Chinese food is everywhere. In mainland China, the styles vary markedly based on where you eat. Not only are there 8 major styles of cuisines based on where in China it originated, there are a variety of Chinese food that is indigenized in cultures around the world which have had thriving Chinese diasporas.
That’s how we get styles such as American, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian or Indian Chinese, among many others. The basic style of cooking has in many cases been adapted to cook local ingredients in a concoction made popular among the local population.
In the US, the wide range of styles have developed over 200 years, ever since the first Chinese immigrants showed up to work in new towns springing up along railroads and frontiers.
Every US city of any size has a Chinatown. Some cities have several. And the number of restaurants serving different types of foods is simply astounding. By one count, New York City had close to 2500 Chinese restaurants in 2019. San Francisco reported around 1400 restaurants including the city and the surrounding Bay Area. You get the picture.
The History of Chinese Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Chinese cuisine is many thousands of years old. The vast country was ruled by a number of kingdoms, who each developed distinctive styles of cuisine that were in fact blended in with regional preferences and availability of crops, grains, meat, seafood and spices.
The main developments in Chinese cuisine can often be correlated with the development and growth of some of the major dynasties that left major contributions towards food, starting over 2200 years back. They are the Qin (221-206 BCE), Hang (202 BCE-220 AD), Tang (most of 618-907 AD), Northern Song (960-1279 AD), Southern Song (960-1279 AD), and the Qianlong and late Qing (1644-1912 AD) dynasties.
Ultimately, while royal palaces patronized and guided the development of certain specific dishes and set the style and tone for the cuisine, other cultural and regional influences were also important. It is generally acknowledged that there are eight great culinary styles in China.
The Eight Great Regional Cuisines of China
The eight great cuisines that have evolved over the ages in China can be classified by some basic taste characteristics:
- Sichuan (Szechwan): This region has sometimes been considered the leader in distinctive Chinese cuisines. The food is hot and spicy in the extreme (the term “numbing” is used often), using a variety of chili peppers including the famous Sichuan peppercorn. One of the specialties is Kung Pao Chicken.
- Hunan: Cuisine from the Hunan Province can actually be spicier than Sichuan, but the preparations from there do not cause the same numbing sensation. Hunan Chicken is a common dish with diced chicken, red chili peppers and scallion cooked in brown sauce.
- Guangdong (Cantonese): Cantonese is a very popular cuisine rich in taste and flavor, but sweeter and fresher in flavor. Soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, vinegar, scallion and sesame oil are all used in parts for a base, plus ginger, black pepper, five-spices powder, chili peppers and other spices are added for garnish. However, the spice level is considerably lower than Szechuan or Hunan foods.
- Zhejiang: Food from this province is known for being fresh and smooth, tender with a mellow fragrance. It is also known for elegant presentation. Xihu Cuyu (West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy) is a famous preparation made with fresh grass carp from the West Lake in Hangzhou. It is served fresh and tender, with a sweet paste made of vinegar and sugar.
- Jiangsu: This region is known for its sweet, light flavors and varieties of seafood. The cooks also construct elaborate shapes for presentation purposes. A classic example is Songshuguiyu (Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish), a Chinese Perch that is carved into squirrel shape, deep fried till golden and served in a sweet and sour sauce.
- Shandong: Shandong Province is famous for its salty, fresh, crisp, sweet and sour flavors and its wide variety of soups and seafood delicacies. Jiuzhuandchang (Braised Intestine in Brown Sauce) is a specialty of this region.
- Fujian: The coastal area of Fujian boasts a variety of seafood-based dishes, including the famous Shark Fin Soup.
- Anhui: Flavors from Anhui combine saltiness and freshness, usually braised or stewed. The Red-Braised Fermented Mandarin Fish is an example of this cuisine.
The Traditional Types of Chinese Foods are Driven by Many Factors
The rich variety of foods coming out of Korea goes far beyond the popular and famous dishes. As described above, foods have evolved region by region, based on the geography, culture, customs and habits endemic to the area.
Over time, many regional cuisines have become popular nationally and spread to other parts of the country – this includes certain food items that at one time were only available during certain seasons or were meant to be consumed during holiday festivities.
