When you visit China, don’t expect much – or any – of what you eat to taste like American Chinese fast food. It’s very different food that’s actually served in China.
To make matters more complicated, Chinese cuisine differs dramatically from one area of the country to the other. Here’s a primer of the eight major cuisines of China.
Shandong cuisine: This one comes first, because it’s the cuisine I grew up with, so I’m obviously partial. It’s from the Shandong peninsula in northeast China, and has an emphasis on salty and garlicky foods. There’s a lot of soups, noodles and seafood – but not much in the way of sweets. It’s very wholesome fare, and was once the favorite of the royal court, because of its closeness to Beijing.
Szechuan cuisine: Get ready for your taste buds to be on fire. This is one of the spiciest of Chinese cuisines, and every dish seems to be topped with a mountain of hot peppers. Be wary of noodle soups: they often have half an inch of floating hot peppers and pepper oil.
Guangdong cuisine: The daintiest of Chinese cuisines, Guangdong cooking emphasizes light, refreshing flavors and sweet dishes. One of the specialties is a plainly steamed fish that is afterwards drizzled in a flavorful sauce.
Hunan cuisine: Deep colors and spicy flavors are notable features of China’s Hunan cuisine. While Szechuan cuisine often uses “numbing hot” flavors, Hunan food is straight hot, with simpler flavors than Szechuan cuisine. The menu changes with the seasons in Hunan, and you can get a hotpot during the colder months.
Jiangsu cuisine: For elegant braised and stewed dishes, look to Jiangsu cuisine. Jiangsu cuisine is known for its duck recipes, and soups made of dried threads of tofu.
Zhejiang cuisine: This type of cuisine traditionally includes a lot of bamboo shoots, poultry and seafood, with freshness and saltiness being key points of Zhejiang cuisine. Some famous dishes from Zhejiang cuisine are West Lake fish cooked with vinegar and Dongpo park, or pork belly meat that is first fried, they stewed with wine and soy sauce.
Anhui cuisine: You’ll find a lot of stews and braised dishes from Anhui, with fewer stir-fried dishes than in other parts of China. There are a lot of wild herbs used in the cooking, along with ham and hints of sweetness.
Fujian cuisine: In Fujian, there’s a saying that’s it’s unacceptable if there is not soup at a meal. Thus, there’s a big emphasis on broths and soups, as well as seafood dishes.
Source: Personal experience