Leonardo Dalessandri’s ‘Watchtower of China’ is a visual feast, introducing viewers to a country of great contrast: fast-paced and hectic, slow and rhythmic, ancient, traditional, modern, dynamic Read More
Made up of over a billion people and counting, China may be one of the most diverse places on earth. Its 56 ethnic groups, five distinct geographic regions, and 26 provinces mean that no facet of Chinese culture is monolithic — and that includes its food.
Chinese food has historically been divided into “eight great” regional cuisines, a term used to designate the country’s most important culinary traditions. But people have since come to realize that these categories don’t even come close to capturing Chinese food’s nuances. The country’s cuisines are a complicated tapestry of influences that change as rapidly as its people do.
Here’s our take on some of the must-know regional cuisines in mainland China, giving you a taste of what makes its food wholly unique and special.
Dongbei (literally “east north”) refers to the northeastern-most corner of China. Because it’s surrounded by other countries — Mongolia, Russia, and North and South Korea — much of Dongbei food tends to reflect these influences. Korean-style pickled vegetables and cold noodles and Slavic-inspired sauerkraut can be found in the region, for example. Dongbei is also characterized by cold temperatures and a historically poorer population, which have helped influence its people’s liberal use of pickling, potatoes, and hearty carbs.
Following the classic aphorism of northerners preferring wheat to rice, Dongbei people tend to go for buns, bing (饼) — wheat pancakes — and breads. The cuisine is stereotypically less “refined” than southern cuisine, but still popular enough to merit many Dongbei-style restaurants across China and countries such as the US.
Staple dishes Suan cai tang (酸菜汤, Chinese pickled cabbage soup with pork), tudou si (土豆丝, vinegary stir-fried potato strips with Russian influence), la pi (拉皮, cold potato starch noodles).
Fun fact Guo bao rou (锅包肉) a Dongbei dish, is the OG inspiration for the Chinese-American classic sweet and sour pork. Typically the pork is coated in potato flour, fried, and covered in sauce.
While technically its own province, Shandong has since become an umbrella term for most northern Chinese cooking.
Shandong food has the province’s mild climate and location on the Yellow River to thank for its humble yet satisfying ingredients. It’s traditionally seen as drawing inspiration from the Confucian values of harmony and balance, as Confucius is said to have been born here. This area also lays claim to being the origin of zhajiangmian (炸酱面) “fried sauce noodles” found all over China, but typically attributed to Beijing.
Shandong cuisine is considered to have the longest history out of any of China’s regional culinary schools — it allegedly originated in royal courts of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) — and has influenced a lot of other regional northern cuisines such as Beijing, Jiaodong, Tianjin, and Jinan.
Beijing cuisine, or Jingcai (京菜), arguably incorporates the best from all corners of the region, as well as its own unique tradition of street foods. Some essential Beijing foods and snacks include tanghulu (糖葫芦) — candied hawthorn berries on a stick — lamb hotpot, jianbing, Beijing-style zhajiangmian (made with yellow bean instead of the conventional sweet bean paste), and of course, Peking duck.
Located between Beijing and China’s eastern coast, Tianjin is another northern food hub that owes a great deal to both Shandong and Dongbei food. The municipality is famous for inventing some classic street pastries such as jianbing and youtiao which, when combined, make the wonderfully snackable jianbing guozi (煎饼果子), breakfast crepes with fried bread sticks inside. Some other Tianjin specialties include goubuli (狗不理) –giant baozi dumplings — and mahua (麻花), or fried dough twists.
Staple dishes Shandong-style dumplings (dipped in vinegar and filled with seafood), sixi wanzi (四喜丸子, “four joy” meatballs), fried sea cucumber
Fun fact One of China’s most famous lagers, Tsingtao Beer, also originated in Qingdao, Shandong province, after German immigrants began brewing there in the late 19th century.
Fujian (or Fukien) food hails from the coast of southeast China bordering the Taiwan Strait. Fujian is home to many different ethnic groups, most notably of Min Chinese origin: Hakka, Hokkien, and Chaozhou, to name three. It overlaps heavily with Taiwanese food, since the regions are so close in proximity; many Fujianese people also emigrated to Taiwan and Southeast Asia at various points in history.
Fujian is known for its rich seafood culture — particularly turtles and shellfish — marinating foods in red rice wine, and soups both thin and hearty. There’s a classic Fujianese saying that insists “it is unacceptable for a meal to not have soup.”
Staple dishes Popiah (Chaozhou spring rolls), fish ball soup, oyster omelette, peanut sauce noodles, soup wontons.
