With thousands of years of history, millions of miles of land and incredible geographical diversity, China arguably boasts one of the most developed, sophisticated and varied arrays of cuisines. Out of the shedloads of culinary traditions, eight cuisines are historically considered the foundational schools and styles of the country’s cooking, or the
i. But what about the other regional heavy-hitters?
Sharing international borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and domestic ones with Tibet, Sichuan, Guangxi and Guizhou; with a landscape ranging from mountains to rainforests and home to over half of China’s ethnic minorities, the southwestern province Yunnan is famed for its diverse scenery and culture. The province has a multitude of influences – a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed in the cuisine. Although cooking styles and ingredients vary greatly across the board, a number of dishes rely heavily on the region’s flora and fauna with mushrooms, flowers and ferns making regular appearances.
What to eat
Guoqiao Mixian 过桥米线
Crossing the bridge noodles
Arguably Yunnan’s most famous fare, guoqiao mixian is a rice noodle soup traditionally made with a sour paste chicken broth, mixed with thin slices of meat (often chicken or turkey), quail eggs, brightly coloured vegetables and tofu. Unlike most noodle soups, the ingredients are served separately and only mixed together when ready to be eaten.
The legend behind the service style and name goes like this: A devoted wife of a dedicated student would carry his lunch across the bridge to the island where he studied every day, only to find it was cold by the time he came to eat it. The wife discovered that by keeping the ingredients separate on her journey across, the broth formed and oil to lock in the heat, keeping it hot enough to cook the other ingredients which could be added when her husband was ready to eat.
An unlikely contender on most Chinese menus, goats cheese is a speciality in Yunnan made by the Bai and Sani minorities. Often pan-fried in bricks with salt and chilli, the non-melting cheese gets crispy on the outside, while staying soft on the inside. Have it on its own, stir-fried with broccoli and tomato or with slices of ham.
Laonai Yangyu 老奶洋芋
This pimped-up mashed potato dish was allegedly given its name because it’s so soft, even toothless grannys can eat it. Often likened to Bubble and Squeak, it’s a simple but delicious combination of stir-fried spring onion, dried chilli and mashed potato. Although an extra challenge for the toothless elderly, pickled vegetables or fresh vegetables are sometimes added to mix up the texture.
Pu’er cha 普洱茶
Made from tea leaves grown in southern Yunnan’s mountainous region, Pu’er tea is a dark, fully fermented tea that gets better (and considerably pricey) with age. Often pressed into bricks or discs, the tea has earthy flavours and a pungent soil-like smell.
Arguably more Central Asian in nature than what might come to mind when you hear ‘Chinese food’, Xinjiang offers a culinary alternate reality for the country. Dishes often go hard with the cumin and feature lamb as the protein of choice over pork, due to the Muslim predominance of the province’s population, and dairy is far more common than in the rest of the country. Bring on the fresh yogurt! Another signature ingredient is raisins – and by that stroke, Xinjiang with its grapes is one of China’s major emerging wine regions.
What to eat
Yangrou chuanr 羊肉串儿
Barbecued lamb skewers
Best ordered in quantity, these barbecued skewers of tender lamb, liberally coated in cumin and chilli, make for the ultimate street-side snack.
'Big plate' chicken stew
Made for sharing, dapanji is a hefty platter of Xinjiang-style chicken stew with potatoes, green peppers, white onions and a rich aromatic sauce, served on a bed of thick hand-pulled noodles or baked flatbread.
Kao nang 烤馕
Large rounds of flatbread roasted in a coal-fired tonnir – a cylindrical oven made from sun-dried earth – kao nang are perfect for mopping up Xinjiang’s rich sauces. Sometimes stuffed with meat or topped with sesame seeds, spring onions or spices, whichever flavour suits your fancy, these breads are best enjoyed fresh from the fire.
Sandwiched between Sichuan and Hunan, Guizhou borrows much of its culinary palate from its neighbours. The biting cuisine frequently combines chilli with fermented vegetables and grains for a unique ‘sour- and-spicy taste’. This pungent signature flavour permeates most foods – an old local saying tells, ‘without eating a sour dish for three days, people will stagger with weak legs’. Thus, you’ll find an abundance of pickled vegetables, sour broths and spicy condiments in the dishes. In fact, Guizhou is the producer of Lao Gan Ma (‘Old Godmother’) chilli products, arguably one of China’s most famous brands. Guizhou is also a massive producer of baijiu, a strong, fiery spirit distilled from fermented sorghum. It is most notably home to Maotai, one of the priciest and most popular brands of the liquor.
