The idea that there is a “real” or “authentic” Chinese cuisine is about as absurd as saying that there is a “real European cuisine”. Cooking styles vary according to wealth, taste, history, trade routes, religion and availability of certain foodstuffs.
French “haute cuisine” originated in Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of Central France and made extensive use of the various superb products available there, such as beef from Charolais, fowl from the Bresse, salt-water fish from the Mediterranean which is easily reachable via the Rhone river, fresh-water fish, crayfish and frogs legs from the Alpine streams, fruit, vegetables, mushrooms and cheeses galore, and the fabulous wines from Burgundy and the Beaujolais right next door.
Or think of the glorious variety of cooking styles in Italy, from Piemonte and Lombardy in the north which was always richer and more developed than other parts of Italy and where people could afford more meat – especially beef and veal – as opposed to the poorer south, where chicken dishes and lamb are more predominant. Like Lyon in France, the triangle of industrial cities between Bologna, Parma and Modena in the Emilia Romagna region of Central Italy gave birth to what now is considered “classical” Italian cuisine all over the world but is in reality just another regional cuisine. Think Spaghetti Bolognese, Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, or Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Toscana right next door was much poorer, and it gave the world simpler dishes lovingly prepared by generations of “nonnas” and strong on regional vegetables and spices such as rosemary, thyme and oregano. “I want to be able to cook better than my grandmother”, a friend of mine, a famous Italian chef, once complained to me, “but I can’t – it’s impossible.”
Now think about China which is the fourth largest country in the world and stretches 4.500 kilometers from the dry plains of Manchuria and Mongolia to the lush tropical island of Hainan, and 5.500 kilometers from east to west from the lofty Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (also known as the “roof of the world”) and the mighty Taklamakan Desert, second only to the Sahara, to the shores of the Yellow Sea rich in fish and shellfish.
No wonder experts distinguish between at least eight major regional cuisines in China, not to mention the special cooking styles developed by Chinese emigrants in places like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaya and, yes, the United States and Canada, even!
Lets start in Guangdong province with its capital, China’s third-largest city Guangzhou (which Westerners used to call Canton, hence “Cantonese Kitchen). This is for China what the Emilia Romagna is for Italy: The definition of “true” Chinese cuisine, at least for us round-eyes.
In Guangdong, numerous animal products are used which take some getting used to for European visitors, but also for many Chinese. Cats, snakes, rats and frogs are no rarity in Guangdong’s cooking pots. If you want to avoid such surprises, you should eat out in Hong Kong: There, hygiene and animal welfare laws require that Cantonese cuisine is served without the meat of endangered species or pets. Nevertheless, here too, the slaughtering methods at the street markets can turn delicate estern stomachs.
I once strolled through the famous wet market in Guangzhou where you can buy literally everything that is considered edible by the broad Chinese standards, and I listened to a wizened old stall owner who told me that, “people in Guangzhou eat everything with legs including tables and chairs, and everything with wings including airplanes”.
The Canton cuisine itself can be subdivided into the Guangzhou, Dongjian, and Chaozhou cuisines. This is what they serve you in most Chinese restaurants in the West, but it is also popular throughout China, due not least to the many regional products that thrive in the province: Soybeans, onions, potatoes, spring onions, tomatoes and rice are cultivated. These ingredients are cooked together with pork and poultry as well as with fish on the coast. Typically, the ingredients of the Canton cuisine are stir-fried briefly in a wok and then served with rice. Other methods of preparation are roasting or steaming. A characteristic feature of the cooking techniques used in the Canton Kitchen is that it seeks to retain the original flavor of the ingredients. Dishes are usually only lightly seasoned, preferably with ginger, soy sauce, vinegar and rice wine. However, the poor rural population often eats just simple rice seasoned with a dash of soy or oyster sauce.
The Guangzhou cuisine is famous for its dim sum – sweet and savory morsels often encased in dough like a ravioli (which probably derived from them) that are served with tea. If you are hungry, you should definitely try roasted suckling pig. Other delicacies from Guangzhou are beef with oyster sauce and Taiye chicken. For this dish the chicken is cooked and then smoked over black tea leaves. This regional classic is served with honey and a salty soup.
Donjiang cuisine on the other hand is the food of the Hakka people, a nomadic ethnic group living in Guangdong and Fujian. In contrast to the rest of the Cantonese cuisine, the dishes of the Hakka are strongly spiced and rich. Famous Hakka dishes are salted donjiang chicken, dishes with offal or stuffed tofu. This is filled with pork, herbs and spring onions. Traditionally, many ingredients – especially vegetables – are also salted or dried so that they can be kept for a long time. Today, Hakka cuisine is very widespread in Taiwan and there are more and more restaurants in North America offering this “other” Cantonese way of cooking.