Here are brief reviews of a few factors that have helped influence Chinese cuisine.
Geography, Regionalism and Seasonality
China has a large land mass with many regions, dialects, climates and cultural influences. The cold climate to the North meant more foods based on wheat and millet, while rice was cultivated in the lower plains of the great rivers to the south.
Due to the proximity of the sea and river deltas, seafood served fresh with more subtle flavors are common in the South and East. Wild ingredients, such as mushrooms, are more commonly found in the North. The colder climates to the north had a propensity to prepare foods that would last longer or were served boiled or steamed.
The south and coastal regions enjoyed fresh vegetables year-round. The coastal regions are richer in seafood, while meat is more of a staple of the inland areas. The eight major regional influences have been listed above.
Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
Chinese cuisine is one of the oldest in human history. Plus, China has remained fiercely protective of its cultural roots throughout history. So, the traditions have remained largely intact over thousands of years.
Where Chinese cuisine has evolved is through their rich diaspora, where Chinese emigrants to other countries have adopted local styles, spices and customs to produce hybrid cuisines.
For example, American Chinese tends to be cheaper and milder in taste, while Indian Chinese tends to be intensely spicy and can be made with locally available vegetables and noodle preparations.
Meals for Special Occasions: Traditions, Customs, Cultures and Habits
Traditions, customs, cultures and habits have played a significant role in how Chinese food is prepared. The major influences can be traced to regions, religious and cultural celebrations and the directives/patronage of the Imperial Palace through the various prominent dynasties. These have all been captured throughout this piece.
Six of the major festivals observed in China are listed below, along with the traditional food Koreans eat on such occasions:
- Chun jie (The Chinese New Year Festival, Spring Festival falls between Jan 21 and Feb 20 every year) is the biggest celebration in China. During these 7 days, traditional dishes include dumplings (Northern China), Yu (steamed or braised fish), Tangyuan or Yuanxiao (Glutinous Rice Balls – Southern China), boiled Longevity Noodles and Wontons, Spring Rolls and Niangao (Glutinous Rice Cake – Southern China).
- The Happy Lantern Festival (the magnificent festival held on the 15th day of the first lunar month, celebrating the life of Buddha) has been celebrated with Yuanxiao (Glutinous Rice Balls) for over a thousand years, at least since the Song Dynasty. Families and friends will eat Yuanxiao, watch lanterns, hear stories and solve lantern riddles.
- During the Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the day of Qu Yuan’s death), the Chinese eat Zongzi (pyramid shaped dumplings made of glutinous rice, wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, sometimes sweetened with dates).
- During Zhong Qiu (Mid-Autumn Day or Moon Day, held on the 15th day of 8th lunar month), the Chinese will eat Moon Cakes while offering sacrifices to the moon and watching it. There are more than a dozen variations, made with different pastes such as beans, yolk, coconut, five-core and so on.
- During the Chongyang Festival (Double Ninth Festival, held on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, also Senior’s Day), the Chinese eat Chongyang Cake (cakes made of beans or rice powder, decorated with dates, almond, millet or peanuts) and try to climb to higher elevation look-out points and view chrysanthemum.
- During the Laba Festival (Day when Sakyamuni became Buddha, held on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month), is a day of sacrifice when the Chinese eat Laba Congee – a rice porridge with beans, dried nuts, meat and bean curd. Legend has it that Laba Congee came from northern India where the Buddha grew up.
Chinese Cooking Styles and Techniques
Chinese food can be prepared in a variety of styles. Styles have evolved over thousands of years in different regions and cultures in China. The families living abroad have evolved other styles which combine the original Chinese influences with local customs.
A few classic examples follow:
- Stir Fries: Stir-frying in woks is a quintessentially Chinese phenomenon. A number of the dishes described below, including Gongbao jiding (Kung Pao Chicken), Beijing kaoya (Peking Roasted Duck), Mongolian Beef and many varieties of Chow mein.
- Steamed/Boiled Dishes: Many Chinese dishes and/or sides are served steamed, including ris (rice), various types of vegetables, tofu and sprouts. Some dishes described below include Jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) and Changfen (Steamed Vermicelli Rolls). There are also dishes that are boiled, such as Shuizhu roupian (Sichuan Pork).
- Grilled Dishes: Shao kao (Chinese Barbecue) is a popular street food described below. A number of other Chinese dishes are grilled.
- Soups and Stews: Chinese enjoy a wide variety of thin and thick soups and stews (Tang), including ones that are served family style with other main courses (a must with more elaborate meals) and others that are meals unto themselves. Soups have been around since the beginning of civilization, so the variations are infinite. Some common versions include Hot and Sour Soup (described below), Winter Melon Spare Rib Soup, Wanton or Dumpling Soup, Egg Drop Soup, Lotus Seed Old Duck Soup, Seaweed and Egg Soup and Fish Head and Tofu Soup.
- Curry/Gravy Dishes: Due to the style of cooking, curries are not as common in Chinese cuisine as they are in (say) Thailand and India. There are many dishes served with light or heavy gravy, including Yaoguo xiaren (Fried Shrimp with Cashew Nuts) and Hunan Chicken.
- Dishes Served Cold: There are many cold dishes from China, usually served before the main meal. Some examples are Chinese sausages (which are typically steamed, stir-fried or oven-roasted prior to being chilled), salad and pickles, jellyfish, cold soup, beancurd and cooked meat and vegetables.
- Noodles: Noodles of all shapes and sizes are often bundled under Chow Mein, which was a staple of Chinese cuisine (especially in the colder North).
- Fresh Food – Seafood and Meat: One of the commonest sites of fresh cut, sushi style, meat and seafood is as an ingredient to be dropped into Hot Pots (see description below). However, there are a few dishes which are served and eaten raw. The most well known is Kuai, a dish made of finely cut strips of meat or raw fish that was commonly eaten during the early Qin and Han dynasties. In those times, carp or mandarin fish was commonly used for the seafood Kauai, salmon is popularly used nowadays.
- Fresh Food – Vegetables: A wide variety of vegetables can be served raw, though they are often treated with a quick boil or saute to soften the texture. Chinese Greens are a standard dish at many restaurants. Baby bok choy, cabbage, mustard greens and Chinese broccoli are staples as side dishes. Scallions, Celery, Leeks, Dried Water Lily, Black Mushrooms are all used as garnishes on Meat or Seafood Dishes or in soups and stews.
- Grains: Traditional Chinese grains included wheat, buckwheat, barley, sorghum and rice. Rice was grown in Southern China, whole wheat was the staple of the cold North.
- Legumes, especially Soy Bean: Chinese use a wide variety of soy and other beans. Doufu (Tofu) is a critical ingredient in many stews, soups and other dishes – it is also used as the main ingredient in many dishes, such as Mapo Tofu (described below). Bean paste is used as filling for dumpling, glutinous rice balls, cakes and other preparations. Soy paste, soy skin, soy oil, fermented soy sauce and many other sauces and condiments are used.
- Dimsum (Small Portions or Side Dishes): Dimsum is a traditional way of serving Chinese food in tapas style. Dimsum dishes come in many varieties (some described below), traditionally in small portions served beside the main course. The portions can be made out of meat, poultry, seafood and a vast array of steamed, sautéed or raw vegetables.
Popular Chinese Ingredients, Condiments and Accompaniments You May Need
The staples can be organized into grains (rice, maize, barley, wheat etc.), vegetables, meats, seafood and spices. We present below some of the key ingredients that are popularly used in Chinese Food
- Dasuan (Garlic) – China produces 80% of the world’s garlic and is the leading exporter. Garlic is a staple of Chinese cuisine. Soy paste or broth with mashed garlic is often used for extra garnish in broths as well. Garlic is ubiquitous in Chinese cuisine.
- Shengjiang (Ginger) – Ginger is a common spice, along with garlic and onions.
- Yangcong (Onion) – Onions are a major part of Chinese cooking, including noodle dishes, soups, stir fries and other preparations.
- Other Herbs and Spices – Other herbs and spices commonly used in Chinese cuisine include star anise (ba jiao), cumin (zi ran), cinnamon (rou gul), clove (ding xiang), mustard (jiemo), Szechuan peppercorn (a mix of Zanthoxylum simulans and Zanthoxylum bungeanum), turmeric (Jianghuang) and others. Chinese five-spice mix (Wuxiang fen) is a popular mix containing fennel seeds, clove, Chinese cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn and star anise.
