Likewise, chāshāo or char sui, barbecued pork, is a trendy dish.
“Of course, the Cantonese also love their seafood soups,” says Chef Zhang.
For instance, some soups have seafood items, but the most popular is hǎi huáng gēng.
“It is a dish fit for an emperor, so we call it sea emperor soup,” says Chef Zhang.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong and Macau, two Chinese regions with long-term foreign connections, profoundly influence Cantonese cuisine.
As a result, it is probably the most foreigner-friendly cuisine in China today.
“Most Chinese restaurants as we know them today serve food of Cantonese influence,” says Lina Chang, author of the Chinese Takeout Cookbook.
Chang, whose book is for the American market, says it has to do with the history of Chinese Americans.
The Cantonese were the first to arrive in California, and there were restaurants set up to support them.
As a result, Cantonese food became synonymous with all the Chinese cuisines.
On the other hand, Fujian cuisine, or mǐn cài, is entirely different.
“This region gave us spring rolls,” says Chef Zhang.
Spring rolls, called chūn juǎn in Chinese, come in all varieties.
However, in Fujian, remember items can have wild animals.
So, be careful about what you eat.
Fujian cuisine has had a tremendous impact on Taiwanese cuisine, as the two are culturally close.
For instance, many Taiwanese have a background in Fujian.
So, it’s another essential cuisine!
Recipe: Steamed Buns
So, steamed buns, or bāozi, are a classic Cantonese recipe for dim sum.
A popular one is vegetarian.
Ingredients you will need include shiitake mushrooms, dried bean curd, and baby bok choy.
Follow along with Sarah at The Woks of Life.
Likewise, there are Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui in the east.
Jiangsu’s cuisine, known in Chinese as sū cài, is known for its aromatic flavors.
For example, this cuisine can use fruits to create a unique taste experience.
Chef Zhang says xīguā jī is a dish where you bake a chicken in a watermelon.
“The juice and aroma of the watermelon mix with meat, and the result is amazing,” says Chef Zhang.
Zhejiang cuisine, or zhè cài, is different because it mainly uses bamboo shoots.
However, people love this cuisine for its moderate seafood dishes.
Chef Zhang says you must try xīhú cù yú, which is a freshwater fish enjoyed in vinegar gravy.
“This is an ancient dish that dates back to the Song dynasty,” says Chef Zhang. “You must use something like grass carp,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Anhui cuisine, or huī cài, is very wild.
“If you love to explore food, this is a cuisine for you,” says Chef Zhang.
For example, you can find frogs, turtles, and more in this cuisine.
As a result, a famous dish here is the hóngshāo guǒzi lí, which is a braised civet.
“Unfortunately, you must trust the restaurant because wild civets have diseases,” says Chef Zhang. “If you eat a farm civet, they are usually clean.”
So, this is one cuisine you have to be extra careful with!
Recipe: Sweet Fish
Zhenjiang’s Hangzhou is the pearl of its pride.
So, the West Lake vinegar fish, or xīhú cù yú, is a must-have because it celebrates the famous lake!
You will need ingredients like grass carp, black vinegar, rice wine, and cornstarch for this recipe.
Follow along with Johnny Liu at whats4eats.
Similarly, there are Sichuan and Hunan in the west.
These are two popular cuisines!
“My personal favorite is Sichuan, which is very spicy,” says Chef Zhang. “This cuisine has given many popular dishes, too.”
So, Sichuan cuisine, called chuān cài in Chinese, is rooted in the province of Sichuan.
One of the most well-known dishes is gōng bǎo jī dīng, or kung pao chicken.
According to Chef Zhang, the name of this dish is because of a Qing dynasty official.
“Therefore, the Cultural Revolution did not allow the use of this name,” says Chef Zhang. “Instead, we had to say ‘spicy chicken,’ which was somewhat hard because it is a popular dish!”
Meanwhile, people started using the original name again after many years.
Hunan cuisine, or xiāng cài, has a lot of sweet and sour dishes.
So, the most popular dish in this cuisine is chéng huā jī, which is known globally as orange chicken.