Finally, Chaoshan cuisine, also called Teochew cuisine, is a branch of Guangzhou cuisine which has its own style and is reputed by some to produce some of the best food in China. Chaoshan dishes are fresh, mild, rich and healthy. Special cooking techniques like brining and live marinating are applied to create delicious dishes like Chaoshan Brined Meat, Alive Marinated Shrimp, Oyster Omlette, Jiazi Fish Balls, and Bittermellon and Sparerib Soup.
Next door, Fujian has a long coastline, and accordingly, fish and seafood are popular in the cuisine of this eastern province, which is relatively unknown in the Western world. Also typical is the preparation of a dish called „Buddha jumps over the wall“ (Fo Tiao Qiang). Up to 30 ingredients ensure that this soup smells so intense that even Buddha would jump over a wall for it – at least this is the conviction in Fujian. Sea cucumbers, scallops, sea snails (abalone), chicken, ham, eggs and pork belong to this classic of Fujian cuisine. Fo Tiao Qiang is cooked in a traditional rice wine jug and the entire preparation can take up to two days.
The Fujian cuisine is generally known for its seafood dishes. Over 150 species of fish and almost 100 different kinds of shellfish and turtles are served here regularly. Shrimps and squid are popular. Some ingredients such as shark fin or turtles are protected, but are available nevertheless. In Fujian cuisine, ingredients from the sea are often mixed with vegetables or mushrooms from the mountainous regions of the province, as well as meat. Particularly popular meats are chicken, duck and pork. A well-known dish in Fujian cuisine, which combines meat and seafood, is chicken soup with freshwater mussels. Soups are generally very popular. The taste of Fujian cuisine is rather sweet and sour, and also less spicy than in other areas of China.
Fujian cuisine is known for its sophisticated preparation techniques. With their sharp knives, chefs cut bamboo and meat into microscopically thin strips. This skill is especially important for the right taste, but also for the aesthetics of seafood. Just like the preparation of soups that takes hours, this method of preparation also contributes to the complexity of Fujian cuisine – probably one of the reasons why Fujian cuisine is not very common in Europe. A very popular, but also very time-consuming technique of Fujian cuisine is red cooking. For this, fish or meat is cooked for several hours in a broth of dark soy sauce and rice wine until it takes on a red colour. If you’re very brave, try fried silkworms, which are bred especially as a popular snack.
To the Northeast of Guangdong lies Hunan, whose cuisine is known for aesthetic dishes and it’s great variety. Smoked dishes are particularly typical of the province. Despite the widespread use of dried chilies with seeds in Hunan cuisine, it is not only famous for its spiciness. Hunan chefs are experts in combining opposites such as spiciness and sweetness or pungency and acidity. The Hunan cuisine is said to comprises more than 4000 dishes. The ingredients come from the mountains as well as the freshwater lakes and rivers of Hunan. In addition to vegetarian ingredients such as shallots or mushrooms, Hunan cuisine is based on fish and seafood as well as meat such as beef or duck. Also, some strange kinds of meat are eaten here like soft turtles, frogs or even dogs, a practice that is rapidly disappearing, however, because officialdom frowns on it.
In the Hunan cuisine, food is prepared in many different ways, for example, steamed, fried, roasted or braised. In the western mountainous regions, meat is smoked, giving it a pungent, salty taste. Hunan cuisine is not only the most colourful but also considered the most beautiful food in China: Decorative carving techniques and the aesthetic arrangement of the food are of great importance in Hunan cuisine.
One of the most famous dishes of Hunan cuisine is dong‘ to chicken, a recipe that is said to be 1,200 years old. For this dish, a chicken is cooked and then fried with ginger, chilli, rice vinegar and sesame oil. Writing this today, my mouth watered so much that I prepared the dish for my wife for dinner , and it is delicious, I tell you!
Somewhat more difficult to get used to are the „three characteristics of beef“ (Niuzhong Sanjie). These are beef stomach, brain and tendons. The „specialities“ have a sour and hot taste and a crispy consistency. Even those with a sweet tooth will not be disappointed in Hunan cuisine: you should not miss out on lotus seeds with sugar or in syrup. The seeds are a sweet snack that is especially popular at New Year.