- Rice – Rice served in side bowls is a tradition in Chinese meal presentation. Choices include steamed white (jasmine) rice or brown rice. Fried rice is also a staple, but it’s usually served as a standalone dish. Rice is also made into glutinous cakes and balls and served as congee style broths.
- Du Baicai (Napa Cabbage) – The Chinese use cabbage in many dishes. For example, napa cabbage was first cultivated on a wide scale in 15th century China. Many dishes are served on a bed of cabbage. It is also used widely in dumplings and soups. Many other variations of cabbage are also popular.
- Qincal (Celery) – Another staple of Chinese cuisine, celery is used in dumplings and as garnish in a variety of dishes. Celery is also used as one of the staple ingredients of Chow mein.
- Juical (Leek) – Used in soups or as a side vegetable.
- Xiang Cong (Scallions) – Fresh green onions or scallion is used as a garnish in many Chinese dishes that are not 100% meat or fish based.
- Rice Vinegar – Chinese cooking utilizes a wide array of vinegars, including several Rice Vinegars made from Huangjiu – a type of rice wine. White Rice vinegar is tart but milder than their Western counterparts. Red Rice Vinegar is darker due to its cultivation with the monascus purpureus mold, but not as dark as Black Rice Vinegar popular in Southern China, which is inky-black and aged for a malty, woody and mellow flavor.
- Tien Tsin Chiles (Chinese Red Chili Pepper) – These chilies are distinctive due to their ends pointing upwards, which is why they are also called “facing heaven” chilies. Intensely spicy, these chilies are used whole, as Chili Powder or in dried form. Dried Whole Red Chili Peppers are a popular addition to hotpots and stews in Hunan and Sichuan styles of cuisine. Hot Chili Paste is made from a variety of ingredients, including Tien Tsin Chilies, soybean paste, garlic and vinegar.
- Doubanjiang (Fermented Chinese Soybean Paste) – Doubanjiang is a salty brown paste that could be made from soybeans or fermented broad benas, mixed with sesame oil, garlic, salt, wheat flour and red chili flakes.
- Jiangyou (Soy Sauce) – As with all East Asian cuisines, the Chinese use darker soy sauce for seasoning, marinades and cooking for all types of dishes, including fried rice and main dishes involving meat, seafood and vegetables. Lighter soy sauce is used in soups as elsewhere. Soy sauce is served on the side as well, especially in dim sum style presentation.
- Zhima you or ma yeow (Sesame Oil) – Sesame oil, both toasted and untoasted, is an essential ingredient in Chinese cuisine, along with roasted sesame seeds.
All of the ingredients above are condiments to be used in the preparation of, or used as garnishes, or served mixed in with
20 Popular Chinese Dishes Around the World
A guide to traditional Chinese food would rarely be complete without a sampling of the following dishes. Variations in taste and style may occur, but many of the basic recipes have stayed the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some of the dishes mentioned below are ones that have developed within Chinese diaspora in foreign countries. Given the hundreds upon hundreds of dishes to select from, it’s possible that your favorite dish may not be on this list. But the ones below are staples of any good Chinese kitchen.
1. Kung Pao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding)
This spicy dish is an internationally famous dish made with diced chicken, dried chili and fried peanuts. Traditional Sichuan style Kung Pao chicken is stir fried and served with garnishes of scallion. There are Westernized versions where the chicken is coated with cornstarch, other vegetables such as water chestnuts are added, and the mixture is served in either brown sauce, or sweet and sour sauce with mashed garlic.
2. Hotpot (Huo Guo)
The Hotpot is a signature dish of Chinese ethnic cuisine. Served in a bowl with either one or two compartments with a flame underneath, the quality and flavor of the hotpot depends on the broth (spicy, original, mushroom etc.), the literally hundreds of sauces (chopped onion dressed with sesame oil and peanut butter with garlic are classic ones) and the addition of dried chili pepper. A dazzling array of meats, seafood and vegetable slices are laid out on the side for the diner’s pleasure.
