The area’s long coastline means seafood features prominently, especially high-cost ingredients such as abalone and sea cucumber. This cuisine initially set the standard for gourmet food in north east China. Expect plenty of elaborate soups, which often cost more than the regular dishes.
This boils down to the ingredients used: scallops, fish, whole organic hens and so on. Shandong cuisine also uses heavy and distinct sauces and seasonings. They cook liberally with onions and garlic and like their food to be hearty and salty (the Cantonese, for example, take a completely different approach).
The gold standard of sweet and sour fish. The fish has to be presented whole and is cooked so that the tail points up to the sky. If you’re a fan of sweet and sour, the balance and texture of this dish will blow you away.
In the past, this dish – from the city of Dezhou – was prepared by steaming the chicken. It is now more commonly braised. If prepared well, the chicken is extremely tender and has a beautiful Chinese five-spice flavour.
This dish features a heavy, soy-based sauce that envelops the king prawns. The prawns must be a special variety that migrate between the Bohai Sea and the brackish Yellow River.
Sichuan cuisine (chuan cai 川菜)
Long considered to be simple and unsophisticated by many Chinese gourmands, Sichuan food has become hugely popular among regular diners and Westerners – partly because of its straightforward nature. But there is also great variety: ‘a hundred dishes; a hundred different flavours’, as the old local saying goes.
The biggest misconception is that it’s all about the spicy and numbing mala flavours. Not true. Sichuanese dishes done well are about the layering of flavours to add depth. Chillies were only introduced to this cuisine a few hundred years ago; Sichuan peppercorns and ginger are the original spicy condiments here.
The Sichuanese also lay claim to the chilli broad bean paste (doubanjiang, 豆瓣酱 ). No one does it better than they do. The paste is umami-rich and an important building block in the cuisine. Finally, Sichuan cuisine is not meant to be expensive. The ingredients are cheap and do not require elaborate skills. Chefs only need to understand how to balance and play with the flavours.
Guaiwei ji, 怪味鸡
This is chicken on the bone. The name comes from the sesame paste, which was once considered a ‘strange’ condiment introduced by Muslim traders. It is essentially tahini.
Yuxiang qiezi, 鱼香茄子
Aubergines are cut into strips or angled cubes and pan-fried to seal in the juices. A sauce using lots of garlic, scallion, ginger, chilli broad bean paste, vinegar, sugar and dark and light soy lends the dish its flavour layering. Despite the name, there’s no fish involved (it refers to the sauce).
Spiced fish stew
Thin slices of fish are served in a large bowl full of oil, chillies and bean sprouts. Don’t let the oil intimidate you – pick up the slices of tender fish and the oil glides back into the bowl.
Jiangsu cuisine (su cai 苏菜)
Jiangsu, or Huaiyang (淮扬菜), cuisine stands shoulder to shoulder with Cantonese cuisine in terms of its reputation among the culinary elite, and consists of food from the cities of Yangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and Zhenjiang.
As a cuisine, it is light, refined and pays homage to the original flavours and textures of its main ingredients. Nanjing was the capital before Beijing, and so Jiangsu has a strong imperial culinary tradition (many cooking methods were developed here, such as ‘Peking’ duck, and then brought to Beijing).
As such, it is one of the main cuisines served at state banquets and to visiting foreign dignitaries. Dishes tend to have subtle, sweet flavours and shy away from spice.
Lion’s head (braised meatballs)
Shizi tou, 狮子头
The name of this dish is down to its size, which is typically three times that of regular meatballs. The meat is hand chopped, formed into a round shape, and pan-fried to seal in the juices. It is then slowly braised in a dark sauce consisting of soy, vinegar, wine, sugar and cornstarch.
Jiaohua ji, 叫化鸡
A whole chicken marinated in five spice, wrapped in lotus leaves, mud and then roasted. If prepared well, you should easily be able to pick the meat off the bone with your chopsticks. This dish is almost never prepared at home because traditional Chinese residences typically do not have ovens (and the mud can be messy).
