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China Food

China’s Food

Chinese cuisine is some of the most widespread and popular on the planet. Thanks to immigration overseas over the generations, China’s food can be found in all corners of the globe, from San Francisco to New Delhi. Sweet and sour pork, deep-fried bananas, chow mein, kung pao chicken – these dishes are international staples. However, what we take for “Chinese food” abroad is often vastly different from the cuisine found in China itself. It’s no surprise that such a vast country is home to a huge variety of styles and dishes. The stodgy potato-based meals of the north-east are a whole world away from the light, sweet and sour flavors of the south; the river-fish of the eastern seaboard have little in common with the herbed mutton of the Turkic west, and the delicate flavors of Shanghai are stark contrast to the heat and spice of Hunan and Sichuan.

Food experts speak of the “eight great traditions” of Chinese cooking, which are spread across the country. Broadly speaking, the food style follows the climate of the region. In the north-east (dong bei) the diet is grain-based rather than rice-based, with dishes like di san xian (three treasures of the earth) consisting of potato, pepper and eggplant cooked in a rich gravy. Meat dumplings and hearty stews are perfect for the cold weather. Possibly due to lower rates of overseas immigration from this region, dong bei food hasn’t really made a name for itself abroad, and is thus one of the most surprising and exciting for visitors.

Beijing is famous for its imperial cuisine, the centrepiece of which is the legendary Peking Duck. Based on centuries of tradition, the classic roast duck with pancakes, plum sauce and shredded scallions is China’s culinary equivalent of the Great Wall – instantly recognizable, and unquestionably Chinese.

Sichuan Province (formerly known as Szechuan) is known across China for its fiery food. Feisty dishes like gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) and ma po tofu set palates alight and sizzle the senses. The Sichuanese hot numbing pepper is found in nearly every dish. Chairman Mao’s home province, Hunan, is also home to hot cuisine, and red chilli peppers are an essential ingredient.

If you get the chance to try Xinjiang food, most certainly take it. One of the least “typically” Chinese styles, the cuisine of the westerly Uighur-populated region has more in common with Turkish and Middle Eastern food, including plenty of lamb and mutton, Arabian spices, and flat-breads. Make sure you also try the black Sinkiang beer.

Heading south into Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, familiar sights and smells begin to waft from the dinner tables and shop fronts. Massive migration from South China to the USA and Europe has placed this region’s food on the world map. This is where you’ll find familiar dishes like wonton soup, char siu pork, egg foo yong and sweet and sour pork.

Dessert has never been a huge part of the Chinese diet, but sweet stuff is growing in popularity thanks to Western influences. You won’t find a dessert page on most traditional menus, but in big cities you’re likely to see some. Taiwanese shaved ice is popular around the country, with a variety of toppings including peanut butter and red beans.

When it comes to alcohol, the main staples nowadays are beer (mainly from the breweries in Harbin and Qingdao) and spirits like baijiu grain liquor and Shaoxing rice wine. As connections with the West grow, a wine industry is steadily building. Excellent imported bottles can be found in the bigger cities, and local vineyards are beginning to spring up.