3. Chinese BBQ (Shao Kao)
Chinese BBQ, served on heavy skewers, is a staple of street food and night markets. Heavily spiced meat, such as lamb (Yangrouchuan) or mutton, is sprinkled with sesame seeds or other spices and prepared on open grills on the streets of Beijing and other cities. Other portions, including vegetables, may be grilled and sold at the same time.
4. Sichuan Pork (Shui Zhu Rou Pian)
This is a classic Sichuan dish, spicy slices of pork that are poached (boiled in water with a coating of egg-white and starch), rather than stir-frying or deep-frying. This preserves the freshness and natural flavors. The pork is served in a peppery, spicy broth.
5. Peking Roasted Duck (Beijing Kaoya)
Considered one of China’s national dishes, Peking Duck is a famous dish from the Chinese capital city of Beijing. Duck pieces marinated in brown sauce are stir fried till the skin is crispy and served with pancakes, flavoring vegetables, sweet bean sauce or soy with mashed garlic.
6. Spicy Hunan Chicken
This is a typical dish from the Hunan Province. Tender chicken cubes are first marinated in soy sauce, sherry and ginger till tender, then cooked in spicy red chili peppers and scallions.
7. Fried Shrimp with Cashew Nuts
A favorite among foreign visitors, the tender, juicy, peeled shrimp is contrasted nicely with sauteed cashew nuts in a white sauce. Greens could be expanded, but the traditional recipe calls for diced celery and a touch of scallion. Oyster sauce and mushrooms are another favorite version of the dish.
8. Suan la t’ang (Hot and Sour Soup)
The traditional Chinese preparation is part of the Beijing and Sichuan regional cuisines. Usually meat-based, this soup is served in a spicy vinegar broth seasoned with chili or white peppers. Other ingredients vary, though tofu and bamboo shoots are staple. Wood ear fungus and day lily buds are sometimes dropped in, as is pork blood.
9. Chinese Dumplings (Jiaozi)
Dumplings are another preparation with close to a 2,000-year old history. Principally a mixture of minced meat and chopped vegetables wrapped in a skin of thin dough, the variations in the types of dumplings almost seem infinite. Some favorites such as shumai (pork dumplings) and __ are frequently found at dim sum. Dumplings can be steamed, or pan fried. Popular fillings include minced pork, diced shrimp, ground chicken and vegetables. They are a favorite at Chinese New Year.
10. Chinese Wontons (Huntun)
A variation of the Chinese dumplings, wantons are traditional food eaten around the Winter Solstice since the Tang Dynasty times 1500 years back. The classic shape is similar to that of Italian tortellini. Wantons are usually stuffed with minced pork or diced shrimp. They can be served deep-fried, or boiled and served in soups. Some favorites such as shumai (pork dumplings) and __ are frequently found at dim sum.
11. Steamed Vermicelli Rolls (Cheung Fun)
A favorite of dim sum lovers everywhere, vermicelli (thin strips of rice starch) are rolled with fillings and steamed till the flavors permeate the preparation. Fillings range from Beef or Pork, Shrimp or Oyster, egg and a medley of vegetable slices such as watercress, mushroom and lettuce. The rolls could be cut into halves or third before serving, then sprinkled with chili paste, soy sauce, cooked peanut oil or sesame paste based on style and preference.
12. Mapo Tofu
This centuries-old Chuan delicacy features white tofu enriched with brownish red ground beef and topped with scallion. It is served in an extremely spicy pepper powder and bean-based sauce.
13. Chow Mein (Chao Mian)
Stir-fried noodles are a traditional dish from China, made famous by the Cantonese version of the name. They are served in dozens of different styles, but the basic format is to stir fry noodles that have previously been boiled and then cooled, then served with choices of meats and/or seafood, with onions, celery and green onions. Various hot sauces and soy sauce is served on the side.
14. General Tso’s Chicken (Zuo Gong Ji)
This dish is traditionally served on a bed of steamed white rice with fresh broccoli spears on the side. The chicken pieces are mixed with ginger, garlic, sugar, scallions and hot chili peppers, soaked in rice vinegar, Shaoxing wine or sherry and soy sauce, battered and cooked in sesame oil. Named after Zuo Zongtang, a Qing Dynasty (Hunan Province) military leader, this dish is popular in North America, along with a sweeter, tangier variation – Orange Chicken.
