"Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish—too much handling will spoil it." (Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher)
It is often said that a skilled chef can make an authentic Chinese meal using only Western ingredients. Just ask the Chinese who emigrated to the United States in the 1800s. Faced with the challenge of producing westernized versions of their native cuisine—both to satisfy western palates and cope with a shortage of Asian foodstuffs—they created such classics as chop suey.
Chinese Cuisine: More Than Cantonese
While delicious, this introduction to Chinese food gave rise to popular misconceptions. Since many Chinese emigrants came from Canton, it was commonly assumed that Cantonese cooking represented the sum total of Chinese cuisine. More recently, spicy Szechuan food has caught on in the west. However, China actually has at least four distinct styles of regional cuisine (many experts would break this down further into eight or nine), based loosely on geographical area.
The enduring popularity of southern or Cantonese cuisine comes from the subtle use of sauces and the diversity of ingredients and cooking methods. Cantonese chefs specialize in stir-frying, steaming, and roasting a wide variety of meats, poultry, and seafood. Roasted and barbecued meats are hot sellers at restaurants and meat shops since most Chinese kitchens do not have ovens.
We also have the Cantonese to thank for dim sum, literally meaning "touch your heart"—the custom of feasting on a varied assortment of pastries and dumplings that originated in China's teahouses.
In China's northern regions, where the climate of hot, dry summers and freezing cold winters would be all too familiar to many North Americans, people opt for more solid, nourishing fare. Instead of rice, wheat is the staple grain in the north, and noodles made from wheat flour constitute the fan portion of many meals.
Steamed dumplings and pancakes are also popular. Mutton is frequently consumed and is the chief ingredient in Mongolian Hot Pot. Another favorite is Mu Shu Pork. This dish, with its strong flavors of leeks, onions, and garlic, wrapped in steamed pancakes, is characteristic of northern-style cooking.
Next to Cantonese cooking, the cuisine most familiar in the West originated in China's largest province, Szechuan. Over time, chefs in the landlocked, mountain-ringed province developed a cuisine distinct from other Chinese cooking styles, but heavily influenced by the foreigners journeying along China's famous "Silk Route." Buddhist missionaries introduced them to the incendiary spicing that characterizes Indian cuisine, and which chefs replicated by making liberal use of Szechuan pepper. (Szechuan peppercorn is one of the ingredients in five-spice powder). In the 16th century, Spanish traders introduced chilies to the region. Like their northern neighbors, Szechuan cooks prefer pungently flavored vegetables such as garlic and onions.
The cuisine in Eastern China provides a compelling case for breaking the four regional styles down further. Both rice and wheat are grown here—rice in the subtropical climate to the south, wheat in the colder northern area that includes Shanghai. Cooks in the northern regions rely on noodles and bread made from wheat flour to provide sustenance during the cold winter months. Congee—a rice gruel similar to porridge and eaten for breakfast throughout China—originated in the south-eastern province of Fukien.
Nonetheless, there are a few features that characterize all eastern cooking, such as the liberal use of sugar to sweeten dishes. Eastern China is also famous for "red-cooking"—a process whereby meat is slowly simmered in dark soy sauce, imparting a reddish tinge to the final product.
Below is a sample of Chinese food recipes from each of the four regions.
Regional Chinese Recipes
Northern China (Peking)
Take a more in-depth look if you want to learn more about China's regional cuisines: