From sweet and sour pork to xiao long bao, Chinese food has become extremely popular around the globe. Its culinary reaches have gone beyond national borders, inspiring not only dishes such as Korean mandu dumplings and jjajangmyeon but also the Philippines’ very own hopia and lumpia among many others.
But what exactly is Chinese cuisine?
Since China spans a multitude of regions and thousands of years of history, it is impossible for it to summarize all of its cooking specialties, techniques, and ingredients with merely one culinary style.
Among the countless food traditions present in the country, there are a select few that are considered to be especially influential and widely regarded. Here are the eight great cuisines of China:
1. Anhui Cuisine (徽菜, Huīcài)
Common Cooking Methods: Braising, Stewing, Steaming
Originating from Huangshan (lit. Yellow Mountain), Anhui cuisine is often described as “Mountain Peasant Food.” It is uniquely characterized by its light, salty, and rustic flavors, as well as its emphasis on health-centric qualities. Common ingredients include a wide variety of wild herbs, fungi, and fauna (e.g. pork, ham, poultry).
Some classic dishes of the cuisine are Smelly Mandarin fish, stinky tofu, Luzhou roast duck, and Wenzheng Mountain bamboo shoots.
2. Cantonese Cuisine (粵菜, Yuècài)
Common Cooking Methods: Steaming, Stir-frying
Due to the emigration of several Yue communities, Cantonese cuisine has become especially prominent outside of China, serving as the country’s representative on the international culinary stage. Dishes of this cuisine are typically mild, fresh, and natural in flavor, featuring a large range of ingredients such as meats, poultry, seafood, and fruits and vegetables.
Cantonese cuisine is most known for its pork charsiu and dim sum, small dishes of food served alongside tea for breakfast or lunch.
3. Fujian Cuisine (闽菜; Mǐncài)
Common Cooking Methods: Steaming, Pan-frying, Frying, Simmering
Outside of China, this cuisine is particularly popular in Taiwan and Southeast Asia, which both have sizable populations of Fujian ancestry. Since the region is located alongside the coast, dishes of this culinary style often employ seafood and seasonings such as fish sauce, shrimp sauce, sugar, rice wine, and sugar. This results in flavors that are generally light and flavorful, highlighting the taste of savory umami.
Notable dishes of the Fujian cuisine include oyster omelettes, misua, and ngo hiang among many others.
4. Hunan Cuisine (湘菜; Xiāngcài)
Regions: Western Hunan, Xiang River, Dongting Lake
Common Cooking Methods: Stewing, Frying, Pot-roasting, Braising, Smoking
The people of Hunan were one of the first to welcome chili peppers when the spices made their way to China during the late 17th century. Several years later, the cuisine developed into one distinctly recognized for its hot, spicy, and occasionally sour flavors. Ingredients used in Hunan cuisine are widely varied because of the region’s high level of agriculture.
Some popular Hunan dishes are Changsha-style rice vermicelli, Dong’an chicken, and Mao’s braised pork (red-braised pork belly).
5. Jiangsu Cuisine (苏菜; Sūcài)
Common Cooking Methods: Simmering, Braising, Stewing
Jiangsu cuisine is defined by the soft texture of its food and attentiveness to heating temperature. Dressed with mild and lightly sweet flavors, the cuisine focuses on preserving both umami and the natural taste of its ingredients, which mainly consist of freshwater fish, seafood, and vegetables.
Well-known examples of Jiangsu cuisine are sweet and sour fish, braised pork ribs, and Yangzhou fried rice.
6. Shandong Cuisine (鲁菜; Lǔcài)
Common Cooking Methods: Quick Frying, Stewing, Roasting, Boiling
Considered to be the oldest among the eight great cuisines, Shandong cuisine features two main styles: Jiaodong, which offers light seafood dishes; and Jinan, which often employs soups. The cuisine is characterized by flavors that are moderately sweet, sour, and salty.
Shandong menus usually list Dezhou braised chicken, braised sea cucumber, and steamed stuffed tofu.
7. Sichuan Cuisine (川菜; Chuāncài)
Common Cooking Methods: Stir-frying, Flash-frying, Quick-frying, Sauteing, Braising, Stewing
Sichuan cuisine is renowned for its hot and spicy dishes. In contrast to Hunan cuisine, however, this culinary tradition heavily utilizes chili, garlic, and Sichuan pepper, which produces a tingling and numbing sensation when eaten. Aside from this, the cuisine also contains preserved foods that have been dried, pickled, and salted.
Popular Sichuan selections include Kung Pao chicken, Mapo tofu, and Sichuan hot pot.
8. Zhejiang (浙菜; Zhècài)
Common Cooking Methods: Stir-frying, Deep-frying, Quick-frying, Steaming, Braising
Considered to be fresh and light rather than greasy, Zhejiang cuisine highlights the natural flavor of its ingredients. Zhejiang specialties may depend on the style of cooking employed. This cuisine has at least three different methods: Hangzhou, which specializes in rich foods and bamboo shoots; Shaoxing, which centers on poultry and fish; and Ningbo, which caters to seafood.
Some Zhejiang specialties are Dongpo pork, Longjing shrimp, and Beggar’s Chicken.