Of all nations, China is endowed with the greatest variety of
cuisines and regional dishes. Some scholars distinguish as many
great cuisines of China, but the Middle Kingdom's culinary
most conveniently categorized by the four cardinal points of the
Even so, an article of this size cannot hope to describe the amazing
variety of fare available throughout Greater China, but this
give you enough basic knowledge to sound like a connoisseur at a
banquet, no matter where the host is from.
Down South: Canton
Guangzhou (Canton) is the first stop on any gastronomic tour of
Cantonese food or yuecai is celebrated as the king of Chinese
but most of the stuff that passes for Cantonese food outside
end up in the garbage can of any self-respecting Cantonese
what exactly is good Cantonese food? Here is a guide to the
this complicated cuisine, kindly provided by chef Ou (pronounced
Weiliang of the Sampan Seafood Restaurant. The Sampan has earned
as one of the finer Cantonese restaurants in Beijing, and it
a few mouthfuls of chef Ou's steamed prawn dumplings to see that
reputation is well deserved.
Chef Ou learned the art of Cantonese cooking in Hong Kong after what
he calls 'the gourmet revolution.' During the 1950s, Hong Kong
with expert chefs from all over China. The city's rapid development
as an international trading center also brought new, imported ingredients.
Chefs in Hong Kong began to have access
to ingredients like never before,
and they began experimenting," chef Ou says as he runs his tongue
his lips for added emphasis.
Variety is a hallmark of Cantonese cuisine, befitting the varied
of the denizens of the busiest import/export zone in Asia. A
Cantonese meal is comprised of dishes made from subtly,
ingredients such as steamed cod fish with preserved duck-egg yolk
minced garlic, braised fresh crab meat with eggplant, sweet and sour
beancurd with BBQ pork and, of course, endless plates of smaller
meat buns and fried dumplings that fall under the general
Like most New Yorkers, I think of dim sum as a Sunday afternoon
involving a few hours spent inside the Triple Eight Palace
the Manhattan bridge, randomly picking small dishes from buffet
However I have often felt oppressively full well into the evening
a Triple Eight brunch. But the dim sum served to me here is neither
heavy nor greasy. This is as it should be, explains chef Ou.
"Cantonese food should be light, combining a greater variety of
then other regional cuisines. If it's mediocre, you feel bloated; if
it's good, you're hungry two hours later."
Anyone who has travelled through Guangdong province has noticed that
many animals considered pets elsewhere are thought of as ingredients
for the pot down south. There is an old Cantonese saying "fei qin
shou," which roughly translates as 'if it flies, swims or runs, you
can eat it.' Chef Ou tells me that the reputation is not necessarily
deserved, and that his restaurant serves very little in the way
species. "For instance," he tells me "I wouldn't serve you snake
during the warmer months - it's strictly a winter food."
Nonetheless, most Chinese people can name at least one Cantonese
that would not look out of place in an Indiana Jones movie:
(longhudou) is a delicacy consisting of a
roast snake entwined
around a roast cat.
Naked Lunch: Chaozhou
The next culinary stop is Chaozhou (Chiuchow), a coastal city only a
few hours drive north of Guangzhou. Despite the geographical
Chaozhou food is unique enough to be considered in a class by
Expect dishes from this region to be extremely light and made of
the freshest ingredients. "Chaozhou cuisine utilizes the most
of flavors, and cannot hide behind a wall of excess spices,"
Proprietress Wu, of the Chiuchow Garden Restaurant, one of the most
highly regarded Chaozhou restaurants in Beijing.
Chaozhou chefs pay special attention to the presentation of their
A superb dish that appeals equally to the eye and the palate is the
plain-sounding mashed vegetable with minced chicken - made to
a large green and white yin-yang symbol - the green being a spinach
puree and the white a glutinous chicken and egg-white broth.
foods abound, but Chaozhou-style means no grease. Stewed diced
wrapped with egg white, for example, chicken wrapped in a thin skin
made from egg whites. Although it is fried, it is not even
Deep fried bean curd is also remarkably light and fresh for a
in this way.
