China Plates

From Beijing to Shanghai and from Chengdu to Hong Kong, China’s regional foods are as varied as the dialects spoken in the country.

Some regions are modest with spices, others are more liberal, and cooking methods such as stir-frying, steaming and slow cooking are given local touches.However, they all seek balance of flavour and texture.

While there has never been an agreed view on how many regional cooking styles there are, Chinese gastronomes divide the country’s cooking traditions into eight official streams: Shandong, Cantonese (Guangdong), Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Hokkien (Fujian), Sichuan and Hunan. But most knowledgeable authorities go further and carve the Chinese gastronomic map into the four major regions — the north, centred in Beijing; the south, based in Guangzhou and Hong Kong; the east, around Shanghai; and the west, in Sichuan province.

Dining options in China are enormous, exciting and continue to surprise even the most jaded foodie. Here is just a sample of the culinary variations.

Northern Region Cuisine

Of the four major regional styles, northern Chinese — with its centre in Beijing — is the largest. It embraces the provinces of Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Hebei, Henan, Shandong and the north-east, collectively known as Dongbei in Chinese.

With the exception of more temperate Shandong, the climate is harsh. Bitter cold winters and hot summers make it perfect for growing staples such as wheat, millet, soybeans, oats and sesame, while spring onions, garlic, leeks and garlic chives add pungent and bold flavour to dishes.

Wheat, not rice, is the primary feature here, used to make items such as noodles, steamed buns and breads. Jian bing — savoury crepes made from a wheat flour batter — are sold from street carts and cupboard-sized joints in Beijing’s hutongs (alleys) and are typically eaten at breakfast, rather than rice congee as they do in most of the country. At other times, a meal could be jiaozi (dumplings) or a stir-fry eaten with steamed bread called mantou.

As the seat of imperial power until 1911, various dynasties influenced the local way of eating by introducing cooking styles and ingredients. Likewise, the Mongols (who established the Yuan dynasty, 1206–1368) introduced Mongolian hotpot and lamb, so much so that in the north lamb enjoys almost the same status as pork.

In the north-east region, once known as Manchuria, restaurants specialise in Dongbei cuisine and owe their legacy to the Manchus. Here, there’s a fondness for suan cai, pickled vegetables not dissimilar to Korean kimchi, which appear in pork dumplings, and bairou xuechang, a dish of pork with intestines. Najia Xiaoguan, a culinary gem decked out like a Chinese teahouse, may not serve intestines, but its venison stew and crisp fried prawns are pretty special.

You will also find a strong Muslim influence in the region, introduced by central Asians along the Silk Road and later encouraged by the Uighur people from Xinjiang. Uighur cuisine is heavy on lamb and chicken; some of its famous dishes include naan bread, hand-pulled noodles and Beijing’s favourite street food, yang rou chuan (barbecued lamb skewers), heady with the scent of cumin. Start your journey into this food at the rough-around-the-edges Xinjiang Crescent Moon Uighur Muslim Restaurant.

Palatial Roots

Northern Chinese cuisine is a blend of many elements, with Shandong cooking the major influence. Shandong chefs have a formidable reputation; many of them were employed at the Forbidden City and dominated the restaurant scene in the 19th century. Peking duck, rumoured to be popularised by Qing Emperor Qianlong in the 1700s, is said to be a recipe smuggled from the palace; it bears all the hallmarks of Shandong cooking — pancakes, spring onions and fermented bean paste flavour this legendary dish. DaDong’s trio of high-end restaurants in Beijing offer some of the finest specimens of succulent duck meat with wispy crackling skin.

Today, Beijing is heaving with culinary delights from all over China. From street vendors selling insects to oat noodles and classy establishments offering exotic sea cucumbers. But if you really want to blow your mind, try the rustic ‘hamburger’ made with pulled pork at Qin Tang Fu), a cheap and cheerful eatery serving food from the north-eastern Shaanxi province.

Eastern Region Cuisine

China’s eastern cuisine is about history and incredible produce. An area covering Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, the cooking here is traditionally called Huaiyang cuisine, and has spawned some of the country’s most famous exports.

Although Shanghai is the current culinary hub along the Yangtze River, it is merely a pup compared to the ancient cities of Hangzhou, Yangzhou and Nanjing. These cities are famous for several dishes including Hangzhou West Lake vinegar fish, Yangzhou fried rice and Nanjing saltwater duck. However, Shanghainese cooking (known as Hu) came into its own with the iconic xiao long bao dumplings, made with wobbly pork and an incredible broth encased in a paper-thin wrapper.

