Think Chinese cuisine is all sweet and sour pork and prawn dumplings? Think again. This vast country is blessed with eight distinct cuisines – and crowd-pleasing Cantonese is just one of them!
To help broaden your Chinese horizons when cooking and dining out, here’s a handy guide to the 8 regional cuisines of China, from fiery Sichuan favourites to the delicate seafood dishes of Shandong.
By far the most popular Chinese cuisine here in Australia, Cantonese fare hails from the Guandong province of South East China and Hong Kong. Here, the cooking style is all about enhancing and preserving the natural flavour of the ingredients, so spicy sauces are eschewed in favour of light braises, sweet marinades,and steamed dishes. Seafood also shines, so think delicate har gow (prawn dumplings), char sui (barbecued pork), or whole fish steamed with ginger and shallot.
At the other end of the flavour spectrum, and fast gaining popularity in Australia, is Sichuan cuisine, from the land-locked Sichuan province in South West China. Along with garlic and chillies, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns take centre stage. Literally meaning “flower pepper” these fragrant, fruity peppercorns offer incendiary heat and a tingling finish to fiery hotpot, punchy kung pao chicken, and ma po tofu. Be warned: they’re highly addictive.
Similarly spicy is Hunan cuisine, from the Hunan province in South Central China. The Hunanese rely less on those numbing Sichuan peppers and more on chopped chillies, vinegar, and citrus fruit, for a spicy-sour combination that is utterly beguiling. They’re also big on fermentation and preserving, so expect to see salted pork popping up in dishes such as cured ham with green beans, and shredded pork with vegetables.
If you need a break from all that heat, zero in on the coastal cuisine of Shandong, in China’s north, around Beijing. Here, fresh river fish, ocean-caught seafood, and vegetables star, while frying over high heat is the preferred cooking method, locking in the flavour without any residual oiliness. Spicing comes courtesy of onions, garlic, and ginger, plus rich chinkiang vinegar, and hearty vegetables such as potatoes, eggplant, and cabbage. Steamed wheat-based buns generally take the place of rice.
To the south, surrounding Shanghai, lies the coastal Jiangsu province. Seafood is also a major drawcard, and here elaborate cooking techniques such as braising and preserving aim to maintain the natural flavour of the foods. Blessed with lakes and waterways, the region is also known for its lotus, water chestnuts, and bamboo, and for the medicinal properties of the local ingredients. Signature dishes include complex Yangzhou-style fried rice, braised duck, and sweet and sour mandarin fish.
Inland from Jiangsu, mountainous Anhui boasts a unique cuisine that draws on wild plants, herbs, and animals. This hearty peasant fare uses innocuous ingredients such as mushrooms, tea leaves, bamboo shoots and dates for medicinal purposes, plus frogs, turtles, shrimp and pork for protein. Sauteeing and stewing are the preferred cooking methods.
South of Jiangsu along China’s central coast, lies the province of Zhejiang. The cuisine of the region is focused on seafood and raw ingredients that draws similarities with Japanese cuisine. Keenly influenced by the seasons, this cooking style includes virtuous fish soups, lashings of bamboo shoots, and sugary desserts.
On the South East coast, just to the north of Guangdong, the people of Fujian favours light cooking techniques and sweet and sour flavourings. Red rice wine is a popular ingredient, used in trademark creations such as Three Cups Chicken and other “drunken” dishes. Soup is a must-have in any Fujian meal, and locals prefer red fermented rice over the standard white staple, thanks to its sweet flavour and medicinal properties.
Discover more about Chinese cooking and over 100 Chinese recipes on asianinspirations.com.au.
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