|With almost 4 million square miles, China is home to just about every geographic and climate condition possible - from the warm, mild weather in the south to the cold, mountainous regions of the north. This extremely diverse and varying landscape is reflected in the cuisine of each of these regions - which can be broken down into four distinct styles (though experts argue there are at least eight or nine) loosely based on geography - Cantonese cooking in the south, Northern Chinese/Beijing cooking in the north, Sichuan (also spelled Szechuan) cooking in the west, and Eastern Chinese/Shanghai cooking in the east.
America's first introduction to Chinese cooking was in the 1800's, by Chinese immigrants who came to work on railroads and seek their fortune. The majority of these immigrants came from the southern region of China known as Canton (now called Guangzhou) which is why this style of cooking is perhaps the most common and recognizable here in the United States. Characterized by simple, saucy dishes made with fresh ingredients, - popular menu items such as chicken with black bean sauce, beef with oyster sauce and won ton soup all hail from this region.
There is a famous saying in China that the Cantonese eat anything with four legs - except for a table or a chair. While staples are pork, beef and chicken – they are known to include a variety of exotic ingredients in their cooking, such as duck tongues, chicken feet and ox innards. Stir-frying, steaming and deep-frying are popular methods in Cantonese cooking. Roasted and barbecued meats are also quite popular in delis and restaurants - as most homes in this region do not have ovens.
Cantonese cooks have the luxury of living in one of China's most resourceful areas in terms of agriculture. Its mild, warm weather allows for plenty of rice crops (three crops per year) as well as six crops of vegetables and fruit. Its close proximity to the long shoreline of China's southern coast makes seafood bountiful - fisherman bring fresh shrimp, lobsters, eels and other seafood to Cantonese markets daily.
Having access to such fresh seafood allows Cantonese cooks to prepare meals in the simplest way possible - fish are usually lightly steamed and enhanced with only a bit of soy sauce, green onion and ginger for seasoning. Unlike other regions, hot chilies and other spices aren't needed to compensate for the freshness of ingredients.
Cantonese cuisine also includes dim sum, the popular teahouse tradition of small plates of dumplings, pastries and other delicacies. For more on dim sum, please see our newsletters from April and May 2003,. located in our Newsletter Archives.
To the west is the Sichuan (sometimes spelled Szechuan) province - whose cuisine is marked with hot, spicy dishes. Flavorful favorites such as Kung Pao Chicken, Mapo Tofu (spicy tofu) and Twice Cooked Pork typify the cuisine of this primarily land-locked, mountainous region. In Sichuan cooking, spices are used to combat the extreme climates of the region - the sweat a spicy meal evokes offers a cooling effect during hot summers, while it serves to heat up the body during cold winters.
The heavy use of chilies and spice is said to have been introduced by other influences, in particular India, whose Buddhist influence also plays a big part in this region. Buddhist missionaries are also said to have shared vegetarianism, which can be seen today in many popular dishes using tofu and vegetables, which have been preserved Sichuan-style, using chili powder and ground peppercorns.
One of the key ingredients in this region is the Sichuan peppercorn, called huajiao (flower pepper) in Chinese. It comes from the prickly ash tree, a plant that is indigenous to the region and is one of the components of five spice powder. It is often used in stir-fries, along with spicier chilies, green onions, garlic, sesame and vinegar, which combine to give these dishes a distinct Sichuan flavor.
Rice grows abundantly here, as do citrus fruits, bamboo, mushrooms and other types of edible fungi. Surrounded by mountains, this region is accessed by the Yangtze river, which supplies freshwater crustaceans, eels and fish. Beef is also used more frequently here than in other parts of China, due to the widespread use of oxen.
Stir-frying, slow-simmering, quick braising and stewing are popular techniques used here. The spicy cuisine of the Hunan province (the birthplace of Chairman Mao), also located in western China, is similar to Sichuan's hot, spicy style, and has also become quite popular stateside.
