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31 dishes: A guide to China's regional specialties
Each of China's 31 provinces and municipalities has a signature dish. Your culinary journey -- which reaches far beyond Sichuan and Guangdong -- begins here
China has more gourmet styles than you can shake a lamb skewer at: from the spicy heat of the southwest to the hearty meat of nomadic minorities, to the seafood-heavy menus in the southeast.
There are 31 provinces and municipalities spread across the mainland's 9.6 million square kilometers, and each brings a unique approach to meal times.
To take you across the massive country plate by plate, we’ve selected a specialty dish from each mainland province and municipality.
If you can't get to them all, you might at least get to major Chinese cities like Shanghai, where solid renditions of each dish on this list is available in authentic ethnic eateries.
Travel though the entries below, then tell us your favorite Chinese dish via our Facebook poll.
1. Anhui province: Hongshao chou guiyu (red-braised fermented mandarin fish, 红烧臭鳜鱼)
The cuisine: Compared with the rest of China, Anhui cuisine relies less on fried and stir-fried dishes. Locals here prefer simple cooking methods, such as braising and stewing.
The dish: Fermented mandarin fish shares a pungency with blue cheese and stinky tofu, but once you get past first impressions, you'll be rewarded with a braised flavor that's highly addictive.
2. Beijing: Kaoya (Peking roast duck, 烤鸭)
The cuisine: Generations of emperors and blue-blooded residents have set the standard for high-end Chinese cuisine.
The city is famous for imperial cuisine, or guan cai (官菜), which uses only premium quality ingredients and is cooked with complex techniques.
The dish: A perfect kaoya is roasted to a reddish color; its skin remains crispy and the meat oozes a fruity flavor.
A whole roasted duck is typically served in two ways: the juicy meat and crispy skin are wrapped in mandarin pancakes with scallion, cucumber and hoisin sauce; and the bones are slow-cooked into a tasty soup.
With a history spanning a century, Beijing-based restaurant chain Quanjude (全聚德) roasts some of China’s best fowls.
3. Chongqing: La zi ji (chili-fried chicken cubes, 辣子鸡)
The cuisine: Even compared with food from Sichuan, China’s mecca of spicy dishes, Chongqing cuisine scores high in spiciness and numb-inducing ingredients.
The dish: La zi ji combines crispy chicken breast cubes with a fireplace of peppercorn, toasted sesame and dried bird’s-eye chilis to create a plate of hot, red deliciousness.
Restaurant chain Sichuan Folk (simplified Chinese site), or ba guo bu yi (巴国布衣), is a good bet for a plate of authentic la zi ji in major Chinese cities.
The nationwide brand also stages thrilling Sichuan “face-changing” opera performance during dinner hours.
4. Fujian province: Fo tiao qiang (Buddha jumps over the wall, 佛跳墙)
The cuisine: Located along the southeastern coast of China, Fujian is famous for fresh seafood, but its flavorful shrimp oil and shrimp paste make the region’s cuisine stand proud.
The dish: Legend has it that this dish is so irresistible that Buddha jumped over the wall for a taste.
Fo tiao qiang is made of 18 pricey ingredients, including shark fin, abalone, sea cucumber, ginseng and scallops, all simmered together for hours with premium Shaoxing rice wine.
If you’re ready to splurge, try sipping fo tiao qiang (RMB 1,280) while seated in a golden throne at Tanshi Imperial Cuisine (谭氏官府菜, simplified Chinese site), a Qing palace-themed restaurant.
In addition to the traditional ingredients, the restaurant chain adds aphrodisiacs such as deer penis and Chinese caterpillar fungus.
5. Gansu province: Lanzhou lamian (Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, 兰州拉面)
The cuisine: This Islamic province makes hands-down the best noodles with beef or lamb in the country.
The dish: The perfect Lanzhou lamian is made with five ingredients: a clear soup, white radish, green coriander, red chilis, yellow noodles.
The best way to experience this regional mainstay is seated in a humble lamian joint, slurping down noodles amid hungry eaters.
6. Guangdong province: Lao huo tang (slow-boiled soup, 老火汤)
The cuisine: Inhabitants of this southern province are known for their passion for food: whether it’s a sumptuous dim sum feast or a snake hot pot, countless delicacies originate from Guangdong.
The region is most famous for its soup, congee and dim sum, both in China and overseas.
The dish: Slow-boiled soup is the one thing that real Cantonese can’t live a day without.
The soup is usually simmered for at least three hours with traditional Chinese medicines and herbal remedies, such as caterpillar fungus and goji berries.
7. Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region: Luo si ji (pond snail chicken, 螺蛳鸡)
The cuisine: Guangxi province is located in the mountainous terrain of the far south, where locals love to go hunting in the forests and fishing in the lakes.
The results are prepared with spicy and sour flavors.
The dish: Guangxi isn’t just famous for its rice noodles. Luo si ji is a spicy-sour dish featuring pond snails, free-range chicken, bamboo shoots and fermented tofu.
8. Guizhou province: Suan tang yu (fish in sour soup, 酸汤鱼)
The cuisine: Like foodies in Sichuan and Hunan, Miao tribespeople in hilly Guizhou loves their food sour and spicy.
The dish: The soup is made with fermented rice or tomatoes, pickled chilis and various herbs, and then cooked with freshly caught river fish for a super sour blend.
The thick, delicious broth has a persistent aroma. You can throw in tofu and other vegetables and eat it hot-pot style.
9. Hainan province: Hainan jifan (Hainan chicken rice, 海南鸡饭)
The cuisine: Hainanese love to pile their plates with a variety of fresh seafood and exotic fruits from their tropical island.
The dish: The national dish of Singapore is actually a Hainan native.
The best Hainan jifan (chicken rice) uses free-range chickens from the island’s Wenchang county, and the rice is cooked in chicken fat and chicken broth.
10. Hebei province: Lvrou huoshao (donkey meat sandwich, 驴肉火烧)
The cuisine: Much as it is in neighboring Beijing, Hebei cuisine is savory and sauce heavy, with an emphasis on the cut and color of the dishes.
The dish: Brace yourself. Locals reckon donkey is as delicious as dragon meat, even though no one can provide much in the way of documentary evidence of having eaten the latter.
Donkey meat is high in protein, low in cholesterol and has a finer fiber than beef. It's leaner than pork and lacks the funky odor of mutton.
Sliced donkey meat is stewed and served between two pieces of ciabatta-like bread to make a Hebei-style sandwich.
11. Heilongjiang province: Harbin hongchang (Harbin red sausage, 哈尔滨红肠)
The cuisine: Heilongjiang is among the coldest provinces in China, and its people eat lots of meat and Russian bread. The cuisine is typified by heavy sauce and deep-frying.
The dish: In the early 20th century, Russian traders brought this smoked pork sausage across the border into Harbin. Since then it's become a specialty of the city.
Flavored with garlic and black pepper, hongchang is the perfect companion to dalieba bread and tastes even better with a pint of Harbin beer.
12. Henan province: Yangrou huimian (lamb soup noodles, 羊肉烩面)
The cuisine: Located in the center of the country, Henan is known as China's breadbasket due to its powerhouse wheat, rice and grain output.
The dish: Huimian is a type of chewy, belt-like noodle made from fine wheat flour.
What makes it special is lamb broth, which is slow-boiled for at least five hours, resulting in a milky, snow-white soup ideal for a cold day.
13. Hubei province: Sanxian doupi (three delicacies wrapped in tofu skin, 三鲜豆皮)
The cuisine: Three words sum up Hubei cuisine: steamed, fishy and soupy.
The province is also famous for its delicious breakfast snacks, such as hot dry noodles and sanxian doupi.
The dish: Sanxian doupi is Hubei's answer to lasagna.
The traditional breakfast from Wuhan is made with a delicious stuffing, a mixture of soft glutinous rice, egg, mushroom and pork, tucked into two pieces of tofu skin and then pan-fried until golden brown.
14. Hunan province: Duojiao yutou (steamed fish head with pickled chilis, 剁椒鱼头)
The cuisine: Also known as Xiang cuisine (湘菜), Hunan food is known to be just as hot as Sichuan, minus the numbing quality. Locals are partial to smoked and cured meats in their dishes.
The dish: In addition to an irresistible combination of pickled chilis and the tender meat of a fish head, duojiao yutou is packed with nutrients, such as vitamin A and vitamin C, providing an instant metabolism boost.
Restaurant chain South Memory (望湘园) cooks up its own version of this traditional Hunan dish.
Instead of just red chilis, chefs use both green and red chilis to create a colorful mixture. Add the complimentary plate of egg noodles to the soupy fish dish to make a full meal.
15. Inner Mongolia autonomous region: Kao yang tui (barbequed lamb leg, 烤羊腿)
The cuisine: From beef and mutton, to venison and ostrich, hearty Inner Mongolians never say no to barbecue.
The dish: This isn't the average meat-on-a-stick. It's an entire grilled sheep leg loaded with spices.
