Food

What is Chinese food? It’s more than just fried rice, noodles, and dumplings

Nov 01, 2019

We break down the four major schools of Chinese cuisine—from Shandong and Jiangsu to Guangdong and Sichuan.

In a country as large and populous as China, you can expect the food to be just as diverse.

Cuisines around the world and across history have been shaped by the local conditions of their environment, their topography and terroir.

China is a big place, and you can expect the food to be just as diverse as its terroir.
China is a big place, and you can expect the food to be just as diverse as its terroir. / Photo: Ray Ngan

Tropical places with perennial sunlight saw dishes with plenty of greens, such as fish wrapped with banana leaves and stir-fried yam leaves.

Cold and arid places had less to work with, so residents subsisted off of animal husbandry, using cows, sheep, and horses for food, clothing, and shelter.

China is no different, and the clearest divide is between north and south.

Northern China is known for its wheat-based dishes, while the south is a big consumer of rice.
Northern China is known for its wheat-based dishes, while the south is a big consumer of rice. / Photo: Ray Ngan

The lush south, with its plentiful rainfall, grew rice. In Jiangsu Province on China’s eastern seaboard, a cottage industry of duck meat expanded as a result of that (ducks were effective predators of rice field pests). Today, the capital of Jiangsu, Nanjing, is well known for its salted duck.

Meanwhile, up in the arid north, farmers grew wheat and millet, which required less water but more land. Noodles, buns, and dumplings made from flour are the carbs of choice, and they’re often paired with slices of mutton or beef—cuts of land-grazing animals that happen to be especially comfortable on the grasslands of the north.

Local specialties almost always have a story behind them, but these days, globalization and immigration have blurred the lines of what local means.

Local specialties almost always have a story behind them, but these days, globalization and immigration have blurred the lines of what local means.

Haidilao, a Sichuan-based hot pot chain, now has locations all over the world, from Beijing to New York.
Haidilao, a Sichuan-based hot pot chain, now has locations all over the world, from Beijing to New York. / Photo: Simon Song/SCMP

Sichuan hot pot is in every major Chinese city, as are Hong Kong-style dim sum, Lanzhou beef noodles, and Beijing roast duck. In the 21st century, regional cuisine is mostly a storytelling mechanism, rooted in nostalgia and marketing.  

But that doesn’t make localism irrelevant because people still derive their identities from traditional food culture, and as one crab farmer told me, Chinese people love their food.

It’s difficult to fit China’s regional cuisines into neat, little boxes. Imagine trying to carve up American cuisine into general regions rather than by state.

These eight provinces of China are particularly known for their food.
These eight provinces of China are particularly known for their food. / Photo: Ray Ngan

There are more than 20 provinces in China, but classically trained chefs tend to cite eight major schools of Chinese cuisine—from the provinces of Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang.

Some narrow that down further to just four—Shandong, Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Sichuan, which roughly correspond with north, south, east, and west.

But you can break them down further into four major schools of Chinese cuisine.
But you can break them down further into four major schools of Chinese cuisine. / Photo: Ray Ngan

 

These categories are far from perfect. They favor the ethnic majority, the Han Chinese, and largely omit the cuisines of other ethnicities. Sichuan, for example, isn’t just blanketed with spicy food. The province is home to large sections of historical Tibet (known as Amdo), whose food culture centers around dairy products and yak.

But we have to start from somewhere, and we can use these four categories to dive into the deep and complicated world of Chinese food. Here’s a breakdown of each region’s cuisine.


Cantonese dim sum.
Cantonese dim sum. / Photo: Shutterstock

South: Guangdong, the home of dim sum

The southeast corridor of China, including Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, is home to Cantonese cuisine.

The flavor profile here tends to be sweet and salty, and because of the coastal location, there’s a lot of seafood. This region is the birthplace of oyster sauce (made with oyster juice) and hoisin sauce, a popular seafood condiment.

(Read more: How a kitchen accident gave birth to Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce)

Sweet barbecued meat is another staple of Cantonese cuisine, along with dim sum, a class of small brunch bites cooked by steam. Think rice noodle rolls and delicate shrimp dumplings wrapped in tapioca and wheat flour.

Sweet and sour fish in Jiangsu.
Sweet and sour fish in Jiangsu. / Photo: Shutterstock

East: Jiangsu, the land of fish and rice (and sweet and sour)

Among the four schools of Chinese cuisine, food from Jiangsu, on China’s eastern seaboard, is the sweetest. Fish is deep-fried and ladled with sweet and sour sauce. Pork ribs are coated with soy sauce and sugar.

The province’s lush network of waterways has earned it the moniker “land of fish and rice.” Freshwater fish and crustaceans tend to dominate the menu.

(Read more: Is the xiaolongbao a bao or a dumpling?)

Internationally, this region’s two most recognizable dishes are soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, and Yangzhou fried rice.

Spicy hot pot in Sichuan.
Spicy hot pot in Sichuan. / Photo: Nicholas Ko

West: Sichuan, the birthplace of mala

Over in the west, you have a lush area that’s known for its subtropical climate, pandas, and spicy food.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, is renowned for its fertile soil. Fresh greens are abundant here, and the flavor profile is something called mala 麻辣, spicy and numbing.

(Read more: Why Sichuan peppercorns in the U.S. aren’t as good as they could be)

This is the home of Sichuan peppercorn, a Chinese spice that literally numbs the tongue. As for meat, Sichuan alone consumes more than half of all rabbit meat in the country.

Dishes like rabbit head and cured rabbit meat are staples in the province.

Pan-fried dumplings at buns at Shandong Mama in Melbourne, Australia.
Pan-fried dumplings at buns at Shandong Mama in Melbourne, Australia. / Photo: South China Morning Post

North: Shandong, where the weather is cold and the food is hearty

Because of its cold climate, the food of northeastern China is defined by heavy use of preservatives like salt, soy sauce, fermented bean paste, and vinegar. And the province of Shandong is one of the leading centers of soy and vinegar production in Asia.

Leafy greens are harder to find here. Instead, most dishes are dominated by meat, especially beef and lamb.

(Read more: An illustrated history of how wheat came to China)

And because we’re in the north, wheat is the carb of choice here. Noodles, buns, and dumplings are everywhere, and you’ll see dishes like lamb dumplings and beef noodle soup.

Seafood is also common, though not as much as coastal regions like Guangdong and Jiangsu. Banquet tables here usually include sea cucumber and fish dumplings.

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Credit

Producer and Host: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Nicholas Ko

Editor and Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Victor Peña