Known throughout China as the ‘land of fish and rice’ — synonymous with the Western concept of the ‘land of milk and honey’ — the region’s temperate climate, rich fertile soils and many lakes yield some of the country’s best produce.

Shaoxing rice wine, in production for more than 2000 years, is indispensable in Chinese cooking, particularly drunken chicken, a dish of poached chicken steeped in the amber liquid. Zhejiang province’s Jinhua ham, the glorious dry-aged ham similar to prosciutto or jamón, has been around since the Tang dynasty (618–907CE). From the local Liangtouwu breed of pig, it’s the secret ingredient in XO sauce.

Perhaps the most famous produce, however, is Chinkiang vinegar. From the Jiangsu province and made of black glutinous rice, a dash of this balsamic vinegar-like condiment is the perfect marriage with xiao long bao dumplings, especially those made with hairy crab.

Every October, during the hairy crab season, Shanghai locals flock to nearby Yangcheng Lake for the best specimens, which could easily set you back more than the price of a piece of Wagyu steak. Hairy crabs, also called mitten crabs because of the ‘fur’ on their claws, are prized for their delicate meat and rich roe. One of the best places to sample these delicacies in Shanghai is Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese restaurant boasting multiple outlets in Shanghai (and around the world).

Although the region is known for its delicate flavours, such as prawns cooked with longjing tea-leaves, cooks here also have a soft spot for adding sugar to some foods. A technique known as hong shao or red braising (also called red cooking), it combines sugar and soy sauce to create flavours of great depth. Dongpo pork, a pork belly dish named after the 11th-century Chinese poet and gastronome, Su Dongpo, is the most famous. Sinfully rich and meltingly tender, it’s served expertly at Jishi restaurant. A small place with a big reputation, it’s best to go there for the food, not the decor.

Western Region Cuisine

They say here that China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavour. It’s no wonder, then, that this cuisine has taken the world by storm.

Of all the Chinese cooking styles, China’s western cuisine is immediately recognisable by its spice — employed by the Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan provinces (of which Sichuan is dominant).

For the first-timer, eating Sichuan food can be a roller-coaster ride into some pretty amazing flavours. Using Sichuan peppercorns or hua jiao, chillies, ginger, vinegar and the chilli bean paste known as doubanjiang, Sichuan cooks deliver unexpected flavour compositions that are hot, sour, sweet and salty. Mala, meaning numbing and hot, is the characteristic most associated with Sichuan dishes. If you’ve ever had fish-fragrant eggplant (yu xiang qiezi) or the spicy tofu dish mapo doufu, you’ll know what I mean.

However, this multifaceted cuisine is not only about fiery heat. Many of its legendary dishes are far from incendiary. For instance, tea-smoked duck uses rice wine, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns to create depth of flavour, while the delicious cold appetiser of spiced beef stew is cooked in a master stock of fennel seeds and cardamom. Still, it is the hot flavours that have earned the cuisine its legendary global reputation.

Critical Acclaim

The centre of Sichuan cuisine is Chengdu, so much so that UNESCO named it a City of Gastronomy in 2010. Here, the laid-back locals discuss food and express culinary opinions like restaurant critics. Committed foodies should try and get to Yu’s Family Kitchen, considered to be one of the most creative restaurants in China. Often called the Ferran Adrià of Sichuan cooking(Spain’s Adrià is considered to be one of the world’s most innovative chefs), Yu Bo’s spin on his native food is humorous, complex and exceptionally sophisticated.

For something more local, head for Chen Mapo Doufu, which has branches all over the city, or the plethora of so-called ‘fly’ restaurants — no-frills places said to attract diners like flies. For the truly adventurous, the city’s street food, from pigs’ ears to savoury bean curd, is there for the picking.

Southern Region Cuisine

The Chinese have an expression regarding their ideal life. They say it’s best to be born in Suzhou (as the folks are good-looking and cultured), to live in Hangzhou (life there is good) and to eat in Guangzhou (the food is the best).

Guangzhou (Canton) is the capital of Guangdong province in southern China and is where the ancient Chinese gravitated for fine fare, before freewheeling Hong Kong came onto the scene.

A region best known for its lychees and other subtropical produce, it is this abundance and the sophisticated cooking styles that has earnt it a place in China’s elite eight schools of cuisine. Also called Yue, this style is the most recognisable worldwide because Cantonese-speaking Chinese were among the first to emigrate and share their food globally.

