The Cantonese are reputedly China’s most adventuresome eaters. According to a popular saying, they will eat anything with two wings except airplanes and anything with four legs except tables.
The Hunanese like their food hot – so hot that Chairman Mao, who was born in the province, maintained that one of the reasons that so many revolutionaries were born there was because of the province’s spicy cuisine.
The Empress Dowager, also known as Cixi, was so self-indulgent that she diverted funds intended to strengthen China’s navy to have a luxurious marble yacht built for herself. Ironically, despite her profligate ways, one of her favourite dishes was a Zhejiang speciality known as Beggar’s Chicken.
During the second world war, China’s national capital was moved from Nanjing to Chongqing in Sichuan Province. When Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland for Taiwan in 1948, most of the wartime capital’s top chefs went with him. As a result, some foodies maintain that the best Sichuanese restaurants are in Taiwan – not Sichuan.
Beijing might be the nation’s capital, but its signature dish – Peking Duck – has its roots in Shandong Province rather than Beijing.
What is often passed off as Shanghainese cuisine, meanwhile, actually has its roots in neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, where fresh ingredients, extravagant presentation, slightly sweet flavours and hot and cold dim sum are favoured.
Food experts have traditionally divided Chinese cuisine into eight regional varieties, which can be broadly grouped into two distinct cooking styles: northern and southern.
“Cuisines south of Yangtze River are lighter, fresher and sweeter,” says Lau Ping-lui, chef at the Spring Moon Chinese Restaurant at The Peninsula Hong Kong. “Cuisines north of the river are saltier and have stronger flavours.”
By far the most popular style of Chinese cooking is Cantonese, which gets its name from the city of Canton, now known in English as Guangzhou.
“Cantonese cuisine stands out from the rest because Cantonese chefs demand the freshest ingredients, and they enhance flavours without masking them,” says Alam Lin, F&B manager at The Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou. “It is also the most diverse and has evolved the most.”
Next to Cantonese cuisine, two of the most popular cooking styles are Hunanese and Sichuanese. Both are fiery, both have strong flavours and both can be rather oily. However, the peppers favoured by Sichuanese chefs – known as ma la (or numbing hot) in Putonghua – differ markedly in taste from those used in Hunanese fare.
Zhejiang and Jiangsu are respectively home to two of China’s most beautiful cities, Hangzhou and Suzhou. They are also home to two of its finest cooking styles. The cuisines of these two cities – as well as other neighboring communities south of the Yangtze River – are sometimes lumped together as Jiangnan cuisine.
As the birthplace of Confucius and several other notable Chinese scholars, Shandong is also home to one of the country’s most respected cuisines. It is lighter, crisper, tenderer and not as oily as some of the other styles of Chinese cooking.
Anhuinese cuisine is perhaps one of China’s best kept culinary secrets. The flavours are rich and subtle thanks to the careful use to hams and sugared candies to enrich and deepen flavours.
Strong on seafood, Fujianese cuisine is popular in Taiwan, where it is often referred to as Taiwanese food. Interestingly, whereas beef does not figure prominently in Fujianese cooking, Taiwanese beef noodles are one of the most popular dishes on the island.
For Cantonese cuisine, the jury is still out on which city does it better: Hong Kong or Guangzhou. Guangzhou is where it was born, but during the 50s, 60s and 70s, most of the city’s top chefs fled to Hong Kong. With China’s growing prosperity, however, a number of Hong Kong’s best chefs are now being lured back to the mainland, where they head the kitchens of Chinese restaurants at five-star hotels. Thanks to fresher ingredients and a more diverse selection of foodstuffs, Guangzhou is starting to reassert its former reputation as China’s culinary capital.
“Diners here have become more demanding,” says Jacky Chan, Chinese executive chef at the Shangri-La hotel Guangzhou. “They have more money so they expect better food.”
Shenzhen is your best bet for other types of Chinese food. A city of migrants, 70 to 80 per cent of its population was not born in Guangdong. As a result, it has a vast number of restaurants representing all of the eight cuisines, and the food tends to be both authentic and tasty. The only type that is hard to track down is Fujianese food. There are no full-scale restaurants serving it, but there are several fast food shops selling Fujian style dumplings and noodles at rock bottom prices.