For a long time, Chef Zhang did catering for events around Beijing, and he recalls the popularity of this dish.
“Many foreigners would ask me to make this for their event,” says Chef Zhang. “However, very few Chinese would ever ask me. I make mine with dried orange peels, which have a lot of vigor.”
Due to globalization, popular global Chinese food items have also started to take off here.
For example, Chef Zhang says the popularity of this dish now can be attributed to foreign television shows and movies.
So, ask for it in tourist restaurants in China, and they will make it for you.
Recipe: Kung Pao Chicken
Can you think of anything that is more Chinese than this?
Chicken cubes, yummy vegetables, and tantalizing spices characterize this Sichuan dish.
You will need chicken, carrots, baked peanuts, peppers, honey, and onion for this recipe.
Follow along with Sichuanese Ling at Chinese Healthy Cooking at YouTube.
So, can you think of non-Han Chinese people?
What about Tibetan, Uyghur, and Mongolian?
Because Tibetans are unique people surrounded by others, they take advantage of and absorb different aspects of their culture.
As a result, Indian and Han Chinese culinary traditions both show up in their cuisine!
For example, they use goat meat, bread, and curry is clearly from India.
Likewise, their use of noodles, dumplings, and stir-fry is from Han Chinese.
Meanwhile, try tsampa, which is a national dish. The ingredients include barley and butter tea.
Uyghurs are Muslim, and the Muslims of Asia highly influence their foods.
As a result, Chinese, Persian, Turkish, and Indian all influence Uyghur food.
For example, you will see kebabs everywhere, using lamb meat.
Likewise, polu is a rice dish very similar to the Indian biryani, as it’s rice mixed with vegetables and lamb.
Finally, Han Chinese influenced Mongolian cuisine.
For instance, the extensive use of dumplings in their cuisine is a testament to their relationship with Han Chinese.
However, the use of bread is also from other parts of Asia.
For example, kuushuur is a meat-filled pastry similar to the samosa.
However, unique to Mongolians is that they eat a lot of horse meat.
Of course, there are many other dishes in these cuisines, but this was to give you a taste.
The Overseas Chinese have their cuisines, undoubtedly influenced mainly by Chinese cuisines.
So, the Chinese people migrated out of China for several reasons at different times in history.
For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Chinese built things like railroads for foreigners.
Keep in mind; that this was when China was under the Qing dynasty.
Meanwhile, after the Red Revolution, when China split into several parts, the Chinese began to migrate for new reasons.
Wherever they went, Chinese people began creating and infusing cuisines between the local communities and their former country.
For instance, Chang C. Chen, the author of Cecilia Chiang: Godmother of Chinese American Cuisine, discusses this. Chen states that in the 1960s, many of Taiwan’s educated women were going to the United States.
Of course, Chen’s book is about the famous Chinese-American restaurateur born in Jiangsu province.
Cecilia Chiang opened her first restaurant by mistake, as she invested in friends who backed out of the restaurant business.
Her son, Philip Chiang, is the co-founder of the famous P.F. Chang restaurant chain, an American version of Chinese cuisines.
There are many stories like Cecelia Chiang’s across the world.
It’s not just a fortune cookie that is a fusion; consider the Caribbean jerk chow mein.
In other words, Chinese people, in China or elsewhere, assimilate part of their culture mixed into the mainstream pot.
Many cuisines in history have contributed to Chinese food.
Because Chinese people are from diverse ethnic groups, the foods have transitioned through history.
For instance, when the new imperial dynasty came to power, they influenced the culture generally on their own.
For example, when the Qing dynasty came to power, they brought their Manchu culture to the mainstream.
Manchus, to this day, are a minority, but the Qing culture spread throughout the land.
As a result, you can see the Manchu influences in every part of Chinese life.
The same is true for all other dynasties, as the Qing was only the last.
In other words, Chinese food developed through thousands of years of cultural exchanges.
Meanwhile, today’s China has eight well-received cuisines across the country.
Because these cuisines originated in diverse areas, their tastes are eclectic, too!
So, try a recipe or two.
Li Xiu Ying is a travel writer and is the author of Beijing Travel. She writes about China for Caravanzers.
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