A Guide to Regional Chinese Cooking
There are lots of regional variations on cuisine in China. Ching-he Huang explains the differences through ingredients.
Chinese regional cuisine differs from region to region based on climate and the people that are indigenous to those regions. The damp, humid climate of the west gives rise to spicy-hot food from Sichuan, where Sichuan chilies and peppercorns grow in abundance. The people in the coastal regions of Fujian and Guangzhou are blessed with plentiful produce from the sea, and the climate favors rice farming, so lighter seafood and rice dishes are predominantly from these regions. The north of China is cold and dry and hardier plants such as wheat and cabbage were mainly grown there; therefore, dumplings, noodles and pickled cabbage are featured and dishes tend to be much more oily because of the cold. Produce is transported all over China now, but the traditional uses of spices or cooking styles can still be found because most Chinese people (especially the older generation) still eat seasonally and with health in mind. It can also be said that the dishes that characterize certain regions are based on traditional farming methods or produce found in those regions, so it is important to celebrate the produce originating from that region that ultimately gives rise to classical dishes from those areas. “Imperial Chinese cuisine” was created for the emperors of China and this cuisine was elaborate, time-consuming and only the most prized ingredients were used. Most traditional banqueting dishes served at Chinese festivals and special occasions originated in some form from imperial Chinese cuisine.
Traditionally, the main source of meat in China was pork. Pigs were the first animals to be domesticated from the wild and produced on a larger scale for food. To the Chinese, traditionally when one spoke of meat — or rou in Mandarin — most meant pork. Pork is enjoyed in many forms; it is stir-fried, braised, roasted, baked, steamed and deep-fried. It is also used in many dim sum dishes from classic siu mai dumplings to char siu roast-pork steamed buns. In Sichuan, pork is used in almost every classic dish, from mapo tofu, minced pork and string beans to marinated spicy sliced pigs ears. In Canton in the south, pork liver is used to make lap cheong, which is fine sausage used in congee (rice porridge), to flavor rice and in clay pot-style surf and turf dishes paired with shrimp and dried scallops. Pig skin is made into cracklings and enjoyed instead of shrimp crackers. Roasted suckling pig is a delicacy and the bones and organs of the pig are used in soups, broths and health tonics.
A popular pork ingredient that has specific Chinese origins is Jinhua ham from Yunnan. It is a cured, salty ham from this western region in China and it is known as the best ham in China. This is used to flavor rice dishes and cold appetizer dishes as well as soups.
Aside from pork, in northern China mutton was historically consumed, in particular by the Mongol people; therefore, dishes such as mutton hot pot and mutton la mein noodles were the classic dishes enjoyed by these people, since sheep are predominantly farmed in this harsher region. Other popular cooking methods included roasting whole sheep over open fires. Braising and stewing mutton were popular too, especially with the Uighur Muslim minorities who settled and lived along the old silk-trading routes in China. Their traditional foods found their way into Chinese life, as street markets often feature their dishes.
Beef in China has only been common over the last 20 years, when influences from the West whet the appetites of the Chinese population, from steaks to hamburgers. Traditionally, cattle were reared to farm the land and were only slaughtered when they died in old age. They were deemed too precious. This meat was more popular in the west of China, but the demand for beef has risen and is now a popular protein staple in modern hot pot restaurants.
Fish and shellfish are popular staples near the coastal regions and areas surrounding China’s great rivers and estuaries, for example, fishing villages found along the Yangtze River. Fresh water fish and river fish are all featured in local cuisine. For example, in the Zhejiang region, in Hangzhou, West Lake Fish is a famous dish cooked using local grass carp. The flesh is known to be extra tender; locals say it is as tender as crabmeat. In the south of China, dried shrimp are used to flavor many dishes stir-fried with cai xin/choi sum, vegetables with ginger or fried rice.
Dim sum snacks originated in teahouses found along the silk-trading route all across China but it was in Canton that Cantonese chefs refined the cuisine and made it an art form. This type of regional cooking has now found its way all over the world and modern dim sum restaurants have taken over.