One of the greatest parts about traveling to new places is getting to try a region's authentic cuisine. After all, most people don't go to Italy to try Mexican food, do they? Of course not--they're there for the tasty pasta and rich sauces. Well, China is no exception to this rule. However, Chinese food is more than just Orange Chicken, rice, noodles and dumplings. In fact, Chinese food is extremely diverse...and every region has their own local dishes. So before taking a trip or making the big move to China, here's what you need to know about China's eight major cuisine types.
If you find yourself in Northern China, be sure to try some of the popular Shandong cuisine, which is mostly made up of seafood and vegetable dishes. This style of cooking really developed because of location--back in the olden days, the Shandong province was one of China's most cultivated regions, and its coast was full of fish. Not only did this set the stage for how seafood was prepared, but it also heavily influenced surrounding areas like Beijing and Tianjin. Today, this cuisine can be broken down into two sub-categories: Jiadong style and Jinan style. The Jiadong style focuses on light seafood dishes while the Jinan style includes clear and white soups.
What really differentiates Shandong cuisine from other styles though is its use of spices--or lack thereof. Shandong cuisine chefs aim to preserve the flavor and taste of the original ingredients, and though they may often use vinegar and salt, that's about it. You'll often see your food in China cooked using the bao stir-fry method or fried dough coating technique. With the bao stir-fry method, the ingredients are cooked over a large flame and then tossed into boiling oil to be quickly fried. The fried dough coating technique, on the other hand, involves coating strips of meat with flour before frying them.
So, what kind of Shandong cuisine Chinese dishes will you typically see in local restaurants? Well, fan-favorites include stewed pork hock, Shandong style dumplings, and milk soup.
Like the Shandong style, the Zhejiang cuisine is most known for its mellow seafood dishes. If you're from the Western hemisphere, you might be surprised what kind of seafood you find in a Zhejiang-style restaurant--it's not all fish and shrimp.
A Zhejiang chef's focus is more on creating fresh, healthy dishes than it is on making something extremely flavorful; many dishes are served almost raw.
There are really three types of Zhejiang cuisine, and each is based on a city in the province: Shaoxing, Hangzhou, and Ningbo. Shaoxing includes mostly freshwater fish while Hangzhou contains a lot of soups and stir-fry. (Hangzhou dishes are also known to frequently include bamboo shoots as well.) If you're looking for something a bit saltier or a sweet desert though, then a Ningbo-style dish is the way to go.
There's a lot of different ways that Zhejiang cuisine can be cooked, but one of the most popular is by using a brine. Similar to pickling, different types of meat are soaked in brine for hours at a time before eating.
Some local Zhejiang cuisine favorites include Sweet Ningbo Rice Balls, Beggar's Chicken and Ningbo Salty Crab.
If you're looking to reconnect with nature, Anhui cuisine might just be for you. These dishes use ingredients straight from the wild--including pork, frogs, turtles, fungi and bamboo shoots. While some of these choices might seem odd, Anhui cuisine chefs are masters at incorporating these natural elements into their dishes. (They're also masters at serving perfect food--you won't find an overcooked piece of seafood here.) If you're ever near Shanghai, it's only a four hour trip to Anhui province and their unique cuisine.
There are three different styles, depending on what region of the province you find yourself in. The Yellow Mountains are known for favorites like Yellow Crab Shell Cake (which is actually a pork and vegetable dumpling with no crab) and Mao Tofu (which is tofu cooked with hot peppers and sesame oil.) The Huai and Yangtze River, located in north and central Anhui, often use river fish in their dishes.
Located in Southeast China, the Fujian province's cuisine is all about cooking with local delicacies and creating unique flavors with different spices. Depending on where you are in the province, you can expect to see four different variations of this cuisine. The Fuzhou style is known for its sour, sweet and light dishes while the Western and Southern Fujian styles tend to be spicier and sweeter. The Quanzhou style, on the other hand, places more emphasis on presentation and bold flavors.
More than that, the locals are all about soup. If you dine here, you can expect your tasty meal to be served with a side of soup and "Shrimp Oil"--a local sauce made from fermented fish.
Other than working with a variety of spices, many Fujian cuisine chefs rely on precise knife skills to provide the food with a special texture. Classics include the Fujian-style fried rice.
Instead of frying their food, Cantonese cuisine is all about braising, sauteing and stewing. Of all the food in China, this cuisine is the most popular in the world (which is due to an influx of immigrants that came from the Southeastern Guangdong province, home to Cantonese cuisine). While they use all kinds of seafood, locals aren't afraid to experiment with ingredients--some dishes even feature snake meat.
Like the Shandong style, this cuisine's goal is to bring out the natural flavor of the food with minimal spices. The end result is plainer, healthier meal. Still, while the food itself is blander, it's often covered in sauce--oyster, plum, soy and sweet and sour sauce are all popular options.
Some of the simpler, more famous Cantonese dishes include Chinese steamed eggs, Shahe noodles, and Cantonese poached chicken.
As the province with the highest income per capita, it's not really a shock that Jiangsu's food tends to be a little more gourmet. With a wide variety of seafood and in-season vegetables, Jiangsu food is flavorful, but not overwhelming.
There are six different styles of Jiangsu cuisine, but these three are the most notable: the Huaiyang is known to be almost artful in its presentation, and is often served at government banquets. The Nanjing style is known for its appearance--chefs often prepare it very precisely and dishes from Yangzhou are prepared much like the Nanjing region with precision and excellent presentation (including the famous Yangzhou fried rice, a local favorite).
If you aren't sure what Jiangsu dish to order while in the province, red braised pork ribs are both a local and foreign favorite.
While many foreigners recognize and enjoy the Sichuan cuisine's local, spicy flavor, many aren't aware of Hunan cuisine--which tends to be even hotter. Located in south-central China, dishes in this province are typically prepared with citrus fruits, vinegar, and chili peppers. (The use of vinegar lets you experience the full flavor of the dish.) While nobody is quite sure as to why the Hunan people prepare their food so spicy, one theory is that hot food balances out the cold, wet winters of the region.
Typically, many dishes include in-season vegetables, spices, and white rice. While they use various cooking techniques, many types of meat and vegetables are pickled or fermented for the winter or hot summers.
Perhaps one of the most popular dishes you can order here is the Hunan beef--a classic, spicy favorite.
Speaking of spicy, let's talk about what the Sichuan province is best known for--their spicy, flavorful food. Many foreigners have described the experience of a Sichuan dish as tingly and numb, which might have something to do with Sichuan cuisine's most famous ingredient: the Sichuan pepper (which is rarely found growing anywhere else).
Typically, most dishes include meats, vegetables or even tofu. One of the most popular meals is actually the Mapo Tofu--a combination of black beans, tofu, and different sauces. If you find yourself craving something your Chinese dishes a little hotter, Sichuan cuisine will definitely fit the criteria.
Many of us have tasted Chinese food back in our home countries; however, the "real deal" is so much more tasty. And when traveling or living in China, knowing the different regions and dypes of local cuisine is important. Not only will it give you the opportunity to try new, delicious things, but you'll get more of an appreciation for the local dishes that are unique to the culture in that area.