15. Yangchow Fried Rice (Yang Zhou Chao Fan)
There are hundreds of varieties of fried rice found in China, but the city of Yangchow is especially known for its fried rice. The dish is made with peeled shrimp, diced ham, mushrooms, carrot, baby bamboo shoots, corn and scrambled egg crumbs, which are cooked together, then mixed in with the rice and stir-fried till the full flavor and aroma is brought out.
16. Spring Rolls (Chun Juan)
A dim sum favorite, spring rolls can be stuffed with meat or vegetables, wrapped in thin or thick roll wrappers and then deep fried till golden. They can taste sweet or savory and are common in all coastal cuisines, including Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Fujian and Hong Kong.
17. Szechuan Beef (Shui Zhu Niu Rou)
Developed in the Sichuan province, this sauteed flank steak dish combines brown sauce, green onions in a sweet and spicy dish using chili peppers, Chinese peppercorn and garlic. This is often confused with Mongolian Beef, but it’s very different. Sichuan Beef can be really hot on the tongue.
18. Mongolian Beef
Mongolian Beef is an example of a dish that developed outside China – Taiwan in this case. It has nothing to do with Mongolia, the dish got its name due to it being a popular item served in Mongolian BBQ restaurants in Taiwan. This variation of the popular sauteed flank steak dish combines brown hoisin sauce, cabbage, ginger, broccoli, mushrooms and green onions in a much simpler sauce with a milder flavor.
19. Gobi Manchurian
This is a specialty of Indian Chinese cuisine, a spicy dish that was developed in Kolkata by Chinese immigrants from Manchuria. Gobi, or cauliflower, is a popular vegetable. The Gobi is first dipped in a spiced corn flour batter, then deep fried. The fried florets are sauteed in soy and chili sauce along with garlic, onion, ginger and bell peppers.
20. Green or Jasmine Tea
Green Tea or Jasmine Tea is served in self-serve steeping pots with almost every Chinese meal.
There are literally a hundred different variations of many of the dishes outlined above. But enjoying them in their original forms is something that will allow you to savor the essences of Chinese cuisine.
Some Famous and Expensive Chinese Dishes
All the dishes mentioned in the section above are popularized in Chinese restaurants the world over. There are a few dishes, though, that are more difficult to prepare, including a few that were known as foods made for the royal palace.
- Among the dishes mentioned above, several developed with royal patronage, including Peking Duck.
- Dezhou Braised Chicken is a traditional dish made with a whole chicken, boiled in a mix of maltose and water, with 16 spices and ginger, salt and soy sauce added.
- Wensi Tofu is made in Jiangsu, with finely shredded tofu (could be up to 5,000 pieces) and other ingredients such as carrots and cucumbers, along with dried daylily and black mushrooms.
- Tiao Qiang (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall) is a variation of Shark Fin Soup made in the Fujian province. Developed during the Qing Dynasty, this dish is a Chinese delicacy known for its delicate preparation, rich tastes and flavors. It is also a nutritious dish rich in protein and calcium.
If you get a chance to sample authentic versions of the above, jump right in. They are hard to prepare in authentic style, so any chance to partake in one should be savored.
Plus…Some Weird Chinese Food
There are a number of Chinese dishes that you can find only in China and they are not for the faint hearted. Examples include Monkey’s Brains served in various styles, from raw brains scooped out from a live or just dead monkey’s skull, to Venomous Snakes, to a variety of cooked or fried insects. There is also Stinky Tofu, a fermented tofu specialty and a whole host of other delicacies that you should experience if you are adventurous enough to do so.
The Verdict … We Love Chinese Food!
It’s impossible for practically anyone to have not tasted Chinese food, but if you have only had cheap takeout, it may be well worth your while to head over to your nearest Chinatown and take in some authentic flavors and tastes. If you get a chance, try dim sum – it’s a great way to spend time with family and friends while arrayed around a Lazy Susan, with a stream of fresh dishes and tastes coming your way.