Regional cooking styles: Chinese Cuisine

Not surprisingly, given China’s size, there are a number of distinct regional cooking styles that can be divided into four major traditions: the northern plains, including Beijing; the fertile east, watered by the Yangtze River; the south, famous for the Cantonese cooking of the Guangdong Province; and the luxuriant west of Szechwan and Hunan Provinces. Some observers characterize those regional cuisines as salty in north, sweet in south, hot in east, and sour in west.


Severe winters, a short growing season, and arid climate shape the hearty cuisine of China’s north. The staples are wheat, barley, millet, potatoes, and soybeans, as opposed to rice, which characterizes the other regions. Noodles such as cellophane noodles (made from mung bean flour), rice ribbon noodles (made from rice flour), and breads such as steamed wheat buns, pancakes, and dumplings are the base of the meal. Soy milk is extracted from soybean paste and used to make bean curd, commonly known as tofu. Tofu is used in a variety of ways because it absorbs the flavor of sauces and seasonings, readily resulting in very tasty dishes. The most commonly eaten vegetable is Chinese cabbage, or bok choy. Salted and pickled vegetables such as turnips and white radish are common. The food is flavored with onions, garlic, and dark soy sauce. Soybean paste is the basis of many other pastes like hoisin (also known as Chinese barbeque sauce or plum sauce) and yellow bean, usually used to thicken sauces or as a marinade or seasoning. The northern portion of China also has a distinct Mongolian influence, characterized by the nomadic simplicity of the fire pot. Fuel being scarce in this region, the Mongols would huddle around the fire pot warming their hands while a tureen of broth was heating. Paper-thin slices of lamb or beef were dipped into the boiling broth until cooked and then dipped in spicy sauces. After the meal, the then richly seasoned broth was poured into bowls and served as soup. Northern cooking is known also as Mandarin or Beijing cooking and was influenced by the imperial court, where royal haute cuisine was developed. Peking duck is a traditional delicacy where thin slices of barbecued duck skin, wrapped in thin pancakes, are eaten with hoisin sauce. Beijing is known for jiaozi, the traditional Chinese dumpling filled with pork and vegetables, but variations may include sweet fruits or chestnuts during the holidays.


The central coast provinces are known as “The Land of Fish and Rice” and produce the eastern style of cooking, based on fresh seafood and river fish. Wheat, barley, rice, corn, sweet potatoes, and soybeans are the major staple crops. Sugar cane is grown in the humid valleys. Numerous varieties of bamboo shoots, beans, melons, gourds, squashes, and leafy vegetables are found here, and peaches, plums, and grapes flourish. Based around the cities of Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Fujian, as well as the Yangtze River, eastern Chinese cuisine includes careful preparation and fine knife skills, delicate forms, and light, fresh, sweet flavors based on the use of stocks and slow cooking. Stir-fried dishes and steaming are also common cooking methods. Dried and salted meats and preserved vegetables are commonly used to flavor dishes. It was in this region that Chinese vegetarian cuisine was elevated to sophisticated heights, as a result of the wealth of ingredients and the expertise of the regional chefs.

One of the most striking features in eastern cooking is the quantity of sugar included in both vegetable and meat cooking. Sugar combined with a dark soy sauce creates perhaps the most fundamental eastern flavor. Rice wine appears in regional specialties such as Drunken Chicken, Drunken Spare Ribs, and Drunken Prawns. Regional specialties include soy-braised duck and goose and Beggar’s Chicken, a dish wrapped in lotus leaves, covered in clay, and oven baked. Century egg is also known as a preserved egg, or thousand-year egg. It is made by preserving duck, chicken, or quail egg in clay, ash, salt, or lime, for several weeks or months. The yolk of the egg turns pale and dark green, while the egg white turns dark brown and translucent. The egg white has a gelatinous texture, similar to that of a cooked egg, but has very little taste. Wuxi spare ribs features the common eastern technique of “red cooking,” in a stock of soy sauce and rice wine to produce a flavorful stew. Hangzhou and the West Lake area boast the delicate ham known as jinhua, a type of cured ham known for its smoky flavor and scarlet color, and the world-famous Dragon Tea Well, for which only the top three leaves of each branch are considered worthy. Shanghai is known for its unusual “soup inject” dishes (xiao long bao, or xiao long tang bao), which are meatballs, dumplings, or buns filled with a gelatin and stock mixture and cooked until the inside is soupy.


Western China is known for Sichuan, or Szechuan, cooking. A basin in the southwestern part of the country, Sichuan is one of the most agriculturally productive areas in China. Broken by small hills, the countryside is cut into squares, each an irrigated paddy field. Rice is grown during the summer, and after it has been harvested in the late autumn, wheat is planted in its place to be harvested six months later. The government, which controls all the supplies of grain in China, uses the surplus to help feed the big cities further east. On the lower slopes of the hills are an abundance of citrus fruit orchards (tangerines in particular) and bamboo groves, while on the higher forested mountainsides the people collect various kinds of edible fungi, such as muer (wood-ears) and silver fungi. The western half of Sichuan is very mountainous and sparsely populated. The people, mainly of Tibetan origin, keep sheep, cows, and horses.

The tea plant has long been of great agricultural importance for China. Its origins trace to the second century A.D., when it was grown in plantations in the uplands of central China and the ranges of the coastal provinces. Tea is also important in the interior Sichuan province. Green tea accounts for 45 percent of tea production. Black and brick tea comprise another 45 percent, and wulung, chrysanthemum, and jasmine tea are other varieties. Yunnan grows magnificent teas, especially the exotic pu-erh, that is sometimes aged for up to a hundred years before being served at banquets. Another well-known product is Yunnan ham (similar to Spanish serrano). China’s west also grows some of the world’s hottest chile peppers, which have given Sichuan a reputation for heat. There are several thoughts behind this; one is that the fire will stimulate the palate to distinguish the flavors beneath; another is that the heat induces perspiration and helps people to keep cool; and some say the spices are used to mask the taste of foods that rot quickly in the heat.

