In Italy, one is often inclined to identify the Chinese cuisine with that of the restaurants that enliven the streets of any city from north to south: steamed dumplings, spring rolls, fried chicken, sweet and sour pork, soy noodles or sautéed rice and fried ice cream are certainly the most popular dishes among those who are not interested in a gourmet approach as they identify Chinese cuisine with inexpensive dishes of more or less appreciable quality and taste. Those, on the other hand, who are well aware that China's gastronomy has much to offer, have already discovered thePeking duck and its fascinating history or the marinated duck necks consumed as street food even in Chinatown Milan. These, however, are only the first stages of the journey of discovery of the 8 great regional Chinese cuisines that deserve not to be confused, but rather linked by the common love of conviviality of the meal. 

Regional Chinese cuisine

Map of Chinese regional cuisines, 2017 © Wikipedia EN

Sichuan Chinese Cuisine 四川菜

Sichuan (literally 'four rivers') is a province in south-western China with the capital Chengdu, one of the country's most important economic centres with over 14 million inhabitants. The population is made up of more than 95% of ethnic Han Chinese, plus a 5% of 52 different ethnic groups including Tibetans, Lisu, Yi and A-Hmao who have contributed, together with its particular geography, to a great richness and complexity in cuisine. In this respect, the region is made up of 2 distinct parts: to the east it consists of part of the fertile Sichuan Basin while to the west it shares part of the Tibetan Plateau with the Hengduan Mountains (Daxue Range: 7,556 m above sea level). Contrary to what the name suggests, there are many more rivers here. Among them, the most important for China's history, culture and economy is the Yangtze, which at 6,300 km is the longest river in Eurasia and the third longest in the world.

Sichuan Four Rivers Chinese cuisine

Dusk on the Yangtze River, 2002 © Andrew Hitchcock

Characteristics of Sichuan Chinese cuisine

This geographical and anthropic introduction suggests some aspects of Sichuan Chinese cuisine, including its being characterised by different ingredients and traditions in different areas. In the east, in the fertile basin, rice, vegetables and rabbit meat, while in the mountains, herbs, mushrooms and meat, especially pork and beef, are used. Each area shares seven flavours that dominate each preparation: sweet, salty, sour, spicy, peppery and spicy.

The abundance of salted and dried foods perhaps stems from the need to preserve food during the long journeys made in small boats along the rivers. Even today, they remain in the local tradition served with spicy sauces and oils, probably a past use to cover flavours that have been altered by time.

Curiously, one eats yoghurt, which seems to be a medieval legacy of Indian cuisine that later spread to Tibet and finally to China across the plateau it shares with this country.

Typical Sichuan dishes

Sichuan Chinese cuisine likes to mix ingredients to create original flavours that are rich in nuances, thanks in part to its mix of spices and fermented foods. For example the mala is a combination of Sichuan pepper and dried chillies, the yuxiang is a combination of fermented red chillies, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce while the troublewei is a combination of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, peppery and umami.

  • Dandan noodles (担担面)A spicy sauce made from chilli oil, mustard stalks, Sichuan pepper, shallots and ground beef on which the vermicelli are placed. It can be served either dry or in a soup version.
  • Kung Pao chicken (宫保鸡丁)chicken cubes, peanuts, vegetables, Sichuan pepper and chilli sautéed. It is now a dish eaten in every region of China, although in a less spicy version.
  • Mao xue wangtripe cooked in pork and duck blood with ham and chicken gizzards, seasoned with soybean sprouts, chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, sesame and other spices.
  • Mala duck tongueDuck tongues sautéed with Sichuan pepper and chilli.
  • Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐)Tofu marinated in a spicy sauce made from fermented broad beans and black beans and chilli peppers with ground beef added. In some variants, water chestnuts, mushrooms and onions are added.
  • Sichuan Hotpot (四川火锅)pot of broth kept boiling by a heat source in the middle of the table served together with dishes in which thinly sliced raw ingredients are ready to be cooked directly by diners and then seasoned with sauces. Common ingredients include meat, seafood, tofu, dumplings and vermicelli, potatoes, mushrooms and vegetables.
  • Zhangcha duck (樟茶鸭)Hot-smoked duck on tea leaves and camphor prepared for special occasions.
Sichuan hotpot Chinese cuisine

Sichuan Hot Pot

Guangdong Chinese cuisine (Cantonese cuisine)