Sichuan, also known as as Szechuan or Szechwan, is a landlocked province in Southwest China occupying most of the Sichuan Basin and the easternmost part of the Tibetan Plateau. Its cuisine is known for its spiciness – no wonder, since the famous Sichuan pepper also comes from the province. In addition to spicy flavours, Sichuan chefs combine sweet and sour with various preparation techniques to create dishes such as fried pork lung in chilli sauce.
While Sichuan cuisine may often drive sweat to your brow, it is also known for its many different flavors and preparation methods. The soil in Sichuan is very fertile and forms the basis for a variety of ingredients. In addition, the province was long considered the rice chamber of the empire. In Sichuan cuisine, more meat is eaten than anywhere else in China, especially pork, sheep and chickens. The cattle are still often kept as work animals in Sichuan, but are eaten at least occasionally.
The classic Sichuan dish, however, is the vegetarian specialty called Mapo Dofu, which is tofu braised in chilli sauce, usually prepared together with minced meat and Chinese leeks. Roasting, pickling, smoking and air-drying are established methods of preparation in Sichuan cuisine. Pickled vegetables, such as bamboo or cabbage, are also typical. The dishes are seasoned with Sichuan pepper, ginger, garlic, star anise, chilli and fermented soybeans.
The famous Sichuan pepper is the dried berry of the spiny ash, a shrub that grows in the mountains of northwest Sichuan. Sichuan Pepper is biting and can sometimes even produce a slight numbing of the tongue. The pungent food is said to immunize the body against the humid weather in the jungle region. Sichuan Pepper also has a romantic side: According to legend, lovers used to give each other a bag of Sichuan Pepper as a gift to plight their troth.
In Sichuan cuisine, it is not only the pepper, but also plenty of chilies that add a spicy note. The red peppers are sold in huge barrels and bags at the spice market in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. However, chili did not come to China until the early modern era after their discovery in America.
In Sichuan, snacks are not called dim sum, but Xiao chi. Traditionally, they were sold by flying traders who transported them on long poles. Accordingly, the most famous of these dishes is also called dandan mian, or stick noodles. These noodles are available in many different variations with meat, seafood or tofu. Today you can buy other famous Xiao chi like quail with 5-spice powder or oyster omelette in the numerous snack bars and stalls in Sichuan cities.
Fujian borders in the north on Zhejiang, one of the smallest province-level political units of China, but it is also one of the most densely populated and affluent, and is located on the coast of the China Sea. The Zhejiang cuisine consists of the different styles of the regions around the cities of Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing. Characteristic of Zhejiang cuisine is its freshness, crispy consistency and the tenderness of many dishes. Recipes from Shaoxing also often have a salty note.
The cuisine from the city of Hangzhou is the most famous cuisine of the Zhejiang region. The dishes here are prepared with particular care and á point. The techniques of Zhejiang cuisine include sautéing, braising, pan stirring and deep-frying. The food is light and bamboo shoots, fish and crabs from the West Lake near Hangzhou are particularly popular. The most famous lake dish is West Lake fish (xi hu cu yu). For this recipe of Zheijiang cuisine, a carp is caught and kept in clear water for at least two days so that it loses its muddy smell and taste. It is then poached and served in vinegar sauce. By the way, the West Lake is considered one of the most impressive areas of China; even Marco Polo raved about the beauty of Hangzhou.
Like so many Chinese dishes, the so-called beggar’s chicken, a well-known recipe in Zhejiang cuisine, is based on a story. According to legend, a half-starved beggar is said to have stolen a chicken. As he had neither a wok nor an oven, he wrapped the chicken in lotus leaves, covered it with mud and placed it in hot ashes. The result was one of the best dishes in Zhejiang cuisine: incredibly tender and aromatic.
Another popular dish in Zhejiang cuisine is the Dongpo pig. For this recipe, pieces of pork belly are braised for hours in a mixture of soy sauce and rice wine. Other flavors are ginger, brown sugar and spring onions. Mei gan cei provides the right seasoning for many dishes in Zhejiang cuisine. This salted and dried vegetable is also used as a curative snack against motion sickness and overheating. The mixture consists mainly of cabbage, develops an almost black color and an intense taste.
To the northeast of Zheijiang lies Anhui, a landlocked province streching across the basins of the Yangtze River and the Huai River. It is known for a culinary style that is salty and spicy. Many ingredients of Anhui cuisine are wild and original.
In the Anhui cuisine, only local products are used which gives this cuisine a fresh and extraordinary character. The preparation methods are also special, as many dishes are cooked at very high or very low temperatures. Coriander, chili, tea leaves and medicinal herbs provide the typical aroma, which is why Anhui cuisine is considered very healthy. Other wild ingredients from the forest are mushrooms and dates. Ham and sugar, as taste-giving ingredients, often add the finishing touch to dishes.