Yangzhou fried rice
If executed well, each grain of rice is coated in a simple seasoning of salt and pepper. The Yangzhou version also consists of diced cured sausage, shrimp and fresh green beans. Ideally, the dish should be pearly white with colourful specks of accompanying meat and vegetables.
Where to try Nanjing Dapaidang, bustling, local and atmospheric; Mei Mansion, set menus and private recipes served in a beautiful courtyard; Summer Palace in China World Hotel, serves Huaiyang cuisine alongside its Cantonese menu.
Cantonese cuisine (yue cai 粤菜)
One of the pinnacles of Chinese gourmet cooking. Perhaps the most adventurous eaters in China, the Cantonese enjoy light, subtle flavours, and try to avoid using too many condiments and seasonings. They stick to the basics of high-quality soy sauce, wine, salt and pepper, and rely heavily on prime raw ingredients.
This is also the preferred cuisine for Chinese fine dining. Due to the reliance on delicate, quality ingredients, Cantonese chefs have to be skilled in handling and preparing dishes.
A key part of Cantonese cuisine, dim sum, is often misunderstood. ‘Dim sum’ does not mean dumplings, but rather a collection of small dishes, including dumplings, but also cakes, roasted pigeon and so on.
Must-try Cantonese dishes
Sweet and sour pork
Gulao rou, 古老肉
A beautiful rendition of sweet and sour: pork strips are coated in flour and deep-fried or stir-fried. A sauce of tart rice wine vinegar and sugar is prepared separately then mixed in.
Ask for what’s in season and fresh in the kitchen, and have them prepare it baizhuo (白灼), which is to say quickly blanched and then topped with a slightly sweet scallion-infused soy sauce.
Qingzheng yu, 清蒸鱼
Pick a live fish from the restaurant’s aquarium and the kitchen will steam it simply with ginger and soy sauce.
Where to try
Lu Gang Xiao Zhen for dim sum and regular dishes; Summer Palace
at the China World Hotel fora high-end experience.
Fujian cuisine (min cai 闽菜)
Fujian cuisine is heavily influenced by its coastline and mountainous inland terrain. Seafood- and soup-heavy, there are three main strands to this cuisine: Fuzhou, which is light, with little salt and heavy on the sweet and sour; Southern Fujian, where they like their food sweet and spicy; then Western Fujian, with a heavy use of salt and a taste for the hot, using mustard and pepper to turn up the fire.
This cuisine is also well known for its fermented red rice wine, which is used alongside soy sauce as the main seasoning. The Min people from Fujian are the main settlers in Taiwan. As such, Taiwanese food is heavily influenced by Fujian cuisine.
Must-try Fujian dishes
San bei ji, 三杯鸡
The name of this dish comes from its three main ingredients: one part soy sauce, one part Shaoxing wine and one part sesame oil. It is braised over a low heat until the meat is tender and falls off the bone.
Chicken in fermented rice
Zui zao ji, 醉糟鸡
An organic grass-fed fatty hen is the main ingredient of this traditional Fuzhou dish. The feature seasoning is fermented red rice (hong zao 红糟), which is Fujian’s regional speciality. Aged for one year, this condiment has a unique red hue, sweet-sour taste and is wonderfully aromatic.
Buddha jumps over the wall
Fo tiao qiang, 佛跳墙
A complex and expensive soup typically served at banquets. More viscous than most other soups, it contains ingredients from both sea and land, including sea cucumber, chicken, fish maw, exotic mushrooms, scallops, and more. It’s not at all typical of regular Chinese soups.
Where to try Bellagio
, a clean and consistent chain that’s Taiwanese but has Fujian roots; Wuyishan Nongjiacai
(at Maliandao Tea Market) for country cooking, which is basic but delicious.
Hunan cuisine (xiang cai 湘菜)
Best known as the cuisine most loved by Chairman Mao. Rustic in style, the food is fiery and temperamental. As with Sichuan, this cuisine is from a landlocked and humid province – the Hunanese rely on fiery spice to repel ‘dampness’ in the body.
