Chinese cuisine is rich and diverse, varying in style and taste from region to region. Its history dates back thousands of years, evolving according to changes in both the environment (such as climate) and local preferences over time. Chinese cuisine also varies depending on class and ethnic background, and it is often influenced by the cuisines of other cultures. All these factors contribute to an unparalleled range of cooking techniques, ingredients, dishes and eating styles that make up what is understood to be Chinese food today.
Of the various regional styles of Chinese cuisine, it is the Cantonese cuisine from Guangdong that is the most widely recognized globally. Many Western Chinese restaurants have adopted a style of Cantonese cooking due to the majority of Chinese emigrants from Guangdong who moved to the United States and Europe in the 1800s. Indeed, Hakkasan’s menu is predominantly Cantonese or Hakka (from which Hakkasan derives its name), a cuisine developed by the Hakka people who lived within the Guangdong province. However, there are a number of distinctive styles from different regions that contribute to the whole of Chinese cuisine, and of these there are eight specific culinary traditions that are recognized throughout Chinese society and around the globe.
These eight culinary cuisines are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan and Zhejiang.
Anhui cuisine is derived from the native cooking styles of the people located in the Huangshan Mountains region in China. Although it is similar to Jiangsu cuisine, there is less emphasis on seafood and more on a wide variety of locally grown herbs and vegetables from both the land and the sea.
Due to Guangdong’s proximity to the South China Sea, the people of the region have access to a plentiful supply of imported food and fresh seafood. Cantonese cuisine incorporates almost all edible meats, including chicken feet, duck’s tongue, snakes and snails. However, due to availability, lamb and goat are rarely eaten. Many cooking techniques are used, including wok hei (stir frying) and steaming. Spices are used moderately, and fresh herbs are seldom added to the food. Dishes include dim sum, small morsels of food typically served at breakfast or lunch alongside tea; barbequed char siu, sticky and burnt red in color; and clear broths flavored with meat stock.
Fujian cuisine is influenced by its coastal position and mountainous terrain, and ingredients such as woodland mushrooms, bamboo shoots, fish, shellfish and turtles are used regularly. The cuisine in this area is known to have particular emphasis on umami taste; the dishes are notoriously light and flavorful.
Like Szechuan cuisine, Hunan food is renowned for being hot and spicy, with garlic, chili peppers and shallots used liberally. However, unlike Szechuan cuisine, it is known for being purely hot as opposed to the searing, numbing heat of Szechuan cooking.
Jiangsu cuisine consists of a several different styles of Chinese cooking, namely Huaiyang, Yangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and Zhenjiang. The food in Jiangsu cuisine is known as being soft, but not to the point of falling apart: the meat tastes tender but wouldn’t separate from the bone when picked up.
Derived from the native cooking styles of Shandong, a northern coastal province of China, Shandong cuisine consists of two predominant styles: Jiaodong, characterized by light seafood dishes; and Jinan, a style that features the use of soup in its dishes. Although it is less available in the West, Shandong cuisine is often considered one of the most influential styles of cooking in the Chinese culinary history.
Szechuan cuisine is renowned for its use of bold flavors; chili, garlic and Szechuan pepper are used liberally throughout the dishes. Szechuan pepper has a unique taste: it is intensely fragrant, citrusy and causes a numbing sensation in the mouth. Szechuan cuisine often contains food that has been preserved through pickling, salting and drying.
In general, Zhejiang food is fresh and light rather than greasy. It consists of at least four styles of cooking: Hangzhou, characterized by the use of rich foods and bamboo shoots; Shaoxing, specializing in poultry and fish; Ningbo, specializing in seafood; and Shanghai, with xiao long bao.