Food from China
Chinese cuisine varies considerably from area to area within China. Regional food types include Mandarin (Beijing), Cantonese, Hunan (Xiang) and Sichuan styles that roughly correspond to the northern, southern, eastern and western regions of China. Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Taiwan have adapted regional styles as well. Each style uses meats, vegetables, spices and flavorings in specific ways to create unique flavors. Regional dishes developed because of differences in growing seasons, climate, available resources and tradition.
Flavors of China’s Cuisine
Attractive presentation, delicately-flavored sauces and fresh ingredients are hallmarks of Chinese food. Contrasting tastes such as pickled vegetables, chili-spiced meats and sweet desserts highlight flavors and are essential to Chinese cooking. Common ingredients in China’s dishes include soy sauce, dark sesame oil, rice wine or rice vinegar, sugar, garlic and ginger. Chinese parsley (coriander leaf), chilies and dried mushrooms and fungus are used in most regions. Five-spice powder, used in many regional styles, is a mixture of ground star anise, cinnamon, clove, fennel and Sichuan pepper. Some versions add ground ginger or nutmeg.
A variety of meats are eaten throughout China, including pork, beef, mutton, chicken, and duck. Sea food and fish comprise another important element of Chinese dishes. Tofu is used in all regional cuisines. The many types of tofu and ways to prepare it make it one of the most versatile and nutritious foods of China.
Rice and Grains
Rice is a staple in most of China. Each type of rice, from wild to glutinous, is prepared in a particular way and savored for its unique qualities. Long-grain white rice is most common. Black rice and red rice, particularly nutritious, are used for specialty items and sweets. Glutinous rice, also called “sticky rice,” becomes sticky because it lacks the starch amylase. It is not only boiled and eaten with other dishes, but is pounded into a paste or ground to powder for use in dumplings, pancakes and thin wrappers for both sweet and savory preparations. It is combined with white rice in congee, a porridge-like soup that serves as the base for other ingredients and flavorings. Congee is a traditional breakfast dish throughout China.
Wheat, legumes and millet are more commonly used in northern China. These grains, as well as rice, are used in the preparation of Chinese dishes that include steamed buns, noodles, dumplings and pancakes. The variety of noodles reflects regional cooking styles. Rice noodles are typically used in southern China’s dishes. Mung bean and bean thread noodles are used in several regional cuisines, particularly Cantonese and those of Hong Kong and Singapore.
Noodles are usually prepared fresh and served immediately, although they may sometimes be partially or fully dried for later use. The different sizes are used in select preparations to absorb flavors of the accompanying foods or to provide a desired texture. Wide, flat noodles are used in soups or in stir-fry with vegetables and thin strips of meats. Lo mein noodles are often fried, then added to vegetable and meat dishes. Liangpi is a specialty noodle made with the starch rinsed from wheat or rice dough. The liquid is left overnight to congeal, then drained, spread onto a tray and steamed. These thin “skins” are eaten with vegetables pungently flavored with hot chili oil, vinegar, garlic and salt.
Chilies and other spices are used in Hunan and Sichuan cuisines for hot, savory preparations. Kung Pao chicken is a well-known dish from Sichuan, its flavors accentuated by Sichuan peppercorns. Other popular Sichuan dishes include Twice-Cooked Pork, Dandan Noodles and Mapo Doufu. In the latter, tofu is simmered in a spicy sauce made with chilies, rice wine, garlic and bean paste, and topped with minced beef or pork.
Cantonese cooking accentuates the flavors of fresh, natural ingredients. Dim Sum, which means “to touch the heart,” is traditionally Cantonese but is also popular in Hong Kong. These steamed or fried tidbits include steamed buns, dumplings and rice noodle rolls filled with beef, pork, prawns or vegetables.
Northern cuisine favors wheat for dumplings, buns and noodles instead of rice. Mutton is used in many dishes, such as Mongolian Hot Pot. Mu Shu Pork is another popular northern dish. Thin strips of fried pork are combined with cloud ears and vegetables, brushed with hoisin sauce and served in a Peking pancake that has been dipped in hoisin sauce. Peking duck is a specialty dish, served in the Emperor’s court since at least the 1300s.
Chinese food is enjoyed world-wide, both in its traditional form and as adapted variations. The delectable flavors of the regions of China are sure to suit any palate