The overwhelming and lingering taste sensation is the spice from chillies. The Hunanese prefer their chillies fresh and pickled, rather than the dried chillies favoured by the Sichuanese. Ultimately, Hunan cuisine tends to be a lot spicier than that of Sichuan.
They also rely on a lot of smoked and cured meats as the main ingredients, or to add flavour. Chilli, shallot and garlic are used liberally – the holy trinity for the Hunanese – and they do not shy away from oil.
Steamed fish head in chilli sauce
Duojiao yutou, 剁椒鱼头
Typical of Hunan cuisine, the fish head is steamed to maintain its gelatinous texture . A spicy sauce of freshly chopped chillies with soy sauce and fermented black beans is then poured over to lend flavour.
Dongan ziji, 东安子鸡
Slices of chicken breast are gently poached in chicken broth for added depth (some restaurants skimp and poach it in water) and are then fried in a sauce of fresh chillies, salt, vinegar and wine.
Mao’s red braised pork
Chairman Mao loved hongshaorou, but was allergic to (or just disliked) soy sauce, which is usually the main seasoning required. Mao’s take still has a lovely dark hue thanks to the use of caramelised sugar.
Where to try Tong Xin Ju
, bustling, cheap and cheerful; Yue Lu Shan Wu
, an affordable chain with locations in Gongti, Houhai and Wangjing.
Anhui cuisine (hui cai 徽菜)
This cuisine is similar to that of Jiangsu in terms of the appreciation for delicate and sweet flavours. Unlike their eastern neighbours, they also appreciate spice, while seafood is virtually non-existent due to the lack of a coastline.
As it has always been a poorer region with a lack of access to supply routes, mountain foods play a much more prominent role here: think game, pangolin, frogs, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and other wild vegetables. Much like in Cantonese cuisine, the citizens of Anhui place a very keen emphasis on the freshness of their ingredients.
Must-try Anhui dishes
In the West, fresh bamboo shoots are almost never available and canned ones are always a let down. In hui cai, the shoots are typically cut into diagonal strips and cooked with umami-rich ingredients such as cured ham and dried mushrooms.
Lihongzhang zahui, 李鸿章杂烩
This is essentially a deliciously aromatic soup, which is expensive to put together due to the exotic ingredients required: fish maw, sea cucumber, dried scallops, cured ham, chicken breast and so on.
Ye cai, 野菜
Spring and summer is the prime foraging season for wild vegetables, which are either served as a salad – Chinese style, with a medley of soy sauce, salt, sesame oil and sometimes sugar as the sauce base – or as a stir-fry. Baby daffodil leaves are a favourite in Anhui and are typically served as a tossed salad.
Zhejiang cuisine (zhe cai 浙菜)
Zhejiang folk are very serious about their food – they've even built a culinary museum. Compared with the north, restaurants are far more sophisticated in Hangzhou and nearby Shanghai (which, as a cosmopolitan centre, gave a boost to zhe cai in the late 18th century).
The region’s temperate climate and coastline, along with the Yangtze River and a number of lakes, all contribute to its reputation as ‘the land of fish and rice’. The cuisine itself possesses the finesse and skill of Cantonese cooking, mixed with the more pronounced flavours of the north.
As such, it’s a good choice for people looking for something pitched between the two. Zhejiang food is also notable for its lack of grease – they use much less oil than in most other regions.
Must-try Zhejiang dishes
Dongpo rou, 东坡肉
Stewed pork belly in a dark and rich soy-based sauce using Shaoxing wine. Restaurants used to cube the belly, but a different take has now gained popularity where it’s thinly sliced and presented in a pyramid shape.
West Lake fish in vinegar
This is a sweet and sour Hangzhou-style fish dish. It uses a gentler cooking technique than the normal deep-fried approach. Instead, the fish is poached so as to maintain its moist and soft texture.
River shrimp in green tea
A showcase for Zhejiang cuisine that allows the main ingredient to shine through. Here, fresh river shrimp (always a little sweet) are quick fried with a little salt and fresh green tea leaves
Illustrations by Mandy Tie.