No matter if you’re a foodie or someone new to authentic Chinese cuisine, chances are you have encountered dishes that don’t seem to fit together. For example, how are porridge, dry pot, and lamb skewers all considered Chinese food?
The central problem here is that many people see Chinese food as monolithic cuisine. In reality, the diverse terrains, climates, and cultures in China have led to a wide array of distinct culinary styles. It is better to look at Chinese cuisine the same way we look at European cuisine: an umbrella term that incorporates so many different gastronomies.
Here is a list of the four most famous Chinese cuisines that can be found around the world. However, don’t forget that there are so many more! Beijing imperial gastronomy, Tibetan food like momos, and Guangxi and Yunnan dishes which resemble Vietnamese and Burmese cuisines are all highly recommended. Leave a comment if you need recommendations for restaurants, or simply want to learn more about any Chinese cuisine!
1 Cantonese cuisine
Cantonese cuisine originated in the Guangdong (or Canton) province of China. It uses very light seasoning and stresses the original flavors of its raw materials. Good Cantonese chefs are able to retain and enhance flavors through light cooking (usually stir frying, steaming, or roasting).
Dim sum is probably the most famous dining practice of Cantonese cuisine. It can be found anywhere from Guangdong to Chinatowns around the world. Dim sum dishes have small portions - sort of like tapas - and are friendly to solo diners as well as large groups. It boasts a wide variety of dishes, from savory ones like pork buns and shu mai to sweet ones including egg tarts and mango pudding.
However, Cantonese food is so much more than dim sum! Other signature dishes include steamed fish (清蒸鱼 qīng zhēng yú), white cut chicken (白切鸡 bái qiē jī), and Chiuchow cuisine (潮汕菜 cháo shàn cài), which I think has the best braised dishes in the world.
2 Sichuan cuisine
There is one word to describe Sichuan food: SPICY. Mouth-watering and tongue-numbing spicy. Sichuan chefs use peppercorn so creatively (and abundantly) in any way you can imagine. You have probably heard of or tried a few Sichuan staples, such as mapo tofu, kung pao chicken, and hotpot (where you dip raw meat or vegetables in hot chili broth).
Sichuan dishes can get really hot and numbing, but you can actually detect the extremely complex flavors hidden beneath the massive amount of chili peppers - presuming that you haven’t run away for water or burst into flames.
Other Sichuan dishes to try: mouth watering chicken (口水鸡 kǒu shuǐ jī), Chengdu wontons in chili oil (红油抄手 hóng yóu chāo shǒu), pickle fish stew (酸菜鱼 suān cài yú), and mao xue wang (毛血旺 a traditional spicy stew of duck’s blood, ox tripe and vegetables).
3 Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu) cuisines
Like Cantonese cuisine, Shanghai cuisine emphasizes the ingredients’ original flavors. However, it tends to use more sugar, soy sauce, and deep-frying. If sweet and savory is your thing, definitely try west lake vinegar fish (西湖醋鱼 xī hú cù yú), osmanthus lotus root (桂花糖藕 guì huā táng ǒu), and jelly fish with aged vinegar (老醋海蜇头 lǎo cù hǎi zhē tóu).
4 Xi’an and Northwestern cuisine
Xi’an cuisine is the underdog that rose to immense popularity in cities like New York and London (thanks to Xi’an Famous Foods). If you think food fusion is a novelty trend started by celebrity chefs, Xi’an cuisine will challenge that belief. Xi’an chefs were doing that hundreds of years ago.
A city now famous for the historical site of the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an was once the ancient capital of the five oldest Chinese dynasties. Merchants along the silk route and migrants from around the country congregated in this cosmopolitan center. The newcomers brought with them different spices and cooking styles, creating a multicultural cuisine that contains elements from Han Chinese, Hui Muslim, Uighur and Central Asian cuisines. These foods include lamb kebabs, al dente hand-rolled noodles, and Chinese style burgers (肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó). If you see a Xi’an restaurant, don’t hesitate to go in and order a spicy lamb burger, hot and sour dumplings, and spicy lamb hand-ripped noodles. You won’t regret it!