Guangdong is a province in southern China with capital Guangzhou (Canton), the metropolis with 15 million inhabitants at the centre of the megacity Pearl River Delta which counts 8 other metropolises plus Hong Kong e Macao with a population of around 50 million and continuously rising economic development. The almost entirely atheist population (91%) is composed almost entirely of ethnic Han Chinese with very small ethnic minorities of Yao, Miao, Li and Zhuang. The territory is mostly coastal and flat and is only bordered by mountain ranges of modest size (peaks touching 1,600 m above sea level). The Pearl River is a river system of 3 of the longest rivers in China. The richness of this area has helped identify it as the Chinese cuisine of the world.

Guangdong Cantonese cuisine

Houhai in Shenzhen's Nanshan District, Guangdong Province © Xinhua/Chen Yehua

Characteristics of Chinese cuisine of Guangdong (Cantonese cuisine)

This geographical introduction suggests how its strategic location on a coastline flourishing with trade has made many imported ingredients in daily use. An old saying goes that in Guandong one eats everything that has four legs, except the table, and everything that flies, except planes. Although this may sound like a popular phrase, it actually expresses the richness of ingredients, preparations, cooking and traditions of this Chinese cuisine. In addition to pork, beef and chicken, Cantonese cuisine incorporates almost all edible meats among its ingredients, including offal, chicken feet, duck tongue, frog legs, snakes and snails. Curiously, lamb and goat are not particularly used.

The flavours are less spicy and peppery, lighter and less fatty than in other Chinese cuisines and this has certainly also contributed to its worldwide popularity. Very few herbs are used except for chives and coriander, the former used as a vegetable and the latter used as a garnish.

Curiously, the most famous dish from abroad is Cantonese rice, in reality Cantonese cuisine is mainly characterised by soups and broths.

In this region, there is a special focus not only on taste, but also on the health of the diner so that ingredients are chosen both seasonally and with respect to the person's specific condition (if known).

Typical Cantonese dishes

  • Congeerice porridge generally salted with seafood, meat and eggs.
  • Sweet and sour porkThe Cantonese version is prepared with preserved plums, hawthorn candy, soy sauce, tomato paste, rice vinegar, ginger and Worcestershire sauce.
  • Beef Chow Fun (干炒牛河): large, flat rice noodles deep-fried or stewed and then stir-fried with marinated beef previously stir-fried alone in the wok. 
  • Cantonese rice: rice steamed and then fried with peas, ham, prawns, bamboo, egg, chicken, shallots, carrots and other ingredients.
Chinese cuisine Cantonese rice

Cantonese rice

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Shandong Chinese cuisine

Shandong is a coastal province in eastern China with Jinan as its capital, a metropolis of more than 9 million inhabitants that ranks among the world's top places for scientific research, also called the 'city of springs' for its famous 72 artesian springs. The population, almost entirely a follower of the Chinese religions (Confucius was born here), is composed almost entirely of Han Chinese, with very small ethnic minorities of Hui and Manchu. The territory is very varied: the entire western part is part of the vast North China Plain, the central part is mountainous (Jade Emperor's Peak, 1,545 m a.s.l.) while the entire eastern part is formed by the Shandong Peninsula, which stretches like a hill over the sea, forming cliffs, bays and islands.

Shandong

The sacred Mount Tai, symbol of ancient Chinese civilisations and beliefs, presents artistic masterpieces in perfect harmony with the natural landscape, Shandong province © Xi Quin Ho

Characteristics of Shandong Chinese cuisine

Shandong cuisine is Lu cuisine, rich in ingredients - due to its geographical location mainly vegetables, cereals and seafood (especially scallops, prawns, clams, sea cucumbers and squid) - and cooking techniques. Two types of broth are produced here, one lighter and the other milky. Both have delicate aromas, but a rich flavour thanks to the shallots, and are often served with seafood. It has two different styles: Jinan, where abundant use is made of savoury soups, quickly fried or roasted foods with a sweet and aromatic taste, and Jiaodong, with delicate seafood dishes where everything is focused on the cutting technique as very little use is made of herbs and spices.

