When it comes to Chinese food, there are many unique and delicious flavors that can be traced back to different regions, traditions, and influences. Mythology, access to resources, local climate and environment, and a whole lot more all play a role in the evolution of regional dishes and what your favorite Chinese food dishes taste like.
The role of travel and immigration is also important when it comes to how Chinese food dishes changed over the years. Chinese American cuisine and Chinese food in the west have evolved to represent a combination of flavors, changing history, and new access to ingredients not previously available.
If you’re interested in learning how to cook Chinese food at home or expanding your Chinese food home cooking repertoire, you’ll want to know which flavor profiles represent which parts of the country and how you can recreate those delicious and bold dishes at home.
Here at Fly By Jing, we’re not just dedicated to bringing you the ingredients you need for all your favorite dishes. We also want to provide the history behind those meals and to bring a greater knowledge of Chinese culture, regional influence, and the value of Chinese food around the world.
History of Chinese Cuisine
Chinese food has a long and exciting history that dates back over four thousand years. Many of the dishes first produced at the beginning of Chinese civilizations actually look very similar to the recipes we still use today, speaking to their longevity and the comfort so many people derive from their flavors and textures.
One of the reasons Chinese food can be traced back so far is because Chinese civilization stabilized quickly and efficiently, and it’s been around for a long time. China was also home to a great amount of travel, both domestically and internationally, which allowed for myriad flavors from around the world and from indigenous populations to be integrated into common use.
The many different climates and growing environments that exist across the country meant many different types of vegetables could be grown and livestock raised, which also contributed to the unique flavors that came out of a growing Chinese food culture.
From all that, distinct regional flavors developed over the years, along with regional traditions and belief systems. Those regional flavor palates have influenced Chinese culture and food around the world and allow for many unique and delicious dishes to be approached and enjoyed with bold, spicy, and sweet flavors. Here’s what you’ll want to know about the regional influence on Chinese foods.
Eight Major Regional Cuisines
There are so many different combinations of flavors and derivatives of dishes, not to mention the role of the immigration experience on Chinese food. But Chinese food can largely be defined by eight unique regions, each of which has its own flavors and dishes that you can begin making at home today.
Sichuan cuisine is best known for being spicy in flavor, but it doesn’t end there. The Sichuan region has a particularly humid climate, which allows for potent peppers to grow in abundance. These peppers, including the tribute pepper and the erjingtiao pepper, are integrated into many delicious dishes. The Sichuan pepper is integrated into dishes around China. It is actually a citrus plant and known for being spicy enough to cause a tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth.
In this type of cuisine, pork is the most abundantly used meat product, and you’ll find many umami flavors from mushrooms and potent herbs.
Common dishes from the Sichuan menu include: dan dan noodles, spicy noodles, and shredded pork.
Cantonese cuisine, which is also referred to as Guangdong Cuisine and Yue Cuisine, is much more mild than Sichuan, so it’s excellent to try at home if you’re not interested in high spice and heat. What they pull back on in heat, they deliver in richness, with flavors from bean sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, plum sauce, and sweet and sour sauce.
Garlic is one of the most notable flavors in Cantonese cuisine, but you’ll also find spices like chili powder, ginger, and five-powder spice. There are also many preserved vegetables that are dried for storage and then rehydrated before being cooked.
Common dishes from this region include sweet and sour pork, choy sum, and Cantonese-style fried rice.
Hunan cuisine is the ultimate combination of spicy and sour flavors derived from commonly used ingredients like chili peppers, ginger, and garlic.
While Hunan and Sichuan dishes share some similarities, mainly in that they are both spicy and pepper-based and deliver on some mouth-tingling heat, there are a few key differences. Hunan dishes are less oily than Sichuan ones, largely because they use more fresh ingredients, while Sichuan dishes use more dry ingredients.
Hunan cuisine also utilizes the cooking methods of stir-frying, sautéing, steaming, and smoking.
The flavors and dishes vary a lot with the seasons, and you’ll find dishes like hot pots, “dry wok” chicken, and steamed fish.
If you love umami flavors, Jiangsu cuisine might be the flavor palate for you. The dishes are more balanced and subtle in taste, combining umami and sweetness for a delicate and beloved profile that you can’t help but love.
Temperature, color, and texture all play an important role in how Jiangsu meals are created. The food is known for being soft but never mushy, and the dishes evolve as the seasons change to feature matching color ingredients.
Fish is a particularly important and common ingredient in Jiangsu cuisine since the dishes are traditionally cooked near the sea, and the emphasis on natural meat and vegetable flavors means that Jiangsu cuisine has fewer additional ingredients than other regions.
With Zhejiang cuisine, it’s all about fresh flavoring. These foods are built around freshwater fishes, seafood, and vegetables, and naturally occurring ingredients that are eaten in season. If you’re a fan of the many different Chinese seafood options, then Zhejiang cooking is an excellent practice to try at home.
In addition to ingredients like bamboo shoots, this type of regional cooking also includes sweet desserts that feature sugar, beans, rice, and wheat. You may also find dishes with black sesame and cinnamon flavoring.
Zhejiang cuisine also employs many different cooking methods, including sautéing, braising, and stewing, but one of the most common to the region is soaking in brine. Salty food is very commonly cooked in this region.
You’ll find a few distinctive cuisines within the Fujian region, but it’s known for spicy seafood that isn’t too hot. Soup is the most common dish for this region, with variations on fish and oyster dishes, but other seafood ingredients, as well. In Fujian cuisine, you’ll also find ingredients like snails, sea cucumbers, oysters, and sea vegetables.
Herbs and seasoning are liberally used in these dishes, and there’s a wide variety of options, including salty, sour, sweet, and hot. Because the region is coastal and has historically been a haven for refugees, there are many influences from other regions and countries. That means there are lots of different cooking methods in Fujian cuisine, including frying, simmering, and braising.
Shandong cuisine is another seafood-rich type of cooking that delivers salty flavors and crispy, delicious textures. It was one of the first regions in China to populate, and the recipes date back thousands of years.
While most of the dishes are fried, the cuisine is known for not producing oily food. In addition to fish, the Shandong region uses a wide variety of seafood, like sea cucumbers and rockfish. It also employs vinegar flavor, salt, and soy sauce.
There are a few main cooking methods in Shandong cuisine, including dough frying and extreme heat stirring called “bao.” They also make a lot of soups and strive to maintain the original flavors of the ingredients.
Like the regions where seafood plays a starring role, Anhui is also largely influenced by its location and environment in the mountains. The food is hearty and based on plentiful harvests and includes a lot of mountain ingredients, like fungi, herbs, and bamboo shoots. Protein often involves frogs, turtles, and shrimp, and over time rice and wheat have both been added to the dishes in Anhui cuisine.
Preparation, like ingredients, is simple, and Anhui cooking employs sautéing and stewing with particular attention paid to temperature and time over heat.
When it comes to making Chinese food at home, you have a wide history and many choices to pick from. Explore the many regional influences, check out the spices and oils available here at Fly By Jing, and begin testing out your favorite new recipes today.