Eight great traditions of Chinese regional cuisine

by Kathleen Pokrud
Beijing duck

The popularity of Chinese cuisine

Based on the long geographical history of China for over 5,000 years, the country offers one of the oldest culinary traditions in the world. As a huge country, it offers distinctive regional haute cuisines. Due to a differing climate, diverse resources and disparate local cultures, the tastes and food traditions in the regions are vastly very varied. Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular around the world today, due to the mass immigrations from China in the past few decades. Chinese dishes that are most commonly known include roasted pork, Peking duck, stir-fried noodles, and dim sum. In truth, the culinary scene in China is sophisticated and conventional. Here, we shall explore a glimpse of the long traditional heritage of Chinese cuisine. Cooking is science, a form of art and also culture.

Four major regions of Chinese cuisine

For a long time in history, the taste for Chinese cuisine was simply divided between northern and southern China. The southerners prefer sweeter food while the northern regional taste is saltier. In the south, more seafood is available where the diets in the north are based on meat. In the Qing dynasty, the “Four major cuisines in China” took their official places. They are Guangdong, Huaiyang, Shandong and Sichuan cuisines. They influenced the styles and made a distinction in Chinese cooking. As the food culture in China developed further, the regions gradually showed their own divergence. Finally, the “Eight regional cuisines in China” was categorised in the gastronomic scene.

Chinese cuisine is generally divided into eight regional cuisines based on their geographic location. They are Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang. The regional cooking styles are as diverse as the terrain and its people. Naturally, they are also strongly influenced by the staple crops that grow in each specific region.

Epicure of the “Eight Great”

The development of different regional cooking styles is strongly influenced by the staple crops and resources that are available in each region. The diverse traditions in preparation and presentation are result of the contrasting customs of the people in each province. Even among the eight elite members, there are rankings in the ladder. Shandong cuisine invokes the feel of strong northern emperors. Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are rich and elaborate; they represent the prosperous court officials. Guangdong and Fujian cuisines remind the handsome and pleasing gentlemen. Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui cuisines are compared to the innocent and gentle ladies. Everyone agrees that taste is subjective. The majority views have ranked as follows, Sichuan, Shandong, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Anhui.

Sichuan Fish
Sichuan Fish

1. Sichuan (nickname “Chuan”) cuisine川菜

Sichuan reigns as the crown jewel of the major regional cuisine of China. It has a long history, with the cities of Chengdu and Chongqing as the authentic representation. Sichuan province is the birthplace of many Chinese dishes. Sichuan cooking incorporates a vast array of ingredients and seasonings. The assortment of preparation styles result in “one dish with one flavour, and one hundred dishes come hundred flavours.” The dishes are known for their hot and spicy taste, with the use of Sichuan peppercorns to enhance the deep and rich flavour. Many of their dishes are so spicy that may cause numbness in the taste buds. The mountainous terrains require people live in the area the needs to eat hot peppers for dehumidify.

The cooking methods vary according to the specific taste of each dish, including baking, braising, fast frying, steaming, and stir-frying. It is known that Sichuan cuisine offers an array of 23 unique tastes. Popular seasonings are Sichuan
peppercorns, black pepper, broad bean paste, chilli, garlic, ginger, and shallots. Renowned Sichuan dishes include: Bang Bang Chicken, Mapo Tofu, Kung Pao Chicken, and Twice Cooked Pork.

Sweet and Sour Fish
Sweet and Sour Fish

2. Shandong (nickname “Lu”) cuisine魯菜

The history of Shandong cuisine is long established in Chinese dynasties as imperial dishes. The region covers mountainous area and the coast, in turn offer significant affluent ingredients. The cuisine of the eastern coastal province is strongly influenced by the Jinan and Jiaodong styles of cooking. Tastes are delicious with sharp contrast of sweet and sour, crisp and tender flavours. The most popular ingredients are meat and poultry, aquatic products and vegetables. Methods used include braising, deep-fried, roasting, and stir-fried with the heavy use of onions and garlic. Clear and milk soup is another feature of Shandong cuisine. The Typical Shangdong dishes include: Braised Sea Cucumber, Dezhou Stewed Chicken, Braised Prawns, and Four Happy Meatballs.