Typical dishes of Shandong cuisine

  • Sautéed king prawns
  • Pork intestines
  • Pan-fried yellow shad with sugar and vinegar
  • Dezhou Braised Chicken (德州扒鸡)It is braised with bones and 5 spices and has a very tender texture.
  • Mackerel Ravioli
Chinese cuisine braised chicken

Braised chicken from Dezhou

Zhejiang Chinese cuisine

Zhejiang is an eastern coastal province of China with its capital Hangzhou, a metropolis of almost 12 million inhabitants that is also an ancient centre of economic and literary importance and is now one of the richest areas of the country. The population, mostly atheist or followers of Chinese folk religions and a small proportion of Christians, is composed almost entirely of ethnic Han Chinese, and the other ethnic groups number close to 400,000, including 200,000 She Chinese and 20,000 Hui Chinese. The territory, which is crossed by the Qiantang River, has a very long coastline and more than 70% consists of hills and over 3,000 islands.

Characteristics of Zhejiang Chinese cuisine

This region is very rich in terms of food and wine, just think of the famous Shaoxing wine or Jinhua ham, or Ningbo tangyuan or West Lake vinegar fish. Zhejiang cuisine has at least three styles originating in the provincial cities of the same name:

  • Hangzhou StyleIt is characterised by a great variety of recipes and the use of bamboo shoots.
  • Shaoxing Styleis characterised by extensive use of poultry and freshwater fish.
  • Ningbo StyleIt is characterised by the extensive use of fresh seafood in which salt abounds. During the Qing dynasty, it was famous for its sweets.

The harvesting of tea leaves is also flourishing.

Tea collection

Harvesting tea leaves, Zhejiang Province, May 1987 © Lorenz King

Typical dishes of Zhejiang cuisine

  • Beggar's chicken (叫化鸡):
  • Fried shrimps with Longjing tea (龙井虾仁):
  • Fried pigeon with spiced salt (椒盐乳鸽):
  • Old duck stew with bamboo root and ham (笋干老鸭煲):
Chinese cuisine old duck with ham

Old duck stew with bamboo root and ham

Jiangsu Chinese Cuisine (Su 苏菜 Cuisine)

Jiangsu is an eastern coastal province of China with Nanjing as its capital, a metropolis of almost 9.5 million inhabitants, a hub of finance, tourism, education and technology to the point of being the richest province in the country. The population, mostly atheist or followers of Chinese folk religions and to a small extent Christian, is made up almost entirely of ethnic Han Chinese and the other ethnic groups are made up of Hui and Manchu minorities. The territory, which is traversed by the Yangtze River and the Great China Canal, consists of almost 70% of plains and almost 20% of water due to the abundance of lakes, and most of the region is not more than 50 m above sea level.

Suzhou Venice of the East China

The southern city of Suzhou has so many canals that it has been nicknamed 'Venice of the East'.

Characteristics of Chinese cuisine of Jiangsu

Su Chinese cuisine from the 'Land of Fish and Rice' - as Jiangsu is called - offers soft, but not flaky dishes like Italian stracotti or boiled meats, prepared mainly with ingredients from the sea that follow the rhythm of the seasons. The Su kitchen has many styles within it:

  • Nanjing StyleIt features fish, crayfish and duck dishes with matching colours and a balanced taste.
  • Nantong StyleIt is characterised by dishes that emphasise the flavour and freshness of the ingredients, consisting mainly of a wide variety of seafood.
  • Suzhou StyleIt is characterised by dishes with refined ingredients and a stronger but also sweeter taste than the other sub-regional cuisines of this area.
  • Wuxi StyleIt features dishes prepared with a wide variety of freshwater fish due to Wuxi's proximity to Tai Lake.

Typical dishes from the cuisine of Jiangsu

  • Braised pork ribs (红烧排骨)with a melt-in-the-mouth texture and sweet taste.
  • Fried glutinous meatballs (油面筋)They can be stuffed with meat and served or stir-fried with vegetables.
  • Nanjing Salted Duck (盐水鸭)
Chinese cuisine duck

Nanjing Salted Duck

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Fujian Chinese Cuisine (Min Cuisine)

Fujian is a south-eastern coastal province of China with the capital Fuzhou, a metropolis of more than 7 million inhabitants with a great importance for scientific research and prestigious universities in which agricultural and forestry specialisations also stand out. The population is made up almost entirely of the Han Chinese ethnic group, but has a huge cultural and linguistic diversity. Moreover, its location so close to Taiwan makes it a cultural bridge between Taiwan and the rest of China. The territory, traversed by the Min River and other waterways, is predominantly mountainous and forested (over 65% is covered in forest) and has rugged coastlines and islands.