Northern China Cuisine (Beijing)
Northern China, as typified by the capital city of Beijing, is truly a region of extremes. The summers are hot and dry while the winters are bitter and cold, as reflected by the extreme temperatures of nearby Mongolia, home to the Gobi Desert, and Manchuria, known for its chilling artic winds. Along with the harsh climate, Northern China is crossed by the unstable Yellow River, which has caused severe droughts some years, as well as devastating floods during others.
Mongolia's influence is also evident in the use of lamb, as much of the country is Muslim and does not consume pork. Lamb is one of the ingredients in the famous Mongolian Hot Pot - where diners dip pieces of meat and vegetables into boiling soup to cook them in a fondue-like fashion. Also popular is Mongolian barbecue - where meat is cooked over a round, open grill.
The harsh weather and conditions makes it difficult for many agricultural crops to thrive, so hearty vegetables like cabbage, potatoes and root vegetables are the main ingredients in many dishes. Lack of vegetation makes it difficult to rear pigs and oxen, so starches are key. Rice, which thrives in warm, humid weather, does not grow well here. Barley, millet and soybeans are grown here, but wheat is the predominant grain of the north. Noodles and bread made from wheat flour are the staples of many of the meals in this region. Steamed dumplings, buns and pancakes are also frequently consumed.
Beijing also served as the imperial capital for eight centuries, spawning a number of culinary traditions inside its royal walls. Some of the grandest and most elaborate feasts were served inside the Forbidden City, who historians say regular employed as many as 2000 chefs in its kitchen.
Peking Duck, one of its most famous dishes, derives in part from the conditions brought upon by the unbearable heat of its summers. Years ago, ducks were marinated and dressed and hung outside homes, where their skin naturally dried to the crispiness that is now recreated in Chinese restaurants today. Food in this region is typically flavored with rice wine, vinegar, salt, soy sauce, scallions, and garlic. Pork lard is the preferred cooking fat, with sesame oil being the second choice. Popular dishes from Northern China include mu shu pork and Mongolian lamb.
Eastern Chinese Cooking (Shanghai)
Eastern China is home to the city of Shanghai, a bustling port city that has been dubbed the “Paris of the East.” Shanghai and neighboring Yangzhou, Hangzhou and Suzhou are blessed with the flowing Yangtze, which supplies a bounty of freshwater seafood.
In this region, fish and seafood is eaten regularly. Rice is grown in the subtropical climate of the southern parts of this region, while wheat is grown in the colder region that includes Shanghai, making both rice and noodles staples of eastern Chinese meals.
Cooks in this region use deep-frying and slow-braising techniques. Red-cooking is also popular here. Named for the reddish-tinge the seasoning imparts, it is a method of simmering meats in flavored and sweetened soy sauce.
What also sets this cuisine apart from the rest is the liberal use of sugar to flavor both meat and vegetable dishes. Shallow-frying also has its unique style here - as cooks tend to use double the amount of oil used in other parts of China.
Thus, dishes from this region tend to be a bit oily and sweet. Shaoxing rice wine, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar are commonly used to flavor dishes here. Shaoxing wine is the most favored of all rice wines, and is a key ingredient in regional favorites like Drunken Chicken and Drunken Shrimp. Xiao Long Bao (meat-filled steamed dumplings) and Beggar's Chicken (chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and cooked in a clay pot) are also Shanghai favorites.
Shanghai cooks are also known to mince meat to form meatballs - as reflected in Lion's Head, a popular meatball dish said to resemble a fluffy lion's mane. Along with pork, chicken, fish and vegetables are also minced and formed into cakes and balls. Some are deep-fried and served as snacks - others are steamed or coated with glutinous rice.
If you are lucky enough to travel to China, tasting these dishes firsthand is an unforgettable experience. Those wanting to make these meals at home will find a variety of cookbooks, utensils and ingredients right here at Mrs. Lin's Kitchen to help you create the perfect meal.