In a country with over 1.2 billion people, it’s not surprising that China has a varied cultural landscape. The eight famous distinct cuisines of China are a perfect example of the eclectic makeup of this stunning country and best of all, you can go try all of them in one place, Shanghai.
As with most Asian countries, meals are a staple of Chinese culture. In both lower society and high business culture, a meal is a social event where companions come together to share more than just nourishment. However, while this reverence for food is not uncommon amongst the countries of the world, the Chinese are at an advantage. They have had almost 5,000 years to refine their cuisine.
Here, in Shanghai, ‘Chinese food,’ doesn’t hold much meaning. The vastness of the country has led to the development of a wide range of local fare. Each is unique in its style and ingredients, but over the years certain traditions have been upheld as more distinctly ‘Chinese’ than others (generally stemming from the country’s oldest provinces). These are known as the Eight Great Cuisines of China.
A sprawling metropolis, Shanghai has drawn not just a vibrant international scene, but has also become a melting pot of Chinese traditions from every sector of the Middle Kingdom. With minimal effort on the part of the foodie, Shanghai delivers all the best cuisines China has to offer.
The second most internationally established cuisine is Guangdong (Yue Cuisine). This is where the world famous dim sum originates from, and most of the fare served in American-Chinese restaurants traces itself back to Guangdong. The cuisine prefers braising, frying, baking, stewing, and is noted for its heavy use of sauces (especially wine). Guangdong is often stereotyped for turning virtually anything into a dish (from rooster combs, to rats, to thousand-year-old eggs). Try the braised pork at Crystal Jade.
Sichuan (Chuan Cuisine) is probably the most well-known Chinese style, famous for its use of chili, peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and peanuts. While many Sichuan dishes are spicy in the hot pepper sense, many include Sichuan peppercorns (also known as Chinese coriander), which literally numb your mouth when you eat them. Sichuan Citizen is a good place to try spicy anything.
Jiangsu (Su Cuisine) favors braising and stewing, and is particularly noted for the precision of its ingredients and their preparation. Many of the dishes are sweet and Jiangsu’s proximity to the sea means that it is heavy on seafood. The cuisine has historically held a high post amongst the Chinese cuisines and still to this day occupies an important role at state banquets. Try Jian Guo 328 for yellow croaker on scallions (this is technically a Shanghai-style restaurant (a fantastic one), but Shanghai cuisine takes many of its culinary elements from neighboring Jiangsu).
Hunan (Xiang Cuisines) is often spicy and known for its deep colors. This was Mao Zedong’s home province and he lavished praise on it. The ingredients of the dishes are extremely varied due to the high agricultural output of the region. Most famously, Hunan food is very aromatic due to their promiscuity with spices, you can often smell a Hunan restaurant before you see it. Try Di Shui Dong for their cumin pork ribs.
Anhui (Hui Cuisine) originates from the renowned Huangshan (Yellow Mountains). The style is similar to Jiangsu, but draws less from fish and more from natural herbs (bamboo also often makes an appearance in Anhui dishes). Anhui is much further inland than Jiangsu and the abundance of rich local herbs makes it a very healthy cuisine. Try Bai Jia Qian Wei for anything with bamboo in the title.
Fujian (Min Cuisine) is heavy in seafood, which isn’t surprising considering the province’s proximity to the sea. The dishes are often served with an accompanying soup or just cooked into a broth themselves (the famous saying 不汤不行 originates in Fujian, and translates to ‘It is unacceptable for a meal not to have a soup.’) Mushrooms and bamboo shoots also make regular appearances. Tyr Shu You Seafood Restaurant for anything seafood.
Zhejiang (Zhe Cuisine) has recently made international news for its Longjing Tea River prawns. These prawns, which are wok-fried and coated with Longjing tea leaves, have been upheld by chefs worldwide as one of China’s lesser known culinary wonders. (Longjing is a region famous in China for its tea, which harmonizes brilliantly with the freshness of its prawns.) Zhejiang food often uses bamboo roots, which gives its dishes a very soft texture. Try Zhang Sheng Ji for Longjing River prawns.
Shandong (Lu Cuisine) is the most famous of the northern Chinese cuisines and has a long history. It was revered by the Ming and Qing Dynasties, who spent the majority of their dynasties established in the northern city of Beijing. Well known as the cuisine with a million cooking techniques (as well as a geographical location which draws food from rivers, the ocean, and mountains), dishes from the Lu Cuisine are very diverse in their tastes and preparation. Try Dong Lai Hai Shang for roasted chicken.
Eating in China can be overwhelming, but with such a diverse and continually evolving culture, it’s well worth the time of any traveler to plunge into the cuisines on offer in Shanghai. Although there are many additional cuisines that could be added to the list (Xinjiang, Yunnan, Mongolian), the Eight Great Cuisines are a good place to start.
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