Mountains China Fujian

Wuyi Mountains

Characteristics of Chinese cuisine of Fujian

Fujian cuisine is light, yet tasty, and all ingredients are prepared in such a way as to be very tender and rich in umami taste while retaining their original flavour. Among the most commonly used ingredients are local fish, turtles, shellfish, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. There are some sub-regional cuisines:

  • Fuzhou StyleIt is characterised by a lighter taste, tending towards sweet and sour. It is used in soups and sauce with fermented fish and red rice.
  • Putian styleIt is characterised by fish and seafood dishes, especially clams. 
  • Southern FujianIt is characterised by a stronger taste similar to south-east Asian dishes. Sugar, spices and sauces are used. Slow-cooked soups are prepared.
  • Western FujianIt is characterised by light savoury flavours given by steaming with spicy and peppery aromas. Fritters, especially of meat and vegetables, are also prepared.

Typical dishes from the cuisine of Fujian

  • Buddha jumps over the wall (佛跳墙)
  • oyster omelette (蚵仔煎)
Chinese cuisine Buddha soup

Buddha jumps over the wall

Hunan Chinese Cuisine (Xiang Cuisine)

Hunan is a landlocked province in south-central China with the capital Changsha, a metropolis of over 10 million inhabitants of great historical and cultural importance. The population, almost entirely atheist, is 90% ethnic Han Chinese and the remaining 10% ethnic minorities of Tujia, Miao, Dong, Yao, Bai, Hui, Zhuang, Uiguri and others. The territory, crossed by the Yangtze River, is mostly mountainous and hilly (over 80%).

Young Mao Zedong Monument China

Monument dedicated to Young Mao Zedong in Changsha, Hunan

Characteristics of Chinese cuisine of Hunan

Xiang cuisine is characterised by colourful dishes with fresh aromas and spicy, tangy and sour flavours. Common cooking techniques include stewing, frying, roasting, braising and smoking. The region's large agricultural production yields many ingredients with which 3 different cooking styles are performed: Xiang River style, Dongting Lake style and Western style. Among the sspeciality of the region is fermented chilli.

Typical dishes from the cuisine of Hunan

  • Wenchang Chicken (文昌鸡)
  • Changsha Stinky Tofu (长沙臭豆腐)A traditional Chinese snack with a black colour and spicy flavour.
Smelly tofu Chinese cuisine

Stinky tofu

Anhui Chinese cuisine

Anhui is an inland province in eastern China with the capital Hefei, a metropolis of more than 9 million inhabitants of great importance for scientific research and for being home to some of the country's most prestigious universities. The population, mostly belonging to traditional Chinese religions, is almost entirely made up of ethnic Han Chinese, with small minorities of Hui and She. The territory is very diverse, but always rich in lakes and mostly flat in the north and mountainous in the south.

Hongcun Village in Anhui Province

Hongcun Village in Anhui Province

Characteristics of Anhui Chinese Cuisine

The Anhui region, with its waterways, green spaces, wild forests and mountains, offers characteristic ingredients such as bamboo shoots, game, mushrooms and freshwater fish.

Typical dishes of Anhui

  • Egg dumplings (农家蛋饺): traditional peasant dumplings in which thin omelette sheets are used instead of a flour-based dough to wrap the filling, usually pork-based, which are then steamed and served with soy sauce.
Chinese cuisine egg dumplings

Egg dumplings

A little concluding reflection

China is a huge country, which is why there are numerous regional, religious and ethnic styles of Chinese cuisine that fall outside this classification, made by the Chinese journalist Wang Shaoquan in an article published in the newspaper People's Daily in 1980. Until then, Chinese cuisine was classified into four traditions: Chuan cuisine (Western), Lu kitchen (northern), Yue kitchen (southern) and Huaiyang cuisine (Eastern).

Of course, one cannot summarise all Chinese cuisine in one article, but this is intended as a first step in delving into this great gastronomic culture which, lately, is also giving great satisfaction to Chinese wine, especially Bordeaux-style wine. The hope is that sommeliers - including Italian ones - trained in local food-wine pairing will begin to appear more and more frequently even in those high-level Chinese restaurants that can be enjoyed in Italy, especially in Milan, in the hope that the local people will stop associating Chinese cuisine with cheap and plentiful dishes with which they can only fill their bellies.

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