"Chaozhou dishes require the freshest of ingredients. There is
to hide behind. If anything is even the least bit stale, you will
Chaozhou's most famous dishes are probably China's most expensive
shark's fin and bird's nest soup. While the former is really just a
fancy fish soup, the latter is surprisingly sweet and subtly
The Spicy West: Sichuan and
When a person from Sichuan or Hunan asks you if you like spicy food,
you'd best consider your reply well, for natives of these two
provinces do not joke when it comes to liberal usage of hot red
pepper, wild pepper and garlic. It is likely that both regional
were influenced by ancient travelers from Siam (Thailand) and
Sichuan and Hunan are both hot and uncomfortably humid. So why is
their cuisine so spicy? Eating dishes laden with red peppers induces
perspiration; traditional medicine advises that sweat expels bodily
toxins, purges the humors and helps equalize body temperature.
also evaporates and causes a confection effect, thereby cooling off
the chili-consumer. Moreover, once your tongue gets used to the
fire, there is an extraordinary range of delicate flavors behind the
Sichuan cuisine uses chilies that have been either marinated or
in oil, as well as Sichuan wild pepper (huajiao). This
spice is described as 'ma ' in Mandarin - the root of anesthesia
it effectively numbs your tongue and taste buds. Although the flavor
of Sichuan wild pepper has been compared to that of soap dipped
balm, the hot-cool-numb sensation produced by crunching on a pepper
The Hunanese, who claim their food is the hottest in China,
peppers unmarinated and fresh producing a very spicy bite. Mao's
province produces a number of famous spicy dishes with suitably
names such as red-cooked pork (hongshao rou), and
red-cooked Hunan fish
(hongshao wuchangyu). Popular appetizers include fried
and minced meat, and silverfish fried with soy sauce and chili
One of the most famous Chinese dishes and a perennial foreigner
is Kung Pao Chicken (gongbao jiding). This dish first
in Sichuan and its legendary origin is a good example of the
of Chinese chefs to improvise. However, this tendency sometimes
to unfortunate dishes like a concoction currently popular in Beijing
known as 'deep fried ice-cream on toast'. Gongbaojiding is one of
good ones though.
Ding Baozhen served under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) Emperor
as the governor of Shandong province. One day he arrived home with a
group of friends, but his cook hadn't prepared for guests, and
a meager chicken breast and some vegetables in the kitchen. The cook
diced the chicken into tiny bits, and fried it up with cucumber,
dried red peppers, sugar, onion, garlic, bits of ginger - sundry
that had been lying around the bottom of the cupboard.
Ding Baozhen and his guests really enjoyed the improvised meal,
so that it became a regular item on the menu. Eventually, Ding Baozhen
was promoted to Governor General of Sichuan province. His cook w
with him to Sichuan where he began experimenting with the local
including hot broad bean sauce and Sichuan chili peppers. Soon
chicken dish was all the rage in the province. The people honored
Baozhen by naming the dish after his official name, Gongbao. (His
'Ding' has nothing to with the "ding" in gongbaojiding
means cube or piece.) The moral of this story is that if you work
at your craft, like Ding Baozhen's chef, one day a dish will be
after your boss.
Drunken Birds and Juicy Meat Bombs:
The rice, seafood and fresh vegetable-based cooking of the southern
coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu is generally known as
cai. As the area's biggest city, Shanghai has made the region's best
If the personality of a population was to be judged by its food,
people would be described as hot tempered, people from Chaozhou
and unpretentious, and the Cantonese as subtle and complicated. The
Shanghainese could be summed-up in one word: 'drunk.'
Natives of China's most commercial city are not actually known
drinking, but their chefs like to soak everything in Shaoxing wine:
drunk chicken, drunk pigeon and drunk crab are Shanghai staples. The
city's chefs are also known for an impressive selection of cold meat
appetizers and checkerboard-patterned deep fried fish. Popular
include stir-fried fresh-water eels and finely ground white pepper,
and red-stewed fish - a boiled carp in sweet and sour sauce.