The texture of different ingredients in a dish is important to western Chinese cooking and care is taken to produce “chewy” and “crunchy” results. Unlike dishes in eastern China, many western dishes are accompanied by only the minimum of sauce to convey the season- ings; the sauce itself is not an important feature in the dish. The resulting dishes are drier. Similar to the southern regional cuisine, it is usual to find garlic, chiles, vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce in one dish. Because of the region’s humidity, the preservation of food takes top priority. Salting, drying, pickling, and smoking are traditionally all employed. Pungent veg- etables like onions, garlic, and ginger are used, as well as aromatic sesame, peanuts, soybean products, fermented black soybeans, orange peel, aniseed, ginger, and spring onions. Also known as pepper flower, Chinese pepper, and fagara, Szechuan pepper is not a pepper at all. Instead, the reddish-brown fruit, one of the ingredients in five-spice power, is a berry that comes from the prickly ash tree. While not as hot as chile pepper, it has a unique flavor, famous for its numbing effect on the tongue. Some notable Szechuan dishes include kung pao chicken, tea-smoked duck, chengdu chicken (chicken cubes with hot bean paste), and mapo tofu, a snow-white bean curd with fried, minced beef and green garlic shoots flavored with crushed peppercorns.


Hunan (south of the river) cuisine is less well known and descriptions of Chinese cuisine often lump the two together. Hunan cuisine is often even hotter than Szechuan cooking.

While Szechuan recipes often call for chile paste, Hunan dishes frequently use fresh chile peppers, including the seeds and membranes, where most of the heat is contained. Simmering, steaming, stewing, and frying are popular cooking techniques in Hunan Province. Hunan cooks have a great variety of ingredients to work with and they tend to have several steps in preparation. For example, a classic Hunan dish is orange beef, where the beef is marinated overnight, then washed and marinated again with a mixture including egg white, wine, and white pepper. In braised soy sauce beef, the meat is simmered in an aromatic mixture including star anise, sugar, ginger, soy sauce, and sherry. Another popular dish is crispy duck, where the duck is seasoned with peppercorns, star anise, fennel, and other spices, then steamed and finally deep fried.

China’s southernmost province, Guangdong (formerly Canton), is the home of the most famous of the Chinese regional cuisines. Though densely populated, this is very fertile land with mild winters. Rice is the main staple, but the farmers grow a profusion of fruit and green vegetables throughout the year. The subtropical climate is perfect for fruits such as pineapple, lychee, oranges, and bananas. Subtler than other Chinese cuisines, Cantonese is best known for its freshness and emphasis on natural flavors. As an example of the high standard for freshness in Cantonese meals, cows and pigs used for meat are usually killed earlier the same day. Chickens are often killed just hours beforehand, and fish are displayed in tanks for customers to choose for immediate preparation. The spices used in Cantonese cooking tend to be light and natural: ginger, salt, soy sauce, white pepper, spring onion, and rice wine or fresh citrus. Fish is quickly steamed with minimal touches of ginger and soy sauce; soups are slow-cooked; pork and duck are barbecued or roasted; and virtually everything that walks, crawls, or flies with “its back to heaven” (as the Cantonese saying goes) is quickly stir-fried in blazing-hot woks. The people of this region are known to eat nearly everything: fish maw, snake liver, dog, and guinea pig are some of the more unusual ingredients.

Guangdong is also praised for its perfected tradition of presentation. Cantonese cooks often make artistic and colorful presentational accents, such as radish roses or scallion flowers. Seafood flavors are incorporated into meat cookery, such as oyster sauce, made from a distillation of the oysters grown in the shallow waters of the Pear River, or shrimp sauce. Salted black beans are used to impart a highly savory taste; ginger is used to counteract fishiness; and garlic is used as an aromatic. Barbecue-roasted duck, chicken, and pork dishes are im- portant here. Fruit is often included in Cantonese cooking, especially lemon, plum, tangerine, and orange, which are evident in the tangy, sweet-and-sour sauces. The tradition of dim sum (“touching the heart” or “little eats”) originated here. It is usually eaten in the mornings and early afternoons. Popular dim sum items are ha gau (shrimp dumpling), siu mai (prawn and pork dumpling), pai gwat (steamed spareribs), chun guen (spring rolls), cha siu pau (steamed barbecued pork buns), and cheung fun (steamed rice flour rolls with barbecue pork, beef, or shrimp). Other well-known Cantonese dishes include shark’s fin soup, roasted suckling pig, barbecued pork or char siu, lo mein, and the omelets known as fu young.

Amit Kumar
Amit Kumar
Hii! Welcome to My digital home, I am Amit – an almost no-code generalist, helping businesses with their online presence using WordPress and other tools and simplifying some of their operations with ideas and automation. A psychology and philosophy geek by interest and a graduate in Hospitality Management. I founded hmhelp during college, which got me into WordPress. I am a highly motivated and results-oriented professional with a proven track record of success in the hospitality industry. I’m also a Digital Marketing Enthusiast with significant academic and practical experience managing digital content across multiple platforms. Skilled at SEO optimization, developing digital content for social media platforms, I offer extensive knowledge of multiple software programs, strong attention to detail, and extraordinary communication skills. If you are interested in talking about any of the topics I have mentioned on my website, you are in the right place. You can contact me or learn more about what I do. You can also connect with me on social networks.

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