by Cesare Pillon
Like all styles of cooking, Chinese cuisine was born out of the history of the country and is influenced by its nature, geography and climate, as well as the culture, resources and eating habits of its regions. In addition, China’s thousand-year-old history, wonderfully rich culture and, most importantly, its continent-like size, mean that its cuisine is extremely multifaceted and intricate. In fact, in the different regions of the country, people might use the same ingredients but to prepare dishes that are poles apart in terms of texture and taste.
The most significant culinary difference in China is shaped by nature: in the south, rice is the dominant foodstuff, while in the dry north of the country breads and pastas are more common, since there is not enough water to grow rice. But what causes Chinese cuisine to vary from region to region is the culinary traditions of the four schools: Lu, Chuan, Yang and Yue, which are grouped according to the points of a compass. The characteristics of each school are summed up by a popular saying, which goes: “The south is sweet, the north salty, the east spicy and the west sour”.
The key dishes are traditionally classified into eight styles of cooking: Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, Huaiyang, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hunan and Anhui. Each style can be distinguished by looking at four characteristics: colour, aroma, taste and texture.
Cantonese – or Guangdong – cuisine is a style of cookery from the south of China. This cuisine, for which rice forms the basis, is famous for its delicate aromas – in fact, in other provinces of the country people consider Cantonese cuisine to be slightly insipid. But this is not the case. Cantonese people believe that food does not require elaborate seasoning and that the natural freshness of a dish is actually what gives it its balance. This is why Cantonese chefs are obsessed with the quality of the ingredients. Out of all the Chinese cuisines, Cantonese cooking is the most well-known in the West. The first Chinese immigrants to the West – the majority of whom were Cantonese – took it with them in the mid 1800s. In fact, Chinatown, where they settled in the US, was originally called Little Canton. The most famous Cantonese dishes include Cantonese chicken curry, and sweet and sour pork.
Sichuan cuisine, which originated in the south-west of China, stands out from the other cuisines originating in the west of the country, where the main ingredient is a red chilli pepper with a particularly pungent flavour. What makes Sichuan cookery different is its use of Sichuan pepper, which helps to make food even spicier. Sichuan pepper flakes actually have a numbing effect on the palate. The most well-known delicacies of this style of cooking include Sichuan fish soup with cabbage, which is sour as well as spicy, and Chongqing hotpot, which is a large pot full of extremely peppery broth that is set to boil in the middle of the table, allowing diners to add different chopped meats and vegetables on the spot. There are restaurants that serve Sichuan food all over China and they are often found in train stations and food markets.
The cuisine of Shandong, an eastern coastal province of China where the northern school of cooking was established, comprises two styles: Jiaodong, which features seafood dishes with light flavours, and Jinan, which is most famous for its soups. Garlic and onion play a key role in Shandong cooking, but great emphasis is placed on the tenderness and freshness of food, rather than just its aromatic quality. Owing to the region’s extremely cold weather, the key dishes in Shandong cuisine are stews, which are either fish-based, such as braised sea cucumber with onion or braised shark fins with crabmeat, or meat-based, such as braised pork with milk.
Huaiyang cuisine derives from the subtropical climate of the fertile south-east of China and is also known as Jiangsu cuisine, after the province nicknamed the “land of fish and rice” because of its abundance of foodstuffs. This style of cooking is generally sweeter than other Chinese cuisines and is rich in spices. However, spices are not used to alter the taste of the ingredients – more often than not fish or seafood – but to bring out their original flavours. In Huaiyang cooking, fish is usually steamed but it is also occasionally pan-fried, deep-fried or grilled. The tradition of producing dishes that look good as well as taste good has resulted in the development of sophisticated fruit carving techniques, which allow pieces of fruit to be served up like little sculptures. The most famous dishes are from Shanghai and include pan-fried hairy crabs with ginger and shallots, and dumplings stuffed with pork or crabmeat.
The Zhejiang school comprises three local cuisines: Hangzhou, which is the most well-known, Ningbo and Shaoxing. The school has earned a reputation for its use of fresh ingredients. In Zhejiang cuisine, ingredients are carefully selected and a lot of care goes into choosing the most suitable cooking technique to preserve their flavour. One such technique is quick-frying food in boiling peanut oil. This technique was initially adopted as a way of saving oil, but then people realised that quick-frying finely chopped meats and vegetables at a high temperature gave the food exceptional sensory properties. This helped the technique to become a key element of Zhejiang cuisine, a style of cooking that is centred on producing food that is not greasy, and which owes its reputation to the freshness, tenderness, softness and smoothness of its dishes. The most famous dish is Su Dongpo pork, which was named after the eponymous poet who was governor of Hangzhou.
The cuisine of Fujian in south-east China comprises both seafood and mountain delicacies, owing to the geography of the local area. Fujian dishes are known for being light but flavoursome. In Fujian cooking, there is a particular emphasis on umami, the fifth taste, which the western palate would recognise as glutamate. The cuisine stands out for its passion for sauces, which is demonstrated by the large number of sweet and sour dishes, its wide range of cooking techniques and its clear predilection for soups (as the popular saying goes: “A meal without a soup is unacceptable”). There are a large number of “drunken” dishes, which are cooked using Shaoxing wine. The most famous of these is “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall”, which is a complicated dish that uses a wide range of ingredients including shark fin, sea cucumber and abalone.
The Hunan school of cooking is another cuisine that consists of three local styles, this time from areas in western China (the Xiangjiang region, Dongting Lake and the Xiangxi coteau). Hunan dishes, which have a pungent flavour owing to their use of ingredients such as red chilli pepper, peppercorns and shallots, are similar to Sichuan dishes. The region is landlocked, which means that local dishes are predominantly meat-based, and feature chicken, duck, beef, pork and fresh-water fish. Meat is marinated in various different ways before being cooked. Traditional Hunan dishes include spicy chicken with peanuts, and tea and camphor smoked duck. Chairman Mao, who was originally from Hunan, was attached to the strong flavours of his native region all of his life.
Anhui cuisine is found all over the Huangshan, or Yellow Mountains, region, in the east of China. The region is very sparsely populated, and is still rich in forests and uncultivated land. This land provides ingredients which people use to create exceptionally fresh delicacies. Local ingredients include stone frogs, anteaters, mushrooms, blackberries, bamboo shoots, wild herbs, dates and tea leaves. Unlike in other regions, in Anhui food is rarely fried. It is more common to stew or braise food. People in Anhui frequently make stews, but pay careful attention to the cooking temperature. The flame is carefully adjusted depending on the ingredients and the intended flavour. Ham is often added to stews to enhance the flavour. The most well-known Anhui dish is Li Hongzhang Hodge-Podge, which contains chicken, ham, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and sea cucumber.