Not everything that is considered tasty in Anhui cuisine is well received by western visitors. A particularly traditional dish from Anhui cuisine is soft turtle in clear broth with ham. Steamed stone frog, whose meat is said to taste similar to chicken, is also popular. Another animal that ends up in the Anhui kitchen is the pangolin, an endangered species of scaled mammal with a long snout that is still sold discreetly at wet markets and which was mentioned in conjunction with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic as a possible host animal to the virus.
But back to the joys of Anhui cuisine. Less strange, but just as wild, are partridges and ducks, which are served smoked. Another delicacy from the Anhui kitchen are bamboo shoots from Wenzheng Mountain, which taste fresh, tender and a little sweet. They are often prepared with Chinese sausages and ham. Fish lovers should try Huaiwang fish, which is served in a milky broth. The meat of this freshwater fish is considered particularly tender. Tofu filled with pork has been a typical dish of Anhui cuisine for centuries. It dates back to the 14th century and was the favourite dish of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The tofu cubes are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
Coming up next, Jiangsu is the third smallest, but the fifth most populous province of China lying on the Yangtse River and boasting the highest GDP per capita of all Chinese provinces. These people have money to burn, and they spend it on a fabulous wealth of tasty ingredients and preparation methods.
Jiangsu cuisine includes the regional cuisines of Nanjing, the ancient capital of Imperial China, as well as Suzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai. Fish, freshwater crabs, poultry and rice are just some of the products from Jiangsu. Jiangsu cuisine is known for its light, tasty soups. The dishes are mild and are beautifully presented, for example in carved form. As vegetables, Jiangsu cuisine uses spinach, bamboo shoots, peas and cabbage hearts. The dishes are braised, steamed, fried and often pickled in rice wine sauce beforehand. Many dishes of Jiangsu cuisine are sweet and sour.
One of the most famous Chinese dishes is fried rice. In Jiangsu, it’s homeland, it is prepared with peas, seasonal vegetables, shrimps and ham. Much more spectacular is the squirrel-shaped mandarin fish from the Jiangsu kitchen. Legend has it that Emperor Qian Long ordered the court chef to serve a carp. As he was disgusted with preparing a sacred animal, he bent its head and tail fins upwards so that the carp resembled a squirrel. The fish is served with shrimps, dried bamboo shoots and sweet and sour sauce. This dish of Jiangsu cuisine is also delicious: meatballs made of pork and crab meat cooked in broth.
Shanghai lies at the mouth of the Yangtze River, between the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, whose cooking styles have a strong influence on the food in the metropolis. In Shanghai, the season of the green freshwater crabs (da zha xie) lasts from September to December. They can weigh up to one pound and come from a famous lake near Shanghai. They are steamed with ginger and herbs and taste very delicate. In the meantime, however, there are many „fake“ crabs, which is why the Shanghaiers have started to import crabs from the Netherlands.
Another Shanghai speciality is the drunken chicken. For this recipe, a whole chicken is poached or steamed and then marinated overnight in rice wine. Sweet and savoury dumplings made from yeast dough are ubiquitous in Shanghai. The small delicacies are called baozi and are the northern cousins of dim sum. They are steamed and filled with meat, vegetables, fish or sweet bean paste. A special variation are dong bao, dumplings filled with broth. Before the dumpling dough is eaten, the broth is sipped with a straw from an opening in the dumpling.
Finally, the Shandong cuisine in the Notheast reputedly originated in the city of Zibo at the center of the ancient State of Qui, whose capital Linzi, used to be the most populous city in China at its peak during the Quing Dynasty (1636-1912). It is said to be almost 3,000 years old and was long the cuisine of the imperial court, from where it influenced the entire northeast of as well as the later capital Beijing. It combines the cooking styles of Jinan and Jiaodong.
Especially important in Shandong cuisine are fish and seafood from the China Sea and the Yellow River. When meat is put on the plate, it is usually pork or poultry, for example stuffed Dezhou chicken. Although there are fewer vegetables in Shandong cuisine than in other provincial cuisines, varieties such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, aubergines and pak choi are often used. A lot of garlic adds spice to Shandong dishes.
Delicacies from the water are also typical for Shandong cuisine. Mussels with egg white, braised sea snail (abalone) with mussels or sea cucumber with meatballs make you want more. A classic of Shandong cuisine is the crispy river carp sweet and sour (Tang Su Li Yu). It is only considered authentic if it comes directly from the Yellow River. This fish looks particularly pretty thanks to its golden shimmering scales and fine red tail fins.
