Eating in China: The Essential Intro to Chinese Cuisine

If you are going to talk about Asian cuisine then China must be first on the list, in many ways it’s like the mother of Asian culture influencing the whole region. This is in part to the large immigration out of China seeing fusion cuisines develop throughout Asia and beyond.

The Chinese are quite famous for their deep knowledge of food and its use as medicine which, with their focus on living a happy long life, plays a large role in their cuisine. Chinese food can be healing, restorative, health maintaining and extremely delicious.


To speak generally you can break China up into chili lovers in the west, bread lovers in the north, rice lovers in the south and sweet lovers in the east. But this is very much a generalization, there are 55 minorities in China and many, many distinct local cuisines and food cultures.

Western people can often be repulsed by some ingredients, the Chinese waste nothing, particularly the Cantonese in Guangdong. Looking down into your soup and seeing a Chicken head bob up, can be quite off putting for first-time visitors. But relax in the knowledge that Chinese are extremely healthy, and have been at this for thousands of years, you’ll be OK. Actually, probably more than OK, your health will probably only improve.

Those uncomfortable with Chili will probably find themselves most comfortable with everyday Cantonese cuisine. It’s very fresh, light, tasty and mostly without Chili. Cantonese DimSum is incredibly popular with visitors to China, as pictured below.

dimsum

Dumplings are probably the most well known and widely popular dish with all that go to China. There are so many variants, so so many.

Dumplings

Another hugely popular style of dish is Hot Pot, again there are so many variants depending on the region.

Eating Style and Habits
Commonly across China meals are served as share food, a series of small dishes of food, often with a centerpiece dish, is placed on the table for all to pick from and enjoy. Tea is widely served with meals, generally green tea, people will often drink tea before and after the meal. Watermelon, or other fruit, is commonly served after eating.

As you know, Chopsticks are used across China and here are Five Golden Rules of Chopstick Etiquette:

  • Don’t use them to tap the bowl or plate it (It’s what beggars do)
  • Never use it to point at others.
  • Don’t suck the end of a chopstick.
  • Don’t poke at the food, or stir the shared food, only use your chopsticks to grab the piece that you are going to eat.
  • Don’t insert it vertically into your rice, as it looks like incense that is used to pay respects to the dead.

At the table in most restaurants, you will see a dining turntable, aka Lazy Susan, on which the tea pot is placed along with all the dishes that come out. If you are the guest, it’s likely the turntable will be spun to you for first try of the newly laid down dishes.

The bowl, is your rice bowl or eating bowl, and waste bones etc. go onto the plate. You’ll also have a spoon that’s for soup and wet dishes, don’t use it as a serving spoon, there should be one of those for each of the respective dishes.

plates

The Eight Famous Cuisines, widely regarded as the most prominent in China are:

1. Guangdong/Cantonese Cuisine 粤菜 Yuècài
The dishes they serve don’t have strong flavors since it is lightly seasoned, and they often tend to be a little sweet. Cantonese love soup, and it’s often drank prior to the main meal. Cantonese food is the most popular style internationally. Along with the traditional Dim Sum feast, well known dishes include Wonton, Cheungfen or Rice Noodle Rolls, Rice Porridge, Sweet and sour pork and BBQ meats.

2. Sichuan Cuisine 川菜 Chuāncài
Sichuan Province produced the most widely served cuisine in China. Their dishes are famous for their hot-spicy taste and the numbing flavor of Sichuan peppercorn that is rare in other regional cuisines. Popular dishes include Twice Cooked Pork and Kung Pao Chicken.

3. Jiangsu Cuisine 苏菜 Sūcài
Fresh, moderately salty and sweet, precise cooking techniques, favoring seafood, soups and artistic, colorful presentation Jiangsu Province and China’s biggest city, Shanghai, have a very refined gourmet cuisine that is often served at government banquets. Their chefs also focus on serving meals that promote health. Sweet and sour spare ribs is a famous dish from Jiangsu along with Yangzhou fried rice, and Three Chickens of Jiangsu.

4. Zhejiang Cuisine 浙菜 Zhècài
Zhejiang Province is the province south of Jiangsu, and it borders on Shanghai too, so their style is similar to theirs, but it is less elaborately prepared. They focus more on serving fresh food. The food is often served raw or almost raw and is fresh and crispy and seasonal. Popular dishes include Beggar’s chicken, Dongpo pork, west lake fish in vinegar sauce and Songsao Shredded Fishsoup.

5. Fujian/Min Cuisine 闽菜 Mǐncài
Fujian Province is known for great seafood and soups and the precise use of scintillating but not tongue numbing spices. Adding much wild exotic delicacies from the sea and mountains makes their dishes have unusual flavors. Popular dishes include Buddha Jumps Over the Wall and Sea mussel quick-boiled in chicken soup.

6. Hunan Cuisine 湘菜 Xiāngcài
If you like Sichuan food, you’ll probably like Hunan food too since it is even hotter. It is tastier and more delicious because they don’t use peppercorn that numbs the mouth. Popular dishes include Steamed fish head in chili sauce, Changsha-style stinky tofu and Mao’s braised pork.

7. Anhui Cuisine 徽菜 Huīcài
It is inland, and big mountains such as the Yellow Mountains are the source of lots of different wild foods and herbs. It is basically a hearty mountain peasant food. Some of the best dishes incorporate wild food for an unusual taste. Some dishes are sweet from added sugar. Popular dishes include Stir-Fired and Steamed Frog, Phoenix-Tailed Shrimp, Smoked Chicken and Duck, Stewed Soft-shell Turtle.

8. Shandong Cuisine 鲁菜 Lǔcài
Shandong was one of the first civilized areas, and it set the pattern for northern styles of cooking. With a long coast, seafood is its forte. They preserve the original taste of the seafood by using simple ingredients and braising, and they like vinegar and salt. Unlike southern cuisines, they serve much more wheat food, including their noodles. Popular dishes include Congshao haishen, Jiu Zhuan Da Chang and dumplings wrapped with shrimp meat.

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