It’s no surprise that the world’s most populous country also has some of its most diverse cuisine. Our resident foodie digs into the details the 8 different types of Chinese food!
Thousands of years of written history, vast imperial dynasties, abundant arts and impressive technology have affirmed China as a must for any traveller’s bucket list. But let’s be entirely honest – nothing reflects the regional variety, impressive history and refined culture of China better than the sheer diversity of the different types of Chinese food.
But for a country so vast and dynamic, it’s not a surprise to find that its cuisine is just as complex as its history and scenery. “Chinese food” might be a singular culinary style in the West, but in China, the traditional food selections are regional – and encompass eight distinct cuisines based on culture and geography.
It’s no easy task to wrap your head (or your taste buds) around the various selections, though, so I’m here to help! Before you roll up your sleeves and dig into China’s tastiest food, here’s my guide for understanding its eight traditional culinary styles.
Cantonese: Yue Cuisine
Tastes Like: Fresh, mild and sometimes sweet
Growing up in the West, it’s easy to picture Chinese food boxes littered on a kitchen table, yet this type of Chinese cuisine is commonly viewed as non-traditional. Many dishes were modified to suit the palates of these countries, which bodes well for simple satisfaction, but less for the variety and complexity of Chinese food.
However, the introduction of Chinese cuisine in places like the US and the UK came mainly from Cantonese immigrants from the Southeast. So, among all of the different types of Chinese food, Cantonese cuisine (or Yue Cuisine) is usually what foreign eaters are quickest to recognise.
Classic Cantonese food doesn’t overuse spices, but seeks to bring out the fresh flavour of the ingredients. Characterised as mild and slightly sweet, Cantonese, or Yue cuisine, is immensely popular and a big player on the Hong Kong food scene. Often, a lot of condiments that are used to punch up the flavour, so if you’re more interested in adding a pinch on your own, Yue cuisine is right up your alley.
What to Try:
When in Hong Kong, the best way to experience Yue cuisine is by sharing some dim sum, served as a morning tea meal. Literally translated to “touch heart,” these small platters have been perfected over centuries and include an array of dumplings, noodle rolls and buns.
There are plenty of other Yue dishes to try, but be sure to sample some imitation shark fin soup – an ethical and vegetarian friendly version that’s a popular Hong Kong street food snack – as well as the incredibly tasty pastries, like egg tart. Some other favourites include char siu (barbeque pork) and white cut chicken.
Sichuan: Chuan Cuisine
Tastes Like: spicy and sometimes numbing (not for the faint of heart)
Chuan cuisine is another popular culinary tradition that’s managed to make it westward, yet nothing compares to its powerful punch locally in Sichuan. Chuan cuisine is hot – mouth numbingly hot to be precise.
This is known in China as mala, and the rollercoaster ride effect on your mouth is induced by the zing of Sichuan peppercorns. Grown locally in this agriculturally rich region, garlic, chili peppers and sichuan peppercorns are used liberally. So, this cuisine packs a huge punch in every bite and is not for the faint of heart!
What to Try:
Prepare your tastebuds! Travellers to Chengdu can sink their teeth into the array of savoury dishes (after a visit with the city’s pandas, of course). Must-try dishes include the classic and flavourful kung pao chicken, diced meat with peanuts and sichuan peppercorns. Another must, is mapo tofu, a semi-firm tofu sauteed with minced pork, bean and chili. Finally, if you get chilly in the winter, warm up with the Sichuan version of a classic hot pot!
Hunan: Xiang Cuisine
Tastes Like: Sour and salty, sometimes hot
Xiang cuisine is another spicy member of the 8 traditional cuisines, yet different than it’s Sichuan cousin. Instead of the numbing heat of sichuan peppercorns, it’s a dry heat from the chilis of the region. Refined over centuries, it was the first Chinese cuisine to adopt the chili in the 17th Century.
So, of course, this is the place for any lover of setting your mouth afire! Despite it’s kick, the aroma of Xiang cuisine is fresh, ingredients are varied and the colourful dishes change depending on the season. Expect dishes to not only be hot, but also sour and salty, which characteristically comes out in every dish.
What to Try:
Jam packed with flavour, there’s plenty to try with xiang cuisine. Start off with a bowl of Mao’s red-braised pork belly (hong shao rou), with spicy and savoury flavours. Then, sink your teeth into some La ba dou zheng la wei, smoked bacon, tofu and bean curd stir fried along with a side of sesame tossed stir-fried cabbage for good measure.
Fujian: Min Cuisine
Tastes Like: Sweet and sour, especially light
The mountains and the coast come together in the cuisine of Fujian Province, where seafood and woodland ingredients are harmonized in the light yet tender dishes of the region. This tradition holds onto the original flavour of its ingredients, using delicacies, as well as precise knife techniques.
This tradition also highlights the importance of xian wei, or umami, the savoury taste of food. Only recently acknowledged in the west as the fifth taste of our palates, it’s featured heavily in Min cuisine.
