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The Four Cuisine Regions of China
Divisions between Chinese culinary regions have blurred somewhat in modern times, given trading and migration between regions over the years. But today, as in the past, Chinese food is classified into four schools, based in the north, south, east, and west of the country. Each cuisine boasts of famous dishes as well as lesser-known specialties of the city, town, and countryside. The amazing number of available foodstuffs, and a variety of preparations, provides presents travelers in China with a happy problem: one hardly knows what to try next.
I have asked many Chinese friends in Beijing which region of China has the poorest food. “The north!” is always the answer, accompanied by a rueful smile. General opinion deems northern Chinese cooking the ‘poorest’ of the four schools, because of the lack of variety in ingredients and preparation relative to other regions. Nonetheless, the traveler will find plenty of delicious dishes available. Northern cuisine favors straightforward tastes, with garlic, scallions, leeks and chilies some primary flavor notes. Mutton and pork are the meats of choice (mutton being particularly used in the Muslim northwest.) Poultry is only used by the wealthy or on special occasions (chickens are commonly kept by poorer folk, but used for their eggs.) Seafood is rare. Northern cuisine uses salt and oil liberally and doesn’t shy away from animal fat (especially pork fat.) These last two seasonings have the advantage of adding calories to the diet in the north’s bitterly cold winters. Often northern Chinese will preserve vegetables for the winter, such as cabbages, carrots and radishes (Korean kim chi style pickles are common.) Cabbages and mustard greens are made into side dishes.
Rice, while common in cities and restaurants, is secondary to wheat products such as pancakes, steamed buns, noodles, and dumplings. The north is famous for these grain-based foods, many of which are eaten as snacks. Travelers in north China (particularly to Beijing) will become familiar with jiaozi, delicious meat or vegetable filled dumplings dipped in a black vinegar sauce. For breakfast there are mantou or baozi, steamed buns eaten with zhou, rice porridge. Noodles abound, stir-fried or in soups. The Chinese liking for noodles would seem to rival that of the Italians. A wealth of pasta shapes, thicknesses, and textures are available in markets, freshly made or dried, and in restaurants.
Beijing, the nation’s capital, is a gastronome’s delight, with many national and international cuisines available. The area has always had, and continues to have, its own particular cuisine. From about 1000 A.D. onwards, the imperial presence in Beijing demanded suitably elaborate foods, with thousands of dishes prepared for state dinners and private banquets. Bear’s paws, camel’s humps, and bird’s nests were just a few of the exotica gracing the emperor’s tables. The Beijing cuisine of today is called lao Beijing cai, (‘old Beijing food’) and, being classic northern food, is nowhere near as exotic as the imperial cuisine of old. Roasted mutton and chicken are common in lao Beijing restaurants, as well as salty vegetable dishes.
Certainly one of the most elegant and famous Chinese dishes, both in China and abroad, comes from Beijing— Peking duck. Classic Beijing duck meals are three courses, with almost every part of the duck used. First, a meticulously raised duck is glazed and roasted. The first course is crispy duck skin, wrapped in thin pancakes with scallions and dipped in a black bean sauce. In the second course, the duck meat is stir-fried; in the third, the bones are used to make soup.
Eastern Chinese cuisine, found in the cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou as well as the surrounding provinces, is primarily a cuisine of sweetness. This school uses sugar, wines, and vinegars to provide sweet tastes and create subtlety of flavor. Like the north, eastern cooks favor oily dishes, although these are more subtle than in those in the north. Seafood is abundant, as the Yangtze River drains into the ocean near Shanghai. The lakes and river tributaries provide abundant fish and shellfish to this region. Pork and poultry are used as well. Soups and soupy dishes are very popular. Shanghai is known for its unusual ‘soup inject,’ dishes, which are meatballs, dumplings, or buns filled with a gelatin and stock mixture and cooked until the inside is soup. Because of the French and British presence there in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, Shanghai cooking incorporates some European influence. There are Shanghai-style zakuski (Russian cold appetizers) in fancy restaurants, and French-style cakes and pastries in the sidewalk cafés.
The food of China’s west, including the provinces of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan, is nothing less than vibrant. It combines a cornucopia of eastern spices with a natural abundance of ingredients. Meats are primarily pork, beef, and poultry, while vegetables and fruits are tenfold. Bean dishes, such as tofu, are also common. This is a sophisticated and highly spiced cuisine, often extremely spicy hot. Red chili appears in many dishes, often to extremes rivaling that of Mexican or Thai preparations.
Of this school, the cooking of Sichuan ( Szechuan) is the most famous, although Hunanese food, which is quite similar, is also popular. (Mao Zedong was from Hunan and preferred the dishes of his home province above all others.) While many Chinese-American ‘Szechuan’ restaurants serve some version of Sichuan food, it is generally a pale imitation of the real thing. Common Sichuanese spices include cassia bark, cumin, cinnamon, various peppercorns, star anise, and dried tangerine peel, among others. As in the region as a whole, red chili peppers are extremely common in Sichuanese food. It is by no means always spicy, however. One classic Sichuan dish is ma po dou fu, soft tofu cubes in a ‘numbing-spicy” ground pork and chili sauce. The unusual ‘numbing’ flavor, called ma la in Chinese, comes from the Sichuan red peppercorn which, when eaten, makes the tongue and mouth numb and tingly. The Chinese believe ma la dishes are good for the health in cold, wet weather.
The food of the south is widely regarded as the country’s best. Southern Chinese cuisine centers on Guangdong province and its capital, Guangzhou (once called Canton), and Hong Kong. A famous proverb illustrates the fame of Guangdong food: “Live in Hangzhou, marry in Suzhou, dine in Guangzhou, and die in Luzhou.” (These cities are said to have the best view, the prettiest women, the best food, and the best coffin wood, respectively).
This subtropical region is rich in resources, and Guangdong chefs have abundant produce, seafood, and meats at their disposal. Guangdong cuisine incorporates ingredients from all over China and is known for its sometime use of ‘exotic’ animals. As another culinary proverb states, in Guangdong cuisine, “anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to Heaven is edible.” To be sure, travelers to this region will notice a perhaps-shocking array of animals for sale in the marketplace—dogs, cats, snakes, and turtles are some of the more commonplace. However, these foods are not eaten that often, and there are plenty of ‘ordinary’ dishes available—let it only be said that this region of China is ideal for the gastronomic adventurer!
Above all else, classical Guangdong cooking emphasizes absolute freshness of ingredients and correct technique. Ingredients are usually prepared with a light touch, just enough cooking and seasoning to bring out the natural flavors of the foods. Guangdong cuisine uses a wide range of cooking techniques, but steaming and stir frying are especially common. The cuisine is famous for its seafood, especially steamed fish and shellfish prepared in various ways. Pork and duck are glazed with mixtures of sugar, wine, and soy and roasted to a beautiful golden-red. These Guangdong-style roasted ducks are often seen hanging in Chinatown shop windows the world over. Dishes are almost always served with freshly cooked rice, since Guangdong is part of a rice growing region.
Travelers to China, and food enthusiasts interested in authentic Chinese cuisine, have discovered an amazing amount of unusual ingredients, flavors and preparations in Chinese food. It may soon be that diners in Chinese-American restaurants will sit down to a dish of twice-cooked pork belly, Beijing-style mustard cabbage, or duck and taro stew. Here’s hoping.