Chinese Food: It's Not What You Think

Have you eaten Chinese food in your home country? You've probably had dumplings, egg rolls, fried rice, lo mein noodles, General Tso's Chicken, and a fortune cookie. Maybe you've noticed that some restaurants serve mostly dumplings and dim sum (yum cha) while others serve big plates of vegetables and meat with rice on the side. These variations are only one kind of Chinese food, some of which was created in the USA.

Traditionally, there are "Four Major Cuisines" of China representing the West, North, South, and East: Chuan from the Sichuan region, Lu from Shandong Province, Yue from Guangdong and Hong Kong known as Cantonese, and Huaiyang from Jiangsu Province, North of Shanghai. These four cuisines have different flavors and textures based on the ingredients available in the region and varying preparation methods.

 Wontons in Chili Oil

Wontons in Chili Oil

Chuān Cài 川菜

Food from Sichuan Province is spicy. The flavors in most dishes are garlic, chili peppers, and the famous Sichuan pepper, a sort of peppercorn that creates a numbing sensation in your mouth. Similar flavors are found in food from the nearby province of Hunan. Although chili peppers are included in many Sichuan dishes, they are not native to the area and were brought from Mexico by way of India and Macao in the 1500-1600s. Some famous dishes from Sichuan are hot pot, mapo tofu, Kung Pao chicken, and wontons in chili oil.

 Sweet and Sour Gouper

Sweet and Sour Gouper

Lǔ Cài 鲁菜

Food from Shandong Province represents cuisine from all over Northern China. It has influenced imperial menus since the capital moved to Beijing. The food is rich in taste and traditionally focuses on seafood from the coastal cities. In contrast to rice as the staple food of the South, grains are more common in the North so maize (corn), wheat, millet, and oats are often eaten. Steamed bread is also popular at meals or as a snack. Some famous Shandong dishes are sweet and sour grouper (fish), quick fry squid, braised sea cucumber, sweet potato with caramelized sugar.

 Char Siu (Roast Pork)

Char Siu (Roast Pork)

Yuè Cài 粤菜

Food from Guangdong Province and Hong Kong is most well-known outside of China. It's often referred to by the name Cantonese cuisine and is the staple food of Chinatowns all over the world. Most food is steamed or stir fried with very little seasoning, focusing instead on the main ingredients and their freshness and quality. Since Cantonese dialect 广东话 (guǎngdōng huà) is also the primary language spoken in this region, most dishes are known outside of China by their Cantonese names: chow mein (stir fried noodles), char siu (roast pork), congee (porridge), cheong fun (rice noodle rolls).

 Lion's Head Meatball

Lion's Head Meatball

Huáiyáng Cài 淮扬菜

Food from Jiangsu Province was the imperial cuisine when the capital was based in Nanjing. Huaiyang Cai is never spicy, a little bit sweet, and usually light in taste and texture, relying on simple preparation of the abundant fresh ingredients grown in the region's mild climate. It's also famous for Zhenjiang vinegar which is black in color. The fried rice from Yangzhou is the most famous fried rice in China. Another famous dish is Lion's head meatballs which are large pork meatballs cooked and served in a brown sauce. The pot sticker dumplings from this region, known as gūotīe 锅贴, are also iconic.


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Sarah Johnson

Sarah Johnson is an expat from New York City who moved to Shanghai with her husband in 2017 and is falling in love with the Chinese culture and people. She is studying Mandarin, teaching English, and has tens of thousands of questions about language, life, and culture.