Perhaps the dish most closely associated with the Pearl of the
are the hairy freshwater crabs that come into season in October.
and Essayist, Li Yu (1611-80) wrote about his passion for such
"Meat as white as jade, golden roeSŁ to try to use seasoning to
its taste is like holding up a torch to brighten the sunshine."
Xiaolong bao (little steamer dumplings) are a Shanghai
locals and outsiders alike. Similar to many Cantonese dim sum
xiaolong bao are delicate steamed packets that cause a little
of juice and meat in your mouth.
North: Beijing and Beyond
Peking Duck is justly famous as a major world dish. Peking Duck
methods were developed and refined during the early Qing dynasty
The fowl is cleaned and stuffed with burning millet stalks and other
aromatic combustibles, and then slow-cooked in an oven heated by
made of fragrant wood. When the duck is fully roasted, the meat
into small pieces, each one attached to a piece of crispy skin. The
duck is served with pancakes, scallions and a delicious soy-based
Despite a famous flagship dish like Peking Duck, Beijing food
recognized as a close relative or even subcategory of Shandong
or lucai . Like food from China's Northeast (dongbei cai) and Shanxi
Province, Shandong cuisine is wheat-based and utilizes
vegetables like kale, cabbage and potatoes. Simple cooking
(steaming, stewing and stir-frying) are combined with the robust
of heavy soy sauce, garlic (often raw) and scallions. The proximity
of the sheep- and goat-filled Mongolian plains has ensured that
is also an essential part of the Northern diet, although many
people complain they cannot eat mutton because it has a "gagging
Chinese Soul Food
The popularity of exotic ethnic cuisine is on the rise in
a bevvy of new restaurants serving fare from the far reaches of the
In addition to a vast array of different kinds of Chinese food,
can also indulge cravings for the culinary creations of a good
of the PRC's 56 official minorities - which you may or may not
Mongolian Hotpot is a winter favorite in Beijing but tastes nothing
like the food offered in Ulan Bator. Diners put thinly sliced
vegetables into a broth in a pot boiling away at the center of
A moment later, a cooked morsel is removed, dipped in a sesame paste
and garlic sauce and eaten. Hotpot eaters usually give a nod to
by ordering large quantities of mutton, but you can also order a
range of ingredients from fresh vegetables to congealed blood and
Sichuan Hotpot is similar to Mongolian Hotpot, but the broth is made
with red chilies and Sichuan wild peppers. It was originally served
as a street snack, with the meat and vegetables served on skewers
easy boiling. The late 1990s have seen an ongoing craze for what is
known on Beijing's streets as "malatang."
You won't find any pork at a Hui establishment, but food served
Chinese Muslim minority is heavy on fried, spiced lamb. Delicious
or flat breads coated in sesame seeds are a special feature.
Food served in Uighur restaurants is also pork-free, but this Muslim
ethnic group from Xinjiang prefer their lamb roasted over a fire.
cuisine is also noted for its fine spicy tomato salads, flat
naan, noodle dishes and lightly spiced soups made with bell pepper,
tomato and mutton.
Tibetan cooking may not take you to Nirvana, but then you try
fresh ingredients at 3000 meters above sea level! The staple is
ground barley usually cooked into a porridge and served with
rancid yak butter tea. Dumplings known as momo are wholesome and
A Tibetan meal on the wild side might include yak penis with
Guizhou sour fish soup is a hotpot dish rather than a proper
provincial speciality is popular in Beijing, although here the fish
are not put into the hotpot live, as happens in Guizhou. Some other
Guizhou specialities include pickled radish, shredded dried beef
cold), and dipping sauces made of fermented tofu. Guizhou food is
In Taiwan, every town claims to make the best beef noodle soup, a
that any restaurant claiming Taiwanese affiliation should serve.
taste worth acquiring, especially if you are a fan of cheeses
is "stinky tofu" (chou doufu), a dish made of fermented
bean curd, served
with pickled vegetables and hot sauce.
The Dai people of Yunnan are ethno-linguistic cousins of the Thai
their cuisine has similarities to Thai food. Deep-fried tree moss is
surprisingly delicious, as are the many rice-based dishes served in
coconut shells and hollowed out pineapple halves.