Zhejiang is a coastal province bordering the East China Sea. Freshness, or xian (鲜), is said to be the cuisine’s defining characteristic. Zhejiang food encompasses the styles of Hangzhou (famous for its sweet and sour sauces), Shaoxing (home of the iconic rice wine), and Ningbo (known for salty seafood dishes).
Zhejiang was historically a wealthy province because Hangzhou was once the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty — this, in turn, impacted the development of its food. It is seen as refined and mellow, and especially famous for confectionaries and desserts such as sweet rice balls. And since it is located on China’s coast there is, of course, lots of fresh fish used.
Staple dishes Dongpo pork, drunken chicken, lotus root paste, West Lake beef soup, West Lake fish in sweet and sour sauce.
Fun fact Some of China’s most prized tea is grown in this region — such as Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea — and therefore is used in a lot of local cooking.
Even in modern times, the cuisine of historically poor Anhui province is typically described as “mountain peasant food.” The vast quantity of forests and mountains in Anhui — such as the famous Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain — make for a unique set of ingredients not used in other areas of China. For that reason, the cuisine also relies less on farming and more on gathering, stewing, and sauce-making.
Known for heavy brown sauces and wild herbs, Anhui food is said to have originated from Huizhou merchants who helped spread the cuisine across China. Thus, Anhui food quickly went from being “peasant food” to one of the eight great cuisines of antiquity.
Staple dishes Stinky tofu (chou doufu 臭豆腐), hairy tofu with chili sauce (mao doufu 毛豆腐, the “hair” is edible mold), jincaidi (a chunky beef sauce), nongjia danjiao (农家单椒, dumplings made with thin sheets of egg instead of flour).
Fun fact One town in Anhui claims to be the birthplace of hotpot, but this is hotly contested by many other places across China. However, Anhui does boast a unique hotpot-adjacent native dish called yipinguo (一品锅).
You can think of Jiangsu as a blanket term for the cuisine that encompasses the region directly east of Shanghai. Technically its most famous sub-region is Huaiyang, however, which has become synonymous with the food of Jiangsu, Shanghai, and the southern regions of the Yangtze River.
Home of the world-famous xiaolongbao dumplings, Jiangsu food is famously sweet and often has a signature red shine from pickling food in wine. Gourmet and elegant, Jiangsu is often the cuisine served at formal events and banquets.
Food native to Shanghai is called benbang (本帮) food, and has a signature light sweetness. The metropolis has historically been China’s most international city, dating back to 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing first opened Shanghai up as a port and brought in British, American, and French influences. That’s why you’ll find traces of these influences in Shanghainese cooking — via borscht-like soups and schnitzel-inspired pork chops — known as haipai (海派) food.
Staple dishes Crab roe soup dumplings, tangcu paigu (糖醋排骨, sweet and sour ribs), wontons.
The many rivers and lakes of Hubei, literally meaning “north of the lake,” mean that it’s famous for its fish dishes, as well as other freshwater ingredients such as lotus root. Like its neighbors Hunan and Sichuan, spicy, strong flavors define Hubei cuisine. Its capital, Wuhan, boasts the most food clout in the region, in addition to being one of China’s main cultural hubs.
Hubei’s breakfast culture, called guo zao (过早, “passing the morning”), originates from Wuhan’s roots as a transportation hub, where dockworkers would eat breakfast at food stalls on the street to begin their day.
Reganmian (热干面), or hot-dry noodles, are an especially popular breakfast staple that according to legend were created when a hawker accidentally spilled sesame oil on his noodles. Today these noodles are so closely associated with the city that they became a symbol of Wuhan during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some cases, a site of discrimination in countries abroad.
Staple dishes Reganmian (hot dry noodles), qingzheng wuchang yu (倾城武昌鱼, Wuchang steamed fish), ou jia (藕夹, lotus root and pork sandwiches).
Located smack-dab in the heart of China, Hunan province is world-famous for its spicy food, second only to Sichuan. But unlike Sichuan — which often uses mala (麻辣), a numbing spice — Hunan food boasts a lot of ganla (干啦, dry spice) and suanla (酸辣, hot and sour) flavors.
The image of the classic Hunan dish covered in red chili peppers is recognizable to any Chinese person. (Mao Zedong, who was born in Hunan province, reportedly ate his watermelon sprinkled with chili.) The impact of Hunan cuisine can also be seen in Chinese-American cuisine over the last several decades, after chefs from Hunan and Sichuan moved to Taiwan, and eventually to New York, in the 1970s.
Staple dishes Dry pot chicken (gan guo ji 干锅鸡), steamed fish with red chilies (duojiao zhengyu 剁椒蒸鱼), hong shao rou (红烧肉, a classic rich pork dish that has spread to most of the country and is often claimed to have been Mao’s favorite).
