Over the years, thanks to the media and things I’d seen online, I had built up an idea in my mind about China. Before we moved here I was convinced that I knew exactly what it would be like from the people, the culture, even the food. Except for a few things here and there, this country is nothing like I imagined it would be. So in these posts I’m going to do my best to tweak your ideas, too!
Grab your chopsticks and let’s get stuck in! I hope you’re hungry…
I’m learning that there is so much more variety to Chinese food than I ever imagined. Of course we all know that rice is a staple, that goes without saying, but amongst the North, South, East and West divides there are so many different dishes, all cooked with different ingredients and in different styles.
We’ll start in the North, whose flavours are often described as bold and salty. Wheat is the primary crop in Northern China, so although they do eat rice it comes second to noodles, dumplings and an assortment of buns & pancakes. There are less fresh fruit & vegetables in this region due to the cold climate and those that grow are preserved for winter by drying or pickling. The North West is especially famous for its dried fruit!
These dumplings have minced pork inside.
I’ve done my research, and by research I mean I’ve quite possibly eaten my body weight in them over the last 8 months, and can say that dumplings are DELICIOUS and possibly my favourite “Chinese food”. They’re served with vinegar and hot chili oil for dipping and are filled with a variety of meats and vegetables. Hand-pulled and sliced noodles are also common dishes in the North and are usually served stir-fried or in soup.
One of the best known dishes of Northern China is definitely familiar to us in the West. I’m sure you’ve smothered a pancake with hoisin sauce and shredded duck before?! Peking duck is from Beijing and has been prepared since the Imperial era, though authentic versions of the dish actually serve the duck skin and very little meat.
Now let’s head to the East, the Yangtze River delta, where food mainly features sweet and subtle flavours with the help of sugar, wine, vinegar and soy sauce. This region has an abundant use of seafood and fish thanks to the large number of lakes, river tributaries and its close proximity to the sea. The rich, fertile river delta also allows farm land to produce a wide variety of vegetables.
Food from this region is not as famous as the cuisine from other parts of China but that hasn’t stopped 4 provinces in the East from becoming some of the ‘Eight Great Culinary Traditions’. These are the most widely recognized and influential regional culinary cuisines, so it’s quite a big deal! Here are a few of them, I’ll put money on it that you’ve only tried one of these…
- Steamed stone frog, anyone?? This a mountain delicacy, made with frogs (of course) found in caves near the Yellow Mountain. It’s said that these magical amphibians can be eaten to treat lung deficiency.
- Drunken pork ribs are just that, drunk! They are marinated in a mixture of wine, garlic, salt, lemon juice and chili for at least 24 hours.
- Fried rice, which I assure you is even more delicious than the one you’re probably used to from your local takeaway restaurant.
Onto our next stop. Are you feeling hungry yet??
Southern China has the greatest concentration of ethnic minorities than anywhere else in the country and they have their own special cuisine famous for sour and spicy flavours. These minorities are traditionally poor farmers that live among the mountains, so their food is mostly grown locally and prepared with very little wastage – hands, feet and innards are all eaten (!!!!). Much like the North, a lot of foods are pickled and cured in order to preserve vegetables, poultry, fish and tofu in the damp Southern weather.
Speaking of the weather, those that live in this region believe that eating spicy food helps to “drive the damp out” (a belief that I mentioned in one of my previous posts titled ‘Typhoons & Boxing’) which helps them to feel more comfortable in the humidity. The levels of spice, along with pickles and ginger, are important in order to mask the tastes and scents of certain foods that may not be very appetizing – remember the innards???
Yes, these are chicken feet. No, I haven’t tried them yet.
Hotpots and fast-frying are typical cooking methods used as they’re simple, adaptable and lead to less wastage of precious resources like oil, drinkable water and firewood. One dish from this region that you might be familiar with is ‘blood cakes’ – or as we know it ‘black pudding’ – though I’m sure the preparation is different. I think the Western name is a little more appealing, don’t you?
The province I’m currently living in – Guangdong – is home to Cantonese cuisine and the one I know the most about. When we talk about Chinese food at home, this is the one we’re familiar with. Its prominence outside China is due to the large number of emigrants from this region who took their cooking style to America, Europe and Southeast Asia. Do you like sweet & sour pork, beef in black bean sauce and lemon chicken? These are all Cantonese dishes!
Finally, onto our last destination in this little culinary expedition. Like the East, West China also benefits from the fertile plains of the Yangtze River and as such produces an abundance of fresh vegetables. Sichuan and Hunan provinces are the most famous examples of Western cuisine that are included in the ‘Eight Great Culinary Traditions’ mentioned previously above. They are both known for their extremely spicy dishes, some of which can leave your mouth completely numb, and have been influenced by foreigners throughout history. For example, traders from Spain transported chilies into China in the 16th century and Buddhist missionaries introduced heavy spices predominant in Indian cuisine.
Besides the spice, typical flavours come from vinegar, garlic, onions, ginger and sesame oil. Favoured cooking methods include frying, pickling and stir-frying. Thanks to the strong ethnic minority presence in this area the use of goat’s milk for cheese is very popular. Muslim influences are also obvious in goat meat and dried beef dishes, reflecting a historically nomadic lifestyle.
Some dishes from this region that you may be familiar with are crispy shredded beef (though the one you’ve tried may not be quite so spicy), and one of my favourites kung pao chicken.
Now that we’ve VERY briefly summarised each region, here are some quick facts about REAL Chinese food –
- When whole fish or poultry such as chicken or duck is served, the head of the animal is usually offered to the guest of honour as a sign of respect.
- The Chinese consume far more fruits and vegetables than the West – resulting in about twice as much dietary fiber.
- China uses 45 billion pairs of chopsticks per year!!!
- Chow mein is a noodle dish traditionally cooked in a wok which has been heavily adapted by the rest of the world. The one from your local takeaway will be very different to one you’d find in mainland China, and its proper name is char mien (which translates to ‘fried noodles’).
- Typical breakfast dishes include assortments of dim sum, steamed buns and porridge (nothing like the UK version, Chinese porridge is made with “soupy rice” and can be topped with an assortment of things such as nuts, meat and seafood.
- Fortune cookies are not a real thing in China (I know, this one made me sad too, sorry!)
The white buns contain BBQ pork and the black ones are filled with custard – my favourites!
Char mien with beef and vegetables.
I can’t stress enough how brief of an overview this is. If I was to write about every single region this would be the longest blog post of all time. There is so much variation when it comes to the food here and each individual home usually has a different way of cooking certain dishes. Two of my work colleagues (one is from the South and the other from the North) are always arguing (playfully, of course) that their cuisine is better than the other and their way of cooking this dish or that dish results in something tastier.
My aim with this post was to give you just a little insight into REAL Chinese food, so if you’ve taken something away from this that you didn’t already know, my mission is complete ☺️.
I bet you’ll end up ordering a Chinese takeaway for dinner this weekend now.. you will, won’t you?? I knew it..
Is there anything that surprised you or that you didn’t know about? What are your favourite Chinese dishes? Let me know in the comments below or better yet take a photo and tag me on Instagram @englishgirlinchina.
Until next time.
***I must also stress that a lot of this information came from the Internet. There are some brilliant websites out there – and if I can access them in China you’ll certainly be able to find them – that explain each region in much more detail than I could have included here.***