More on CNNGo: 35 Shanghai street foods we can't resist
16. Jiangsu province: Songshu guiyu (squirrel-like mandarin fish, 松鼠桂鱼）
The cuisine: Jiangsu food is famous for its cut and shape.
The provincial capital of Nanjing produces the best salted duck in the country, while Suzhou in the south is renowned for its desserts and rice cakes.
The dish: Carved into the shape of a squirrel (sort of), the mandarin fish is deep-fried until golden brown, then smothered with a sweet-and-sour glaze, which, when poured sizzling over the fish, results in a squeak that sound like an actual squirrel (thus the name of the dish).
You can sample some of the province’s best Songshu guiyu at historic restaurant Song He Lou (松鹤楼) in Suzhou.
17. Jiangxi province: Sanbeiji (three-cup chicken, 三杯鸡)
The cuisine: Combining the spice of Sichuan, the sweetness of Jiangsu, and generous portions of northern China, the eclectic Jiangxi cuisine throws in a bit of everything.
The dish: Not to be confused with the Taiwanese sanbeiji, this Jiangxi version is made with different sauces.
With no seasonings other than a cup of rice wine, a cup of lard and a cup of soy sauce, this chicken is cooked into a scarlet ambrosial treat.
18. Jilin province: Gou rou guo (dog meat hotpot, 狗肉锅)
The cuisine: On the border with North Korea, Jilin province shares a common love of pickled vegetables and dog meat with its notorious neighbor.
The dish: If you're not troubled by the idea of chowing on “man’s best friend,” dog meat hot pot is considered a great nourishing winter dish.
Garnished with garlic shoots, garlic cloves and green onion, chunks of canine meat are slowly stewed in a soy sauce-based broth for hours until tender and its texture similar to a veal stew.
19. Laoning province: Xiaoji dun mogu (chicken and mushroom stew, 小鸡炖蘑菇)
The cuisine: The Laoning people are known for being extremely straightforward and generous, and their cuisine reflects these traits.
Not as delicate as the culinary culture of the south, Liaoning dishes are known for strong, rich flavors and hearty portions.
The dish: In the cold of northeast China, families huddle together on a heated bed to share a dish of stewed chicken, hazel mushroom and potato noodles to help pass the harsh winters.
Dongbeiren is one of the most popular northeastern-style restaurants in China, and xiaoji dun mogu (RMB 49) is its signature dish.
20. Ningxia Hui autonomous region: Yangza sui tang (sheep entrails soup, 羊杂碎汤)
The cuisine: Favoring simple cooking methods, the nomads and Muslim Hui of this autonomous region can’t live without their boiled beef and mutton.
The dish: A steaming bowl of sheep entrails soup is garnished with spicy red chili oil and fragrant coriander -- the best treat for a Ningxia shepherd after a day of herding.
21. Qinghai province: Shouzhua yangrou (hand-grabbed lamb, 手抓羊肉)
The cuisine: Qinghai’s vast expanse of grassland produces some of the country’s finest mutton and beef. While cooking, locals combine spice with twists of sweetness.
The region's cuisine is heavily influenced by Hui Muslim and Tibetan cooking traditions.
The dish: As a province with a large Islamic population, Qinghai contains a great variety of halal food.
The local style of cooking lamb is to boil it in plain water, which brings out the maximum tenderness of the meat. The meat is then eaten by hand, with diners grabbing and pulling pieces of the meat off the bone.
22. Shaanxi province: Qishan saozi mian (qishan noodles, 岐山臊子面)
The cuisine: The northwestern province makes use of simple ingredients, such as pork, lamb and noodles.
Shaanxi cuisine is often sour and spicy, with strong garlic and coriander flavors.
The dish: These soup noodles feature hand-rolled dough cooked in a red oil-based broth.
The broth is topped with saozi, a stir-fried mixture of diced pork belly, dried tofu, wooden ear mushrooms, day lilies and seaweed.
23. Shandong province: Jiuzhuan dachang (braised pork intestines in brown sauce, 九转大肠)
The cuisine: The hometown of Confucius is also one of the birthplaces of Chinese culinary culture.
Shangdong cuisine is known for its fresh seafood and heavy meat dishes.
The dish: We know what you're thinking, and it’s true -- the English name doesn’t sound particularly appealing.
But this Shandong dish cleverly combines sour, sweet, fragrant, spicy and savory flavors. The result is a delicious meal.
Pork intestines have a peculiar odor, making them tricky to cook, so skillful Shandong cooks make sure they are absolutely clean before throwing them in the wok.