Min food is aromatic, with lots of herbs but also comes with a variety of seasonings. There are a few different styles in this tradition, yet there’s a lot of opportunity to taste the history. Min cuisine also has a big emphasis on soup eating, so it’s often considered one of the healthiest versions of Chinese cuisine.
What to Try:
For the adventurous meat and seafood lover, expect rich flavour from famous dishes like Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, a seafood and poultry soup. Be sure to sink your teeth into the tender braised fujian red wine chicken of the north, and for snack try some rouyan, the wonton dumpling that has minced meat already in the wrapper.
Jiangsu: Su Cuisine
Tastes Like: Very aromatic and carefully presented
Historically catered to officials and elites, Su cuisine is known for its grandeur. This refined and healthy cuisine of Jiangsu stands out amongst the northern cuisines: classically gourmet, with light, sweet flavours featured with fish and seasonal vegetables. This noble cuisine has dishes which are elaborately plated, to the point where they look like something entirely different to what they are!
A particular stand out in terms of design is the presentation of a Su favourite: sweet and sour mandarin fish. After an expert Su chef gets their hands on this one, the fish ends up looking like a squirrel! If you’re the kind of eater who loves snapping photos of food before digging in, put Su cuisine at the top of your list.
What to Try:
Of course, make a point to try sweet and sour mandarin fish, a saucy dish of fish cut and arranged to look like a squirrel! Another notable example is watermelon chicken, chicken steamed in small watermelons of the region, so perfectly tender that it pulls apart inside the fruit. Another must-try with unique presentation is stir-fried eel! It comes out crackling on the plate and the tender eels get a nice crisp while emitting the most mouth-watering aroma.
Zhejiang : Zhe Cuisine
Tastes Like: Small, dainty, “of the sea” (re: lots of seafood)
Known throughout China as “the land of milk and honey,” Zhejiang is an established wealthy region and home to one of the former capitals of China. Zhe cuisine is fresh, light and refined, using a lot of seafood and mellow flavours. Dishes feature carefully selected ingredients that are quickly prepared, have a tender texture and must taste fresh!
Despite being known for its mellow seafood, Zhe cuisine does incorporate seasoning and other protein sources. This is another great food choice for those looking to snap a few incredible photos of the meals!
What to Try:
A must for any traveller to this area just south of Shanghai, is west lake fish in a vinegar gravy, which gleams with the promise of its delicious sauce.
Another must is dong po rou, braised thick-cut pork belly, and jiaohuaji, a chicken wrapped in lotus leaf, covered in clay and baked. Jiaohuaji translates to beggar’s chicken, which is legended to have been created by a vagabond… The story goes that he had stolen a chicken from the village and covered it in mud to keep it a secret as he roasted it over coals. Ironically, the incredible smell wafting from the bird made the dish his namesake and is now a staple of haute-cuisine in China!
Anhui: Hui Cuisine
Tastes Like: home-cooked goodness
While sharing some similarities with the flavours and technique of Su cuisine, Hui food has a twist: its wild mountain sourced ingredients and humble origins. Anhui region includes the towering Yellow Mountains while are ripe for harvesting unique items that bring a wild edge to the dishes.
This region is also a poorer inland province, and thus the dishes are based on hearty mountain peasant food. One of the lesser known of the great culinary traditions of China, it must not be discredited as it’s dishes have been refined to bring out beautiful plates packed with flavour and nutritional value.
Hui cuisine is simple, healthy and visual, with pretty presentations for each plate, while the wild ingredients make the flavour stand out. Wild herbs and plants include a variety of top grade mushrooms, bamboo shoots and tea leaves. There’s also a variety of protein sources, like turtle, frog, small shrimp and wild game.
What to Try:
There are lots of different dishes to try, but start off with mao tofu, a street snack made with stinky tofu, yellow crab shell cake, an egg dumpling with pork and vegetables – and luzhou roasted duck that will make your mouth water.
Shandong: Lu Cuisine
Tastes Like: Fishy, salty, crispy and sometimes tender
Historically, Lu cuisine is the mother of the north. Said to date back as early as China’s first dynasty, this cuisine entered the imperial courts as early as the 14th Century. The region is abundant with grains, fertile land and is located on the seaside, lending a huge variety of ingredients and a particular focus on seafood and fish.
Lu cuisine actually has two different styles of cooking: the seafood-centric jiaodong and inland jinan style. Lu is famous all over China and the west, too, for its less spicy flare and nutritional value – but also for its salty and sweet flavour with a crispy flare.
What to Try:
Travellers to Beijing will have quite the adventure tasting unique dishes such as braised sea-cucumbers with scallions. For something more familiar, there’s also mushu pork, a dish is popular in the west but even better in China, with shredded pork, wood-ear mushrooms and egg wrapped up in a thin crepe. But you couldn’t talk about Lu cuisine without mentioning Peking duck, the slowly roasted fowl famous all over the world.
Chinese food tastes best in the heart of this magnificent country. Taste the best of its 8 cuisines on a customised tour of China with us – and consider yourself a Chinese food expert!