Diverse and delicious, China’s culinary landscape is uniquely beguiling. Its variety of dishes has something to satisfy just about every palate. By Audrey Gillan
China’s culinary history dates back 3,000 years. Throughout the centuries, poets and playwrights have penned paens to its food, while landscape painter Ni Zan produced a cook book for ordinary households as early as the 14th century. Eating may be a national obsession, but it’s always pursued with the healthy balancing of yin and yang firmly in mind.
An enormous country inhabited by one quarter of the world’s population, China is made up of vast, diverse regions that together are bigger than the whole of Europe. Chinese cuisine has five key tastes: salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter. And each of its provinces has its own regional cuisine, style, ingredients and cooking method.
Travelling to China for its food can be a culinary revelation, particularly with regard to the vast differences between neighbouring regions in terms of tradition — their preference for subtle over spicy, stewing over steaming. Even north and south vary — the former favouring noodles, steamed buns and dumplings on account of its colder climate, while rice is more popular in the latter region, even being pounded into flour to be used in wraps, crepes and lighter noodles. While getting a taste of the whole of China would be challenging for even the most dedicated galloping gastronome, the average epicurean traveller should try to sample more than just one of these styles.
One of the most recognisable styles of cooking in the world, much of what we eat in Chinese restaurants in the West has its origins here. Dim sum, sticky barbecued ribs, stir-fry and steamed dishes are the signatures of Cantonese cooking. Simple methods of cooking and milder tastes are preferred, so you won’t find a lot of chilli here. Instead, there are dishes flavoured with light soy, hoi sin and oyster sauces, as well as fresh ginger and spring onion. Making dim sum is a refined art and these steamed and/or fried dumplings are often served for breakfast or lunch, brought straight to the table in bamboo steamers. Cantonese or southern Chinese cuisine has a wide net, with the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, Hainan Island and Taiwan all falling in to it. In her seminal book Classic Food of China, Yan-Kit So writes: “Canton, the capital, is, of course, the pivotal centre representing mainstream Guangdong, or Cantonese cuisine, but Hong Kong, since the 1950s, has become the mecca of Cantonese food, vying with Canton itself.” T’ang Court, in Hong Kong’s Langham Hotel, boasts three Michelin stars. Think delightfully delicate dim sum and possibly the best char siu pork you will ever taste.
Fujian Cuisine (Min)
This region — influenced by its south-easterly coastal position and mountainous terrain — is famous for its shellfish (shrimp, turtle, crab), and locals prefer soy over chilli in cooking. Staples include rice, sweet potatoes and wheat, but Fujian’s most famous dish is fó tiào qiáng (‘Buddha jumps over the wall’), a broth of dried scallops, abalone, black sea moss and other seafood, whose aroma was said to be so good, it tempted a buddhist monk to jump over the wall to try it. Unsurprisingly, fish and seafood feature heavily in Fujian dishes. Umami — or savoury — tastes are favoured here, imparting a rich flavour to light cooking. Many of the dishes are broth-based, with these clear soups taking many hours to cook. Hongzao, the red sediment derived from cooked glutinous rice fermented with red yeast and rice wine, is wonderfully aromatic with an alcoholic sweetness; it’s used to flavour fish, duck, pork and chicken. Seafood omelettes, fish sauce seasoning and peanuts also feature.
Relatively unknown in the West, Jiangsu cuisine is known for its gentleness or ‘qing dan’. Its geography, in the Lower Yangtze region, encompasses lakes, rivers, fields and mountains, hence it’s nicknamed ‘the land of fish and rice’. More gourmet in style — the province has the highest per capita income — it led food writer Fuchsia Dunlop to declare: “If Sichuanese cuisine is the jazz of the Chinese food world, Jiangnan food is its classical music.” In her new book, Land of Fish and Rice, she explores not just Jiangsu but the wider region of Jiangnan including Shanghai. Using seasoning such as ginger, spring onion, soy sauce and Shaoxing vinegar, the main ingredients are, of course, fish and rice, as well as pork. The capital is Hangzhou but the ancient gastronomic capital is Yangzhou, famous for its ‘three head’ dishes — fish’s head, lion’s head (pork meatballs stewed with vegetables) and pig’s head. Dragon Well (Longjing) Manor, on the outskirts of Hangzhou, is run by restaurateur Dai Jianjun and is the town’s most famous eatery. Dunlop says that it is “restoring to Chinese cuisine its rightful dignity, as an expression of the perfect marriage between nature and human artifice and the ideal balance between health and pleasure.”
Sichuan, or Szechuan, is the most densely-populated region in China, with a unique cuisine that embraces chillies and Sichuan peppers to create an effect the Chinese call ‘ma la’ — mouth-numbing. With its damp climate in winter and heavy humidity in summer, chillies are said to drive away those ailments Chinese medicine associates with such meteorologic conditions. Hot pot, a broth served with raw ingredients that the diner adds to the soup base according to taste, is a classic. So too is fiery ma po tofu and gung bao (also known as kung pao) chicken. In Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop says there are 56 Sichuan methods of cooking and 23 flavours. She writes: “Sichuanese cooking (…) is legendary in China for its sophistication and amazing diversity, but known in the West only by a few famous dishes and its ‘hot-and-spicy’ reputation. Chinese people say that ‘China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavour’.” Local gourmets claim the region has 5,000 dishes. The capital of the province, Chengdu, is famous for its street food or ‘xiao chi’, small snacks, and was named UNESCO Capital of the World’s Gourmet Food in 2010 — though inhabitants of the port town of Chongqing would dispute that.