China’s northwestern regions are often overlooked in terms of food, but we advise not to sleep on this area’s culinary importance.
This largely arid region is home to China’s largest Hui Muslim and Uyghur minority populations. As a result, food from Xinjiang and Gansu heavily features mutton and beef rather than pork — which is forbidden in Muslim diets — along with Central Asian and Middle Eastern foods such as kebabs, spiced meats, and flatbreads. There are an increasing number of Xinjiang and specifically Uyghur restaurants both in China and abroad that also serve Mongolian-style hotpot and lamb barbecue.
Gansu province’s famous hand-pulled noodles, or lamian, are notoriously difficult to make and master. Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, has become synonymous with its Lanzhou lamian, a beef noodle soup that is eaten across China.
Staple dishes Big-plate chicken (da pan ji 大盘鸡), zhua fan (抓饭, fried rice with carrots, lamb, raisins, and spices), Xinjiang noodles (Xinjiang lamian, 新疆拉面), Lanzhou noodles (Lanzhou lamian, 兰州拉面), lamb cooked every which way.
Just east of Gansu lie Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, a landlocked region near the northwestern corner of China. Like a lot of food in northwestern China, food from these two provinces is heavy on the carbs — but noodles are their main claim to fame.
Many people may know Shaanxi food as Xi’an food — named for the capital of Shaanxi province (hence popular New York City eatery Xi’an Famous Foods). Shaanxi derives influences from its neighbors to the north and south — Inner Mongolia and Sichuan — and is salty, vinegary, and rarely sweet.
Shaanxi province was the first province in China to be introduced to Islam, and as a result much of its food is halal. Lamb is the most popular source of protein here, giving rise to all sorts of tasty mutton dishes that are unique to the region, but also enjoyed across the country.
Not to be confused with the above, Shanxi cuisine hails from Shaanxi’s neighboring province to the east. Shanxi is known for its mature aged vinegar, which gives its food a signature tangy flavor. Legend has it that suitable son-in-laws in the Shanxi city of Jinzhong needed not only a stable income, but also an urn of the famous vinegar.
Knife-cut noodles (刀削面, daoxiaomian) are also source of pride for the region. These noodles are shaved by hand from a block of dough over a pot of boiling water, and require skillful technique to make.
Staple dishes Yangroupaomo (羊肉泡馍, shredded Shaanxi flatbread soaked in lamb soup), biangbiang mian (a spicy noodle dish named after its wide, belt-like noodles), roujiamo (肉夹馍, commonly nicknamed a “Chinese burger”), liangpi (凉皮, spicy cold wheat noodles), knife-cut noodles (daoxiaomian, 刀削面).
The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, bordering Mongolia and a small part of Russia, is where over four million people mostly of Mongol descent live. The region, which was formally established in 1947, is known for its cold, arid, climate and its steppes — vast grasslands with no trees or bodies of water.
To combat the brutal winters, Mongolian cuisine relies heavily on meat and dairy, with mutton being the most popular food. Its cuisine has also been greatly influenced by the nomadic herding culture that has characterized the region for thousands of years. Inner Mongolian meals typically incorporate baishi (白食, “white foods”) — dairy products such as milk tea, butter, and yogurt — and hongshi (红食, “red foods”), or fatty meats like mutton and beef.
Staple dishes Salted milk tea (süütei tsai), mutton barbeque (khorkhog), Mongolian steamed dumplings (buuz).
Fun fact The country of Mongolia has over 3 million horses, which is more horses than people. Horse meat is also commonly eaten in Mongolian cuisine.
Qinghai province, which sits largely on the Tibetan plateau, has an average elevation of 9,800 feet above sea level. It shares a lengthy border with Tibet and ethnic minorities, namely Tibetan, Sala, Mongol, and Hui Muslim people, make up about 45 percent of the population here. Steamed bread, beef, mutton, yak products, and highland barley are culinary staples here, while because of the climate, crops that can grow at high altitudes, such as barley, are also prominent.
Staple dishes Yangrouchaomianpian (羊肉炒面片, fried mutton noodles), niangpi (酿皮, wheat flour noodles with gluten separated), goujiaoniaoning (savory pancakes with fenugreek and tumeric)
Fun fact Covering more than 4,000 square kilometers, Qinghai Lake is the largest lake in China. It is also a holy lake for Tibetan Buddhists, who will make the 23-day trek on foot (or 18-day on horseback) around its perimeter to pray and worship.
Dishes from Yunnan, a province that borders Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, are about as close to Southeast Asian cuisine as Chinese food gets.
Cuisine from this region is fresh, tropical, and very diverse — 51 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities have made their home here. The province is also known as China’s “fungus kingdom,” with lots of wild mushrooms, herbs, and flowers used as featured ingredients in the food.
