It would be misleading to talk about Chinese cuisine as a single entity. The scope of cooking in China is as wide and diverse as China itself. Ingredients and techniques have evolved over the centuries with every dynasty and each empire. And the cuisine varies even more according to each region’s climate, imperial preferences throughout history, and of course available local ingredients.
In imperial China, meat and other animal products were hard to come by, though emperors often had more access to pork and beef. Royalty and commoners alike relied on rice in the south and dumplings or noodles in the north. Meals were augmented by vegetables, peanuts, and soy. It may sound like a simple diet, but an emperor’s first act was often to appoint a head chef, and competition could be mean-spirited between cooks.
Mao’s Communist Party vowed to steer away from this agrarian dependence with its “Great Leap Forward” campaign. This move toward industrialization and collective agriculture ended up being a great leap backward when the widespread movement failed, leading to the Great Chinese Famine. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought more meats and animal products to Chinese tables. This turn in history changed Chinese cuisine dramatically, enriching it with protein and fat and opening doors to new and innovative gastronomy.
Today’s Chinese Table
China’s most ubiquitous drink is tea. This comes as no surprise when you consider that the country was the first to cultivate tea leaves for steeping as early as the third century. In some circles both within and outside China, tea is discussed with the same vigor that oenophiles discuss wine, with many devotees even hosting tasting parties. Climate, soil, and species of plant all affect how a tea is categorized, for instance, as green, oolong, black, scented, white, or compressed. Just as wine aficionados serve cheese with their preferred beverage, tea connoisseurs accompany their drink with nuts, dried fruit, or melon seeds.
This is not to suggest that the Chinese are teetotalers. By some accounts, 99.5% of the alcohol sold on China’s shelves is baijiu, or white liquor, making it the most consumed spirit in the world. The clear, potent liquor is made from sorghum or other grains such as rice, wheat, or barley. More familiar to westerners is rice wine, in which grains are converted from starch to sugar with the aid of enzymes. This should not be confused with sake, which is also made from rice but converted via a mashing and brewing process similar to that used to make beer.
Chopsticks are at every Chinese table and they’ve had a profound impact on cuisine. As they became the common utensil, dishes needed to be prepared with them in mind. Therefore, most recipes call for bite-sized pieces or tender cuts of fish that can be pried apart with a poke or two. Some historians believe that the omnipresence of the chopstick ushered the arrival of dim sum into Chinese culture, which consists of small pieces served on small plates, such as dumplings, rice rolls, turnip cakes, and stir-fried vegetables.
Hot Pots are also conducive to chopstick dipping. In this style of cooking—with its common Mongolian and Szechuan variations—a brass pot of simmering broth is placed at the center of the table. The pot might be sectioned to contain two or three flavors of broth. In the most traditional serving, the pot is heated over a central, coal-fueled chimney. Diners then choose a raw food from a family-style plate and cook it in the broth.
4 Reasons to Love Chinese Cuisine
Considering the above as a base—rice in the south, dumplings and noodles in the north, vegetables and nuts, a late introduction of meats, and tea and baijiu all around—today’s Chinese cuisine is best categorized into four types, each influenced by climate, geography, lifestyle, and mass migrations over the centuries:
Cantonese (southeastern China). This is the most familiar Chinese cuisine to the western palate, thanks to the Cantonese chefs who have ridden a wave of immigration to the U.S. Steaming and stir-frying are the most common cooking methods, and all forms of meat may be used, with the exception of lamb and goat. Herbs and spices are added modestly so that the flavors of a dish’s main ingredients can shine. Sauces and condiments are common.
Shandong (northeastern China). Shandong cuisine has a long history that dates back to imperial days. In fact, some scholars believe that all other culinary styles in China derived from its simplicity. It heavily emphasizes seafood and soups enhanced by light flavors. Corn, peanuts, and vegetables such as potatoes, cabbages, mushrooms, and eggplants appear often. As for a staple at every meal, rice takes a back seat to steamed breads.
Jiangsu (central eastern China). This type of cooking favors braising and stewing and is popular in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Meat is very soft but if prepared correctly does not fall off the bone. Ingredients in Jiangsu cuisine are selected from whatever is in season, and are often chosen in order to achieve a harmony in color and shape. Soup often appears on a Jiangsu menu.
Szechuan (southwestern China). Bold flavors are common in Szechuan cuisine, especially from garlic, chili peppers, and the unique Sichuan pepper. The main spicy dishes are often accompanied by non-spicy options to cool the palate. In some kitchens, the gastronomy has proven so sophisticated that UNESCO declared the city of Chengdu a City of Gastronomy in 2011. Beef is more common on a Szechuan menu as the region is home to a lot of oxen.
Mountain Cuisine of Tibet
With such a high altitude, Tibet cannot grow many crops. Some elevations are low enough, however, to cultivate rice, oranges, bananas, and lemons. Barley is the most important crop, and is roasted and milled to create the nation’s staple, known as tsampa. Shapale (a meat and cabbage dish) and balep (bread) are also central to the Tibetan diet. A common dinner dish is thukpa, a mixture of noodles, vegetables, and beef in a broth. Hearty stews are also served at the Tibetan table, made with yak, goat, or mutton meat and potatoes.