A special feature of Shandong cuisine is the use of grain – especially corn. However, this version is much less sweet than corn from the U.S. and has a rather grassy aroma. Corn is eaten cooked or fried. Other grains used in Shandong cuisine are wheat, oats, millet and barley, which are processed into porridge or rolls. These are either steamed, baked or deep-fried. Also popular in Shandong cuisine are meat-filled cakes and hearty pancakes.
Another specialty from the Shandong kitchen is the world-famous swallow’s nest soup. The nests are actually produced by various varieties of tropical swifts called salanganes and are harvested in South East Asia. However, the soup is processed and eaten mainly in the Chinese provinces of Shandong, Fujian and Hong Kong. Since the 1980s, the price of this delicay has been rising steadily, and consumption by wealthy Chinese has risen, too. The increasing demand has led to the nests being harvested before the young birds have fledged, and the stocks of salanganes are declining. Consumption is becoming increasingly controversial, not only for ecological reasons, but also for reasons of taste. Critics complain that the nests, which are made from bird saliva, have no real taste of their own and simply take on the strong flavor of the fond they are cooked in.
This has been a long and winding way of explaining that, no Veronica, there is no “real” Chinese cuisine. If you need to explain the differences in a hurry, there is a rule of thumb that might be helpful: Roughly speaking, people eat salty in the north, sour in the west, sweet in the south and spicy in the east – but there are many more exciting details and differences to discover.
But where to enjoy all of this wonderful cuisine if you happen to be stuck far away from the Middle Kingdom? Most of what they serve us in so-called „Chinese“ restaurants in the U.S. and Europe isn’t really Chinese at all, at least not in the sense of professional cooks trained in the art of their respective regional cuisines. The reason is history: During the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States from 1863 to 1869 – a feat that has often been compared to the Apollo moon landing project – hundreds of thousands of Chinese coolies were brought to America to lay down track, many from the coastal provinces.
Nobody cared what they did when the job was finished, and few lacked the necessary wherewithal to return to their homes, so they hung around and looked for something to do. Ever ask yourself why most laundries in American cities are run by Chinese?
But many of them opened restaurants and began to cook for round-eye customers. However, these were simple folk from the provinces who usually subsided on a handful of rice and maybe a couple of slices of spring onion for relish (on high holidays they might have been able to add a shrimp or a piece of chicken). They were completely ignorant of what was served at the tables of the mandarins or at the Imperial court, or even of the well-to-do farmers or merchants.
But since they weren’t stupid, they learned fast, mainly by watching the round eyes eat. If they liked something, the cook would experiment in that direction. This has led to popular “Chinese” dishes that are completely unknown in China like Chop Suey, Egg Foo Young, Sweet and Sour Pork, General Tso’s Chicken, or Crab Rangoon. Oh, BTW: Chinese Fortune Cookies were also invented in America.
Naturally, some of these un-Chinese concoctions eventually found their way back across the Pacific and are served in restaurants in mainland China, in Taiwan and in Hong Kong. I even know some young Chinese who seek out places where they can experience these, for them, completely alien dishes. “It tastes kinda like Chinese”, one of them once said to me, “except it doesn’t, really…“
Unless you’re lucky enough to live a city like San Francisco, New York, Boston, London, or Amsterdam which have large populations of Chinese who immigrated much later and often settled in “China Towns” where restaurants cater mostly to local Chinese, it can be really hard to find authentic Chinese food in the U.S. or Europe.
Take my case: I used to live in Munich, and we only had one authentic Chinese restaurant, except that it was run by Vietnamese boat people. My wife and I recently moved to a place near Salzburg in Austria, and we are lucky enough to have friend called Yaoyao Hu who trained as a noodle cook in Northern China and incidentally holds the world record for the longest hand-pulled noodle. He opened a restaurant at Euro Center on the outskirts of Salzburg where he specializes in “Asian Fusion” – a mix of authentic recipes from all over China, as well as Japanese, Thai, Indonesian and even Austrian cooking (anyone for mountain trout sushi?).
For several years, there has been a big discussion going on in professional cooking circles here about whether the Asians will eventually take over the entire fast-food and takeout sectors, pushing aside American and European competitors, mainly because their food is cheaper and easier to cook and offers more bang for your buck, taste wise. I guess we’ll see, but at least for me, there is no cuisine in the world that even comes close to real Chinese gourmet cooking. If you want to know what I mean, catch the film “Eat Man Drink Woman” by Ang Lee and wish you were sitting at their table!