Because of the province’s multicultural makeup, some claim that there is no singular Yunnan cuisine. Many products and dishes found here are completely different from anywhere else in the country.
Staple dishes Dajiujia (大舅家, strips of sticky rice stir-fried with meat, ham, eggs, fungi, and vegetables), dousu xueyu (豆酥鳕鱼, cod topped with crispy beans), guoqiao mixian (过桥米线, “cross bridge” rice noodles).
Fun fact Yunnan is one of the few Chinese regions that produces and consumes cheese. Theirs is a goat cheese that’s eaten salted, steamed, or lightly fried, often with layers of ham nestled between slices.
Chances are that if nothing else on this list feels familiar, you have had Sichuanese food before. One of the most popular cuisines to come out of China, Sichuan food is famous for its mala (麻辣) or numbing hot spiciness, thanks to its beloved peppercorn. The chili pepper was first introduced to China by South America around the end of the 17th century. The Sichuanese ran with it, and never looked back.
Traditional Chinese medicine states that since the lowland regions are very humid, Sichuanese people must eat hot food to sweat, excreting the body’s toxins and internal dampness. The region’s warmth and humidity also gave rise to processes like pickling, salting, drying, and smoking to preserve food. Sichuan food is spicy, salty, and generally strong in flavor as a result.
Sichuanese restaurants are immensely popular around China, and are often people’s go-to when eating out. Popular dishes like Sichuan hotpot — loaded with spicy peppers — have also made their way to America and the rest of the world via a few successful chain restaurants. Lots of classic Chinese-American dishes like kung pao chicken and mapo tofu are also textbook Sichuanese.
Other staples such as xiaomian (小面) and suanlafen (酸辣粉, hot and sour sweet potato noodles) come from Chongqing, an enormous metropolis that was officially part of Sichuan until 1997. But the city is most famous for being the hotpot capital of China. Chongqing versus Chengdu-style hotpot is a Chinese food feud that has brewing for years now, with many restaurants that serve either distinctive style.
Staple dishes Shui zhu yu (水煮鱼, boiled fish in chili broth), yuxiang qiezi (鱼香茄子, fish-fragrant eggplant), dandan mian (担担面, mixed noodle with peppercorns, sesame paste, and minced meat), fuqi feipian (夫妻肺片, spicy stir-fried beef tongue, tendon, and tripe).
Tucked away in the southwest part of China, Guizhou is another underrated province famous for its culinary heat. It is best known for the unique sour-spicy flavors that distinguishes it from neighboring Yunnan and Sichuan.
As in Sichuan cuisine, the pervasive use of chili peppers is intended to combat the humid, rainy climate. However, Guizhou food makes use of several chili pepper permutations not found in any other region. For example, hu la (糊辣) refers to heat-drying crushed chilies, and ci ba la (糍粑辣), or “mochi chili,” is a paste made by soaking dried chili peppers and grinding them with ginger and garlic.
Due to the mountainous climate, vinegar was historically easier to import than salt, making it the main preservative for Guizhou people. Natural fermentation and pickling processes made their way into dishes like suan tang yu (酸汤鱼, sour fish soup) — the representative dish for the Miao people, who make up 12 percent of Guizhou’s population. A famous Miao saying goes, “Without eating sour food for three days, you will have weak legs.”
Staple dishes Si wawa (丝娃娃, rice flour vegetable wraps), Guizhou chili chicken, changwang mian (肠旺面, intestine noodles), lianai doufu (恋爱豆腐, “lover’s tofu”), suan tang yu (酸汤鱼, sour fish soup).
Fun fact Lao Gan Ma, China’s most beloved chili sauce, hails from Guizhou.
Last, but certainly not least, there is Guangdong, or Cantonese, cuisine. Located on the southernmost coast, Guangdong province specializes in food that’s light and mild, preferring things steamed over stir-fried. Its hold over southern China is seen in the food culture of neighboring Hong Kong, one of Asia’s most dynamic food capitals.
Guangdong food is seen as very soup-forward — according to traditional Chinese medicine, soup cools the body down, which is helpful in Guangdong’s humid, subtropical climate. And since it’s on the coast, where fresh produce is readily available, there is also no need for the preservation techniques that produce very strong or spicy flavors.
There is also an intellectual culinary tradition that holds Guangdong chefs in very high esteem, likely due to the capital being moved southward in the Song dynasty and skillful chefs gathering there. Its most famous export, dim sum, has a lengthy history in countries such as the US because Guangdong people were the first Chinese immigrants to settle there.
Staple dishes Char siu bao (roasted pork bun), congee, youtiao (油条, fried breadsticks)
All illustrations: Helen Haoyi Yu
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