Jinhua Unicorn Chicken
Jinhua Unicorn Chicken

3. Guangdong (nickname “Yue”) cuisine粵菜

Guangdong cuisine (also known as Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong, China) is one of the “Four major cuisines of China” due to its unique cooking style. Its development is based on the long history of the area. Its influence has now stretched all around the world. Blessed with a favourable and mild climate, this coastal province produces a vast variety of resources of seafood, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables. People from the southern province of Guangdong are often teased that they will eat almost anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims. Popular ingredients used are oyster sauce, clam oil, red wine vinegar, fish sauce.

Other flavoured condiments include star anise, Chinese cinnamon root, liquorice bark, dried tangerine peel, and ginger powder. Apart from traditional styles of grilling, pan-fried, sauté, stewing, stir-frying, other unconventional methods
include slow cooking, steaming and roasting with salt. Influenced by Western cooking style, the new generation of Guangdong cuisine is evolving into new fusion trends. The most famous Guangdong dishes include: The Dragon and Tiger Fight, Five-Snake Soup, Shark Fin Soup, Winter Melon Soup, and Cantonese Dim Sum.

4. Fujian (nickname “Min”) cuisine闽菜

Although as one of the eight main cuisines in China, Fujian cuisine is considered as a latecomer. The main hubs of this southern regional are based in the cities of Fuzhou, Guangzhou, and Xiamen. Fujian dishes are slightly sweet and sour,
and less salty. Most dishes are seafood based so the sweetness creates more flavour while the acidity removes the seafood smell. As coastal region, vast varieties of fresh fish and crustaceans products are widely available. The local cuisine is heavily based on broths, soups and stews. The cutting skill in Fujian is famous. The ingredients are chopped finely to be stir-fry or quick-boiled and added to the main soup. The most famous Fujian dishes include: Buddha Jumping Over the Wall, Lychee Glazed Meatballs, Drunken Chicken, and Jade Pearl Abalone.

Lion's Head
Lion’s Head

5. Jiangsu (nickname “Su”) cuisine苏莱

Jiangsu cuisine is originated in the Jiangsu province of China, and comprise of the subcategory styles of Nanjing, Suzhou, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang. The taste and textures are light and tender. Common to other regions, fresh aquatic products are popular ingredients. With its unique and skilled craftsmanship, Jiangsu cuisine is famous for its carving techniques, which are delicate and precise. The dishes are well known for elaborate display and matching colour to present the visual impact. Most popular cooking methods include braising, quick frying, pickling, stewing. The most popular Jiangsu dishes include: Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish, Nanjing Salted Duck, Lion’s Head, and Farewell My Concubine (Stewed Tortoise and Chicken).

Dongpo Pork
Dongpo Pork

6. Zhejiang (nickname “Zhe”) cuisine浙菜

Zhejiang province is located south of Shanghai and centred on Hangzhou, a historical Chinese capital renowned of its wealth. Being the richest province in China, Zhejiang is often refers as the “land of milk and honey”. The local people demand extra sophistication in their food taste. Food is often served raw with the seasonal fresh ingredients available. Zhejiang cuisine is often subcategorised into three styles, namely Hangzhou, Ningbao, and Shaoxing.
Most of Hangzhou dishes are served with bamboo shoots, as this southern province is a bamboo county; dishes are mostly stir-fried or soup with seafood. Ningbo is generally described to be saltier, and well known for their sweet confectionaries. Shaoxing is inland so their dishes are geared towards freshwater fish and poultry. The most popular Zhejiang dishes include: Dongpo Pork, Beggar’s Chicken, Splendid Fish, and Sliced Fried Eel.

Stir-fried Pork
Stir-fried Pork

7. Hunan (nickname “Xiang”) cuisine湘菜

Hunan cuisine consists of the cuisines of the Xiang River region, Dongting Lake and the western Hunan province in China. Beautiful valleys and roaring mountains dominate the area. The fertile ground provides a rich variety of crops, especially rice. It is known as “The Hometown of Fish and Rice (The Land of Plenty). Hunan cuisine is famous for its spiciness, deep colours and fresh aromas. Chairman Mao Zedong who was born in Hunan province once said, “You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t eat chilies.”

Contrast to their Sichuan counterparts with the tongue-numbness with all kinds of spicy-sweet-savoury combinations, Hunanese food tends to go for bold savoury, chilli-hot, and sour-hot tastes. There is a common saying, “Sichuan people don’t fear hot food, Hunan people don’t fear any degree of spiciness at all, and Guizhou people fear to eat food that isn’t spicy.” The main cooking techniques include baking, braising, sauté, smoking, steaming, stewing, stir-fry. Fermentation and pickling are commonly applied with pepper and vinegar. The well-known Hunan dishes include: Money Fish, Spicy Chicken, Steamed Ham, and Sugar Candy Lotus.

