China 101 The Cuisine of China

By Alyson Slack

Chinese food is popular around the globe, and understandably so—it’s delicious!

China’s culinary heritage is an integral ingredient in the county’s varied and unique cultures. Eight major cooking traditions span the massive country, and they are as diverse as they are delectable.

One of the more well-known traditions is Sichuan cuisine, from the province by that name. If you order a dish with the word “Sichuan” in front of it, you’re guaranteed a spicy meal. The cooking style of Zhejiang Province, where much of China’s pig farming occurs, is renowned for its freshness and tenderness, and for bringing out delicate natural flavors through stir-frying, quick-frying, simmering, and steaming.
Dim sum is the most famous takeaway from Southern China and Hong Kong—and the cuisine there also has a historical reputation for incorporating cat meat and other ingredients that many Americans find controversial or too adventurous. The cuisine of Fujian Province and Taiwan is seafood-heavy, owing to the coastal location, and many dishes take the form of broths or soups. The food in China’s vast Xinjiang Province in the West is decidedly different than the Chinese food most Americans are acquainted with, consisting of curries, kabobs, and mutton, and reflecting the area’s predominantly Islamic and Turkic heritage.

In Hunan, the breadbasket of Southern China, you’ll find spicy dishes that are typically pot-roasted, braised, smoked, and stewed. Shandong cuisine was once a key culinary tradition within the imperial courts, is the typical style of modern cooking in Beijing and Northern China, and has heavily influenced the other seven traditions. The cuisines of Jiangsu Province and Anhui Province are generally characterized by soft texture, selection of ingredients according to the season, and matching the shapes and colors of each dish.

A few of the major culinary staples are worth mentioning. Rice is the most significant staple of Chinese meals, equivalent to the use of bread in Western cuisine. China is the country that is the world’s largest rice producer and one of the earliest cultivators of the grain. Noodles of all shapes and sizes can be found in Chinese dishes, and long noodles are taken as a symbol of longevity and often served on birthdays. Tofu originated in China and has long been a staple of Asian cuisines (for a real test of your taste buds, order “stinky tofu” at a Taiwanese restaurant—it’s true to its name!). Pork is perhaps the most popular of meats among Chinese: The country is the world’s largest pork consumer, has three times as many pigs as the human population, and even has a “strategic pork reserve” to guard against price fluctuations that could generate social unrest.

But certain foods that Americans love to order at Chinese restaurants are, in fact, NOT Chinese in origin. For instance, you’d be hard pressed to find a fortune cookie anywhere in Asia. And General Tso’s chicken, that sweet-and-sour deep fried favorite, was unknown in China until chefs from Chinese restaurants in North America introduced it back home.

If I could recommend one dish to you for your next visit to a Chinese restaurant, it would be Peking Duck. Perhaps no other dish is steeped in such history, dating back to the imperial era as early as 400 A.D. One Beijing restaurant specializing in the dish has been in business since 1416. Considered one of China’s national dishes, the bird is roasted until its skin is thin and crispy, and is assembled with pancakes, spring onions, and hoisin sauce before being eaten.

Get out your chopsticks and dig in!

Next month: Stay tuned for an article on China’s Confucian and Taoist heritage.
Alyson Slack is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has a master’s degree in international affairs from American University. She lived in Asia for over twelve years—including Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and South Korea—and previously worked on East Asia issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Alyson currently works at the Center for Economic Growth in Albany.