Food—one of the best experiences to enjoy by yourself or share with others. Culturally, food connects us all together, no matter which continent we are on or which creed we follow. We’ve all chowed down on tacos from Mexican spots or dipped our flatbreads into Indian curry.
But many perceive Chinese food, and even Chinese culture itself, to be mostly the same. That said, Chinese cuisine is rich and diverse, with differences in ingredients and history. Chinese food is even featured at a few popular places around campus such as Home Taste and Duck House. China is known for its Eight Great Traditions of cuisine, varying in style and taste.
Well-known for unapologetic use of spicy chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, Sichuan cuisine prides itself on liberal use of seasonings in order to create bold flavors. The history of using pungent, spicy styles in Sichuan cooking has been attributed to the local geography. Chengdu and Chongqing in the Sichuan Province face high humidity and rainfall, and spicy food is reported to help combat internal humidity.
Cantonese cuisine is the most popular type of Chinese food worldwide. Many Chinese immigrants to the United States, Canada, Australia, Southeast Asia and Latin America were Cantonese. In sharp contrast to Sichuan cuisine, Cantonese food favors a light, fresh and tender taste and texture. Using simplistic methods, such as steaming, poaching and simmering, the natural flavors are highlighted and amplified.
Focusing more on wild game and gathered herbs, plants and mushrooms, Anhui cuisine puts a strong emphasis on fresh ingredients and the pure flavor of cooking. Regional vegetables such as bamboo shoots and tea leaves also feature prominently in Anhui cuisine. In addition to ingredients, braising and stewing are staple cooking methods.
Shandong (Lu) Cuisine
Shandong cuisine is considered the cradle of Chinese culinary culture as it boasts the longest history. Created during the Yuan Dynasty, the cuisine gradually spread northwards towards Beijing and Tianjin, where it became influential in imperial food. Shandong cuisine was also featured prominently in ancient Chinese imperial courts, as it was difficult and complex. Being a coastal province, Shandong also uses a variety of seafood, such as squid, scallops, prawns, clams, shrimp and sea cucumber within the dishes.
As the climate of Hunan province is mild but wet, the people there developed a cuisine that prefers sourness and spiciness. Like Sichuan cuisine, Hunan cuisine uses chili, pepper and shallot in large amounts. What sets them apart, however, is that Hunan cuisine uses drying, smoking and pickling in addition to the usual methods, such as boiling and steaming. Many have also said that Hunan dishes are generally spicier than Sichuan ones.
Usually light and fresh, Zhejiang cuisine has a reputation for being mellow and smooth with its dishes. Like with Shandong cuisine, seafood is another prominent aspect of this cuisine, owing to its proximity to the Yangtze River. Local wine and vinegar, such as the famous Shaoxing rice wine which has been brewed in the region for more than two millennia, are also important within Zhejiang cuisine.
If you crossed the bountiful, wild mountain foods of Anhui cuisine and the abundance of seafood in Shandong cuisine, you would get a semblance of the variety in Fujian cuisine. From the ocean to woodlands, the ingredients are prepared into dishes characterized by attention to cutting skills and preservation of the original aroma and texture. In this particular cuisine, soup is also a staple. You’d be hard-pressed to find a meal that doesn’t include a soup or broth.
Once the second-most popular cuisine among Imperial China and served commonly at state banquets, Jiangsu cuisine places strong emphasis on presentation to make its dishes a feast for the senses. Similar to Fujian cuisine, cutting skills are key to creating a good dish, and many chefs focus on intricacies with their knife. For Jiangsu dishes, the flavors are very subtle yet tantalizing, bursting with umami.
Chinese cuisine is not homogenous, but vast and varied. Aside from the ones mentioned, there’s far more to explore for lovers of good food. Dozens more Chinese regional cuisines that may not be a part of the Eight Great Traditions hold treasure troves of delicious dishes.