Chinese cuisine: How to tell your Dezhou from your Dongpo
We could argue until the steamed rice gets dry, crusty and walks out the door about which Chinese cuisine is the best. But we won't.
Instead, we've whipped up this primer on the country’s official eight famous Chinese food cooking styles so that next time you get in an argument, at worst you could bluff your way.
And in case you are wondering about that 'official' bit -- around 50 years ago scholars proposed the Eight Great Cuisines, or Great Traditions, worthy of representing China's finest cooking styles -- hence the eight we dish up below.
Don't let those numbers sway you, we are starting in no real order here when dishing up the lowdown on Chinese cuisine.
1. Lu cuisine from Shandong (鲁菜 Lu cai): Keep it simple
Keep it simple, stupid -- that's the mantra of Lu chefs who specialize in heavy sauces and seasonings to create uncomplicated dishes with simple ingredients that avoid the mixing of too many flavors. Be warned, Lu cuisine is not Atkins diet-friendly; it’s heavy on tasty, starchy foods and noodles made from ingredients ranging from wheat, corn and sweet potato to soy beans. However, you could try to diet on this famous Chinese cuisine by sticking to the many stewed soups and seafood.
- Dezhou grilled chicken (德州扒鸡 Dezhou paji)
- Bird’s nest in clear soup (清汤燕窝羹 Qingtang yanwo geng)
- Lotus flower and shrimp (荷花大虾 Hehua daxia)
- Sweet and sour carp (糖醋鲤鱼 Tangci liyu)
2. Chuan cuisine from Sichuan (川菜 Chuan cai): Hot and sophisticated
'Hot and sophisticated' sounds like something you'd read in the personals. If Sichuan food was a potential date, consider yourself warned for all sorts of fireworks. It's already famed for volcanic heat, so there's no need for us to go on about the spiciness. Just know that if you order chicken with chilies, it's going to feel more like chilies with chicken. Beyond the tongue burning, there is great diversity in Chuan cooking and it is regarded as one of the most sophisticated and stimulating of all the Chinese cuisines, with flavors ranging from sour to mind-altering mouth numbing (if that's a flavor). One of the more interestingly named dishes is the Husband and Wife Lung Slices. A dish with an interesting history, it's made not from lung, but with meat from various parts of an ox.
- Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐 Mapo doufu)
- Gongbao chicken (宫保鸡丁 Gongbao jiding)
- Husband and wife lung slices (夫妻肥片 Fuqi feipian)
- Dandan noodles (担担面 Dandan mian)
- Gluttonous bullfrog (馋嘴牛蛙 Chanzui niuwa)
3. Yue cuisine from Guangdong (粤菜 Yue cai): It's all fair game
People like to joke about Yue cuisine’s open-minded approach to cooking -- nearly every living creature is considered fair game, from snakes to monkeys, rats to cats. But Yue cuisine, which includes dim sum, roast duck and pork, is one of the most widely eaten in the world -- extending its territory to Chinatowns in countries far and wide. Yue chefs adapt styles and ingredients from other Chinese cuisines, even incorporating Western influences. Chaozhou cuisine -- a branch of Yue cuisine -- is famed for its fresh, lightly seasoned seafood.
- Roast suckling pig (烤乳猪 Kao ruzhu)
- Roast goose (烧鹅 Shao e)
- Shark’s fin soup (鱼池羹 Yuchi geng)
- Salt and pepper snake (椒盐大王蛇 Jiaoyan dawang xia)
- Steamed turtle with chives (清蒸甲鱼 Qingzheng jiayu)
4. Su cuisine from Jiangsu (苏菜 Su cai): Getting fresh
Chefs of the most popular style of Su cuisine, known as Huaiyang, are supremely demanding of their ingredients. Everything must be just-picked or freshly-slaughtered, as each dish is meant to show off the pure flavor of the main ingredients. Most Huaiyang dishes are mild and often claim medicinal and nutritional benefits. However, Suzhou and Wuxi foods, also part of Su cuisine, are sometimes disparaged for their cloyingly sweet, sugar-laden sauces. Candied fish anyone? Anyone?