Ham and Bamboo Stew
Ham and Bamboo Stew

8. Anhui (nickname “Hui”) cuisine徽菜

Anhui cuisine is derived from the native cooking styles of the Huangshan region in the southern Anhui province. With history of 800 years, the reason why it becomes China’s major cuisine is because of its important role in the Chinese history. Located in the poor mountainous areas, the Huizhou merchants brought their hometown flavour to other corners of China with their trade travels. The main feature in Anhui cuisine is heating where special attention is paid to the temperature, colouring and the taste of each dish. It has incorporated the practice of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. The cooking method is characterised by an ample use of bamboo shoots, berries, fresh herbs, mushrooms, tealeaves, and other wild edible plants found in the region. Braising and stewing are the common methods, to preserve the nutrients of the dishes. The most famous traditional dishes include: Ham and Bamboo Stew, Fat King Fish in Milk Soup, Snowy Winter Roast Chicken, and Stewed Horse Roof Turtle in Light Soup.

Menu tasting at Chef Man Chinese Restaurant
Interviews with two top restaurateurs

Given the majority of Thais have family linkage from mainland China; Chinese cuisine has been one of the most popular choices for family dinners and gatherings. I spoke with two long time expatriate residents in Bangkok who have
opened well-known establishments in Bangkok for decades. Introducing David Lau, owner of Thai Scala and Man Wai Yin, Chief Executive Officer of Chef Man to learn about their views on the “8 regional cuisine of China.”

The first question was “How do you feel about the rankings of the Chinese cuisine?”

 

David: “Taste and preference in food is very subjective. Part of the reason that Sichuan cuisine is considered number one is because many of their dishes have long history in China. Sichuan is strategically located in the central plains of the “Middle Kingdom” (China) and reigned as capital city for decades.” He further commented, “People are often influenced by their own culture. I believe Guangdong cuisine is sophisticated and cultural. Our responsibilities are to sell what customers want.”

Man Wai Yin: “I echoed the same sentiment. The fact that Guangdong cuisine may in fact be more well known on the international arena is because of the continuous migration and transit via Hong Kong. Many dishes are refined with
long preparation hours. People tend to be prefer their provincial dishes, in short, the cooking that they grow up with.”

Second question was “How contemporary haute cuisine influences the development of our traditions?”

David: “I continuously push my staff to be innovative with new dishes creation. With the global change in environment, eating is culture and it should be open to adaptions and reshaping. The responsibilities as restaurateurs are to sell dishes that are commercially viable.”

Man Wai Yin: “With modernisation and reshaping of avantgarde cuisine, it is important not to lose sight that Chinese cuisine must remain with our main essence and traditions, and not to be too westernised. I quote an example, our contemporary experiment may use western ingredients such as red wine or cheese, but we will not lose sight that the new dish is after all, based on traditional Chinese cooking methods.”

Note:
All the dishes shown in the article were masterwork from the kitchens of Chef Man, under the management guidance of Man Wai Yin, CEO. Photos credited by David Lau, owner of Thai Scala.

“East meets West” Food & Tourism Fair 2020

For centuries, people have found that breaking bread together is the best way to foster friendships. Hong Kong Ladies’ Group is a Bangkok-based, non-profit making social group founded in 1991. Our objective is to assist newly arriving lady-expatriates from Hong Kong to adjust to their new environment and to meet new friends through the monthly luncheons and activities. Apart from promoting friendship, unity and mutual support among members during their residence in Thailand, HKLG has also established a charity trust, funds from which are used to help the needy throughout the country.

One of our key missions of HKLG this year is “global friendship”. The “East meets West” Food & Tourism Fair, hosted by HKLG is a friendship luncheon to foster cultural exchange between our Hong Kong group with international expatriates and Thai communities. With the new era of making friends in social media, a virtual hug cannot overshadow physical connections in person. March 8 is the International Women’s Day. The event provides a platform as part of the month of March to celebrate women empowerment. In addition, we hope the event will be a fundraising opportunity to provide financial resources for charitable organisations benefitting education.

East meet West Food and Tourism Fair.

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