Where to Sample the Eight Great Cuisines of China in Shenzhen

As a city of migrants, Shenzhen is home to people from all over China. An estimated 70 to 80 per cent of the population is from outside Guangdong Province. As a result, not only is Putonghua spoken more frequently than Cantonese, restaurants serving cuisines from other parts of the country are also more common than eateries serving Cantonese fare.
“When migrants come from other parts of China, they bring their regional food preferences with them,” explains Ng Wing-kun, executive Chinese chef at the Futian Shangri-La, Shenzhen. “You can therefore sample food from all over China in Shenzhen, and the taste is quite authentic.”
Food experts have traditionally divided Chinese cuisine into eight regional varieties, sometimes referred to as the Eight Great Cuisines of China.
“The cuisines are influenced by the history, geography and climate of the different provinces,” Chef Ng says. “Each cuisine has its own specialties and is specific to the taste preferences of its local people.”
Cantonese cuisine is far and away the most popular type of Chinese food in Hong Kong and overseas. Referred to as Yue Cai in Putonghua, it originates in the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The Cantonese are among the world’s most adventurous diners, reputedly eating everything with two wings except airplanes and everything with four legs except tables.
“Cantonese cuisine is my favourite style of Chinese cooking,” Chef Ng says. “In comparison to other types of Chinese food, Cantonese cuisine uses more expensive and healthier ingredients. . . . More attention is also paid to nutrition and freshness. For these reasons, with the attention now being paid to health, Cantonese cuisine is becoming more and more popular.”
Practically every village and hamlet in the province has its own take on Cantonese cuisine. It can be divided into four main types: Guangzhou, Chiu Chow, Hakka and Shun Tak.
“When people think of Yue Cai they are usually thinking of Guangzhou cuisine,” Chef Ng says. “Because Guangzhou is the provincial capital, it has traditionally been home to the rich and powerful. As such, Cantonese cuisine has traditionally featured such expensive ingredients as bird’s nest, shark’s fin, abalone, and other pricey types of seafood.”
Next to Cantonese cuisine, the two most widely known styles of Chinese cooking outside the mainland are Sichuan, known in Putonghua as Chuan Cai, and Hunan, known as Xiang Cai. Shenzhen is awash with restaurants serving dishes from the two provinces. Both are fiery, both have strong flavours and both can be rather oily, but the peppers favoured by Sichuan chefs differ markedly in taste from those used in Hunan fare. Their unique numbing quality, known in Putonghua as ma la, is so distinct that there is no English translation for the term. The sensation it causes in the mouth is practically impossible to describe.
“Chuan cuisine features ma la and the generous use of fragrant oils,” Chef Ng says. “Condiments such as chili peppers, black pepper, huajiao and ginger are often used to enrich the taste. As for Xiang cuisine, it is made using a wide variety of ingredients, often featuring smoked meats and spicy chilies. The use of oil is generous and the colours are vibrant.”
As the birthplace of some of China’s most famous ancient scholars – Confucius it the province’s best known native son – Shandong is also home to one of the country’s most highly regarded cuisines, although it is not well known outside the country. Known in Putonghua as Lu Cai, Shandong cuisine is lighter, crisper, tenderer and not as oily as some of the other styles of Chinese cookery.
“Lu Cuisine is fresh, delicate and clean-tasting, often featuring seafood,” Chef Ng says. “Special attention is focused on soups, which are categorized into two types: clear broths and milky broths.”
The cuisines of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces are sometimes lumped together as Jiangnan Cai. They are also sometimes erroneously referred to as Shanghainese cuisine.
“The use of fresh Ingredients is a key element in Yang [Suzhou] cuisine,” Chef Ng says. “Special attention is paid to the presentation of the dish – especially in terms of colour and shape.”
Zhejiang cuisine, known as Zhe Cai in Putonghua, draws on the cooking styles of Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing. “Zhe cuisine is fragrant, crispy and fresh,” Chef Ng says. “Fish and prawns are favoured.”
Anhui cuisine, known as Hui Cai in Putonghua, 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.
“Hui cuisine is characterized by the use of simple ingredients,” Chef Ng says. “One of the key elements is the control of the cooking flame, with an emphasis on colour and bringing out the flavors of the ingredients.”
Because of its coastal location, Fujian cuisine, known as Min Cai in Putonghua, is strong on seafood. It is also similar to Chiu Chow cuisine, as Chiu Chow is located in northern Guangdong, near the Fujian border. Flavours range from sweet and sour to salty and savory. “Min cuisine is characterized by its beautiful presentation and fresh taste,” Chef Ng says.
For some strange reason, restaurants serving this type of cuisine are in short supply in Shenzhen. There are a handful of fast food outlets in Shenzhen serving Fujian style dumplings and noodles, but they tend to be poorly lit and not very clean.


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