Huaiyang and Su Classics:
- Crab and pork balls in clear soup (清炖蟹份狮子头 Qingzhen xiefen shizitou)
- Wuxi pork bone (无锡肉骨头 Wuyi rougutou)
- Yangzhou pork and shredded tofu skin (扬州鸡汤火腿干丝 Yangzhou jitang huotui gansi)
- Nanjing osmanthus duck (南京桂花鸭 Nanjing guihua ya)
5. Zhe cuisine from Zhejiang (浙菜 Zhe cai): Always in season
Zhe cuisine's most famed proponent was Song Dynasty poet and government official Su Dongpo. He is believed to have invented Hangzhou’s celebrated Dongpo pork -- fatty cubes of pork braised in a dark, sweet sauce. Su had ample culinary inspiration as, by his time, Hangzhou cuisine was already famous with over 280 classic dishes. Zhe cuisine, which encompasses Ningbo and Shaoxing cuisines, specializes in fish, shrimp and seasonal vegetables. Similar to Huaiyang (as mentioned above) chefs, Zhe chefs strive to preserve the original flavor of each ingredient. Ningbo cooks, perhaps vying for some of the fame Hangzhou’s chefs enjoy, are generous with salt, believing that every ingredient in a dish should be infused with flavor, while Shaoxing chefs are known for their delicious stewed and steamed dishes.
- Dongpo pork (东坡肉 Dongpo rou)
- West lake vinegar fish (西湖醋鱼 Xihu cu yu)
- Shrimp Sautéed with Dragonwell Tea Leaves (龙井虾肉 Longjin Xiarou)
- Beggar’s Chicken (叫花鸡 Jiaohua ji)
6. Hui cuisine from Anhui (徽菜 Hui cai): Flaming flavor
Intensely flavored cold-pressed vegetable oils are used in Hui cuisine. Hui chefs are used to getting a workout -- this strong and savory Chinese cuisine demands cooking with heavy woks over huge flames. Wok cooking is a true test of stamina and dexterity: apprentice chefs train by tossing sand over and over in a wok. Huohou wei or "the flavor of the flame" is essential to Hui cuisine, imparting dishes with a smoky flavor that people sitting at the next table can smell. Hui cuisine also includes a variety of braised and steamed dishes. Many famous Hui dishes are stewed for hours and incorporate dark, heavy sauces enhanced by sugar.
- Yellow mountain stewed pigeon (黄山炖鸽 Huangshan dun ji)
- Crisp pork with pine nuts (松仁排骨 Songren paigu)
- Anhui-style smoked duck (无为熏鸭 Wuwei xun ya)
- Red-braised fish tails (红烧划水 Hongshao huashui)
7. Min cuisine from Fujian (闽菜 Min cai): The tastiest of all
Fans of Min cuisine declare that it is the tastiest of all Chinese cuisines. Legend has it that the fragrance of a dish entitled "Buddha Jumps Over the Wall" (佛跳墙 Fo Tiao Qiang), is so enticing that passing monks abandoned vegetarian discipline and leap walls to devour it. Fujian, on China’s southeast coast, is home to a famed sleepy resort island called Gulangyu, renowned for its fish ball soup. For obvious reasons, this Chinese cuisine includes plentiful fresh seafood, which is often seasoned very lightly or not at all during cooking. These delicately-flavored dishes are served with dipping sauces such as chili, barbecue or wasabi. Formal Min cuisine incorporates brown sugar, and common sauces include sweet and sour and a red fermented rice paste called "hongzao."
- Braised shark fin( 红烧鱼翅 Hongshao yuchi)
- Steamed chicken ball with egg white (芙蓉鸡丸 Furong jiwan)
- Crisp pomfret with lychee (荔枝鲳鱼 Lizhi changyu)
- Oyster pancake (蚝仔煎 Hao zai jian)
- Seven Stars Fish Balls (七星鱼丸 Qixing yuwan)
8. Xiang cuisine from Hunan (湘菜 Xiang cai): Spice it up
Although this cuisine employs generous chili peppers, it's not to be confused with its fiery cousin, Sichuan cuisine. While Sichuan foods feature mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn and all manner of innards like intestines and esophagus, Xiang focuses squarely on lip-smacking fatty smoked pork, heavy and salty sauces, and a rainbow of pickled vegetables including carrots and radishes. Xiang chefs are liberal with oil, salt and hot spices, and aside from pork are well-known for their skills with poultry.
- Dong’an chicken (东安鸡 Dong’an ji)
- La zi chicken (辣子鸡丁 Lazi jiding)
- Smoked pork with pickled beans (腊肉酸豆角 Larou suan doujiao)