24. Shanghai: Hongshaorou (red braised pork belly, 红烧肉)
The cuisine: Largely influenced by its neighbor Suzhou, Shanghainese love their food sweet.
From hairy crab to hongshaorou, you'll find sweetness on most local plates.
The dish: Undeniably the symbol of Shanghainese cuisine, hongshaorou is rich in flavor and heavy in sauce. It's a dream for pork lovers.
After hours of braising, the lean meat of the pork belly becomes extremely juicy, thanks to layers of fat.
The best hongshaorou comes courtesy of a lovely Shanghainese mother. Don't have one? Yuan Yuan Jiujia (圆苑酒家), a Shanghainese restaurant specializing in hongshaorou that tastes homemade, is the next best thing.
25. Shanxi province: Youmian kao laolao (honeycomb noodles, 莜面栲栳栳)
The cuisine: Shanxi locals like to stick by lamb, vinegar and wheat products. The region also has some of the tastiest and most interesting noodle dishes.
The dish: Once known as a poor man’s dish, honeycomb noodles are made of ground oats, a healthier substitute for wheat. The dish is often steamed, then served with various dips.
26. Sichuan province: Mapo doufu (mapo Tofu, 麻婆豆腐)
The cuisine: Sichuan is one of the most influential regional cuisines in today’s China.
It’s known for the strong flavor and bright color and is heavily seasoned with chili pepper, Sichuan pepper, black pepper and fresh ginger.
The dish: Mapo doufu is named after its creator, a freckle-face woman ("mapo" in Chinese) from Chengdu who lived during the Qing Dynasty. No Sichuan meal is complete without it.
The tofu is tender, the minced beef crispy, the scallions fresh. The sauce hits its “ma” (numb) and “la” (spicy) notes with aplomb.
Chen Mapo Doufu (陈麻婆豆腐), a restaurant in downtown Chengdu, cooks some of the region's best mapo tofu.
27. Tianjin: Tie bobo ao xiaoyu (baked corn bread combined with fish, 贴饽饽熬小鱼)
The cuisine: Tianjin is one of the largest harbor cities in China and the local cuisine mixes all sorts of cooking styles with produce from the sea.
The dish: Tie bobo ao xiaoyu is a Tianjin staple. Combining fish and vegetables in a stew along with baked corn bread, this dish is perfect to share with a group.
Having absorbed the umami flavor from the broth, the corn bread becomes the highlight of the meal.
28. Tibet autonomous region: Kao maoniu pai (barbecued yak ribs, 烤牦牛排)
The cuisine: Tibetans’ Arcadian lifestyle impacts their dining table.
As long as there’s barley wine, yak meat, goat cheese and milk on the menu, locals are satisfied.
The dish: Among a wide selection of yak-based products, the barbecued yak ribs are beloved. They're usually served still sizzling from a grill.
29. Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region: Da pan ji (big plate chicken, 大盘鸡)
The cuisine: Uygur people like to show their hospitality by treating guests to heavy sauces on top of hearty meat dishes served on gigantic plates.
The dish: Da pan ji features big chunks of chicken and potatoes cooked in a beer-based sauce and garnished with colorful bell peppers.
Generous portions are vital.
30. Yunnan province: Guoqiao mixian (over-the-bridge rice noodles, 过桥米线)
The cuisine: Yunnan cuisine is heavily influenced by Sichuan, meaning locals have a yen for spicy food.
The province is also home to the largest number of ethnic minorities in China, who enjoy adding flowers and wild mushrooms to their cooking.
The dish: Allegedly invented by a virtuous wife who wanted to keep her soup noodles fresh and hot for her hard-studying husband, this Yunnan specialty is nutritious and often beautifully presented.
The dish normally comes with a bowl of rice noodles, a bowl of stock and more than a dozen of small plates piled with toppings, such as beef, crab meat, salted goose, oyster mushrooms, wooden-ear mushrooms, assorted vegetables and fragrant herbs.
31. Zhejiang province: Longjing xiaren (dragon well tea fried shrimp, 龙井虾仁)
The cuisine: Zhejiang is rich with fish and rice. The cuisine combines fresh ingredients with decorative elements to create an edible artwork.
The dish: This dish combines the West Lake region’s best green tea with the freshest river prawns. Longjing xiaren is simple and elegant.
Historic Hangzhou restaurant Zhangshengji (张生记), with outlets in Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and beyond, prepares the dish with wild shrimp.
More on CNNGo: 40 Shanghai foods we can't live without