Chinese cuisine is so much more than heading to your local neighbourhood restaurant and ordering a battered or stir-fried meal on rice. Eating and drinking in China is all about spending time with family and friends and enjoying the best of regional specialities.
Nearly every region and minority group have their own cooking style, and are often broken down into the eight culinary traditions of Chinese cuisine. These major schools of cooking represent much of the diversity of the people living in these regions and how historical, agricultural and environmental factors have influenced their cooking methods and signature dishes. A lot of these culinary traditions can be found outside of their provinces, but eating what’s local and what’s popular will make sure you get to taste the best of the area.
8 dishes to eat in China
Originating from the Guandong province, this style of cooking is probably the most popular around the world. Light, refreshing and mild sauces without much spice, steamed and braised vegetables and meats accompanied with sweet sauces.
Popular dishes: Char siu, dim sum, cheong fun, youtiao
Find it: Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzen
This is where the heat dials up a notch. Sichuan, or Chuan cuisine, is spicy with deep and rich flavours, often with the signature Sichuan peppercorn numbing the mouths of all who dig in. Ginger, garlic and chili feature heavily in the stir-fried and stewed dishes, often with other aromatic spices like star anise and clove.
Popular dishes: Sichuan hotpot, Kung Pao chicken, Mapo tofu, Dandan noodles, Sichuan mala
Find it: Chengdu, Chongqing, southwestern China
You thought Sichuan was hot – get ready for Hunan. It’s spicy, sour and has a potent chilli flavour, with pickled and fresh chillies packing a punch, and without any peppercorns. Lots of dishes are stir-fried but steaming in Xiang cuisine is also very popular.
Top dishes: Steamed fish head, Changsha rice noodles, dry-wok chicken, pumpkin cake
Find it: Changsha
Su cuisine is all about precise techniques to cook to perfection, such as heating temperatures and slicing vegetables for presentation. Stewing, braising and simmering are all preferred over a quick stir-fry, all to get the most delicious result. Seafood, again, is a big player in this region.
Top dishes: Braised spareribs, crispy fragrant duck, Wuxi-style xiaolongbao
Find it: Nanjing, some parts of Shanghai
Seafood and steaming is Shandong’s forte. The fishy, salty, light and crispy flavours of this region come through in a lot of high protein and high calorie dishes, because of the severe cold weather throughout the year.
Popular dishes: steamed wheat buns, braised sea cucumber, Dezhou stewed chicken
Find it: Qingdao, northern coastal areas
Min cuisine has got the balance right – humming but not numbing spice, and great seafood and soups. With variations in Fujian in terms of spice levels and sourness, and rice as a staple with most dishes, you’ll be feasting in no time.
Popular dishes: Banmian, bak kut teh, Three Cups chicken
Find it: Xiamen, Fuzhou
Similar to Jiangsu, Hui cuisine is derived from eastern China and focuses on local produce, especially fresh bamboo and mushrooms, and showcasing the original flavours of the ingredients. Often, medicinal herbs are used as well as wild picked produce from the mountains.
Popular dishes: Stinky tofu, Luzhou roast duck
Find it: Huangshan (Yellow Mountains)
This mellow subset of Chinese cuisine is sometimes referred to as the ‘land of fish and rice’. Poultry and seafood are used widely throughout the region, and is all about the unique, fresh and tender tastes.
Popular dishes: Dongpo pork, West Lake vinegar fish
Find it: Hangzhou, Shaoxing
Vegetarian and vegan options in China
Vegetarians should order with a bit of caution in China, as often meals, including those with tofu or vegetables as the main ingredient, have meat, fish or dairy products used in the sauce or garnish. Chinese food for vegetarian and vegan eaters is a bit of a minefield, but can be done.
Many east Asian and Chinese foods are vegetarian themselves, so you shouldn’t have much problem finding dishes, once you know what you’re looking for. Think congee for breakfast, and a range of stir-fries, noodles, buns, dumplings and rice dishes for other times in the day. Crispy eggplant and tofu dishes are also popular around China.
To avoid any confusion, your best bet is to eat at vegetarian-specific restaurants or, in the absence of that, a local Buddhist temple restaurant, where food is guaranteed to be meat-free. Better yet, when travelling with a local leader, they will be able to provide help on ordering vegetarian or vegan options from a Chinese menu.
Click to read more about street food in China
Click to read what to drink in China
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