Unlike Sichuan, which relies on the mala note, or Shanghai’s tendency to sweeten foods, Cantonese cooks prefer to season the prime ingredient lightly and place great emphasis on freshness. For instance, white-cut chicken is simply poached with salt, ginger and spring onions so the chicken flavour shines, or a fish freshly dispatched from a restaurant’s seafood tank is lightly steamed with nothing more than soy sauce and a drop of sesame oil.

Cantonese cooks are also known for their inventive spirit. Perhaps this has something to do with their long exposure to influences from abroad. Macau, for example, was settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and its cuisine features ingredients such as curry powder and mayonnaise. If you are into Cantonese egg tarts, it is believed that they were inspired by the Portuguese tart.

Cantonese chefs are world famous for their dim sum, delicious steamed or fried dumplings. Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan restaurant dishes up incredible dim sum, including baked barbecue pork buns. The buns have a crisp sugary crust and are filled with the most tender char siu (barbecued pork) and sauce. Equally as famous as dim sum is wonton noodle soup, the humble dumpling and broth dish that’s purely Cantonese.

If you’re on the hunt for top-class Cantonese, include a visit to Lung King Heen. At this fine-tuned gastronomic temple, Chef Chan Yan Tak weaves Cantonese classics with a balanced modernity and delivers quality food with elegance. If double-steamed consommé, and Sichuan pepper ice-cream are on the menu, they are a revelation.

Northern Exposure

Where to try northern Chinese cuisine in Beijing.

Xinjiang Crescent Moon Uighur Muslim Restaurant: Tucked away in a tiny hutong, this rough-and-ready eatery offers authentic Xinjiang food. The yang rou chuan skewers and the Uighur chicken stewed with potatoes, chillies and green peppers (da pan ji) are hearty and delicious.

Dadong Roast Duck: In a city that has as many Peking duck restaurants as it does teahouses, Dadong’s roast duck is a show stopper.

Najia Xiaoguan: This is a popular mid-priced restaurant with loads of charm. Serving consistently great food, the extensive menu offers a peek into the cultural heart of the north-east and Manchu splendour.

Qin Tang Fu: In this eatery, where folk art meets Hobbit-size chairs and tables, hungry diners go nuts over roujiamo, the Shaanxi version of pulled pork burgers. The cold buckwheat noodles with cucumber are addictive in summer and budget-friendly.

The Exotic East

Where to try eastern Chinesecuisine in Shanghai.

Din tai Fung: Despite being a Taiwanese import, the dumplings and noodles here are impeccable and locals begrudgingly admit the xiao long bao are brilliant.

JiShi: Fondly known as Jesse by expats, this is a must for the die-hard foodie. Start with daikon pickled in soy (jiang luobo) and move on to red-braised pork (hongshao rou).

Guyi: If you are a chilli fiend, head for this upscale Hunan institution. On offer are clams with chillies, spare ribs with cumin (ziran paigu) and, for the more adventurous, frog dishes.

Way Out West

Where to try western Chinese cuisine in Chengdu.

Yu’s Family Kitchen: Chef Yu Bo’s restaurant is the city’s pride and his no-menu feast may offer edible calligraphy brushes made from pastry or tea-smoked duck — they are not only delicious, but true works of art.

Chen Mapo Doufu: Rumoured to be the home of the much-celebrated dish mapo doufu, a sumptuous melange of tofu, minced meat and chilli bean paste, this no-nonsense local favourite has various branches scattered throughout the city.

Southern Charm

Where to try southern Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong.

Lung King Heen: It’s not your everyday diner, but if you want a lavish evening out, consider this sophisticated restaurant with its stunning harbour views. The only Michelin three-star Chinese restaurant in the world, master chef Chan Yan Tak’s Cantonese offerings (crispy frogs’ legs with spicy salt, anyone?) are somewhere between heaven and paradise.

Mak’s Noodles: Good Hong Kong wonton noodle soups should have flavourful clear stock made with pork bones and roasted flounder, firm textured noodles and wontons made with fresh chopped prawns. At this cheap and cheerful institution, they’ve nailed all the elements to perfection.

Tim Ho Wan: Touted as the cheapest Michelin star restaurant globally, don’t be surprised by the long queues at this no-reservations eatery (with four locations in Hong Kong). With some 30 different dim sum choices all handmade with fresh ingredients, the star attraction is the baked barbecue pork buns.

Words by Tony Tan - Published in Voyeur July 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 20,000,000
Time Zone GMT +8 hours
Languages Mandarin, Beijing dialect
Currency Chinese Yuan Renminbi
Electricity 220V, 50HZ, AC
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