What to eat
Poached fish in sour soup
The most famous dish of Guizhou cuisine, the acidic tomato-based soup gets its sour flavour from fermenting combination of rice, rice wine, aromatics and other ingredients, while flaky white fish is perfect for absorbing the flavours of the tangy broth.
Guizhou is also a massive producer of China’s famous baijiu, a strong, fiery spirit distilled from fermented sorghum.
A province with an especially rich history, Shaanxi sits in the centre of China and is home to one of the country’s four major ancient capitals, Xian – famous for the Terracotta Warriors and for being the terminus of the old Silk Road. An impressive list of accolades, with an equally impressive cuisine to match. Shaanxi is known for its hearty, carb-heavy fare featuring strong, savoury flavours, gratuitously using the likes of garlic, chilli, onion and vinegar in cooking. Lamb (or mutton) is a menu staple, along with the province’s famous long and thick hand-pulled ‘biang biang’ noodles. So-called for the noise they make when being slapped against the surface during the stretching, biang is the most complex character in the Chinese language with 57 strokes.
What to eat
Chinese pork belly ‘hamburger’
Literally translated as ‘meat stuffed bread’, the roujiamo is a street-food favourite. A generous serving of heavily seasoned, slow-roasted pork belly is finely chopped and piled into a pocket of freshly toasted wheat flatbread.
Hot oil noodles
Usually served in a portion size fit for two, fresh-from-the-boil deliciously chewy hand-pulled belt noodles are tossed in oil and topped with a blend of chillies, spring onion, garlic, bean sprouts and bok choy. Add a splash of vinegar and soy sauce, stir well and chow down.
Mutton soup with soaked flatbread
One of Xian’s most iconic dishes – particularly popular for its warming properties during the winter – hard mantou (steamed bread) is torn into small pieces and soaked in piping-hot rich lamb broth. The soup is served with a side of fresh coriander, cloves of pickled garlic and a mound of sweet chilli paste to taste and garnish.
‘Cold skin’ noodles
A cold dish known and loved Chinawide with countless regional variations, Shaanxi’s liangpi is the OG. Made using rice or wheat flour starch, the gelatinous, milky coloured noodles are dressed with crushed garlic, bean sprouts, shredded cucumber and airy chunks of kaofu (dried wheat gluten) before being coated in black vinegar and seasoned chilli oil.
As an island province, Hainan’s cuisine differs from its mainland counterparts through the lightness of its ingredients and less oil-heavy cooking styles – relying more on freshness for flavour than heavy sauces or seasoning. Naturally, much of the cuisine reflects the abundant availability of fish and crustaceans from the surrounding sea, whilst tropical vegetation feature heavily as flavouring agents and soup bases. Because of close proximity and ease of access to Southeast Asia, Hainan’s cuisine has permeated that of neighbouring nations while also borrowing from them. Though the province has four ‘famous’ traditional dishes – Wenchang chicken, jiaji duck, dongshan lamb and Hele crab – Shanghai hosts some of its more memorable, more globally famed eats.
What to eat
Hainan jifan 海南鸡饭
Hainanese chicken rice
Hainanese chicken rice is one particularly far-stretching dish, even standing as an iconic staple of Singaporean cuisine – and when it’s good, it is great. Slices of juicy poached or roasted chicken accompanied by rice rendered incredibly flavourful by being cooked in chicken fat and broth, and paired with essential sides of fresh ground chilli paste and dark soy sauce.
Yezi huoguo 椰子火锅
Coconut hot pot
Though perhaps not quite traditional Hainanese fare, this tropical-style hot pot switches out oily broth for fresh coconut water with a coating of coconut cream, and then gets filled with the province’s Wenchang chicken (which are allegedly raised on a partial diet of coconut) which you dip in a soy sauce, chilli, garlic and calamansi lime juice. Afterward the chicken’s fat flavours the coconut water for a bit, drink the sweet and savoury soup.
Hailing from China’s frosty northeastern provinces – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – Dongbei cuisine is characterised by heavy oil-rich broths, fatty meats, pickled vegetables, dense wheat noodles, potatoes, steamed breads and dumplings. Although a little rough around the edges, it’s the ultimate comfort food and does the trick every time.
What to eat
Dongbei-style sweet and sour pork
For this regional variation of sweet and sour, juicy slices of starch-covered pork are twice-fried and smothered in gelatinous sauce, peppered with ginger and garlic.
Di san xian 地三鲜
Stir-fried potato, aubergine and green pepper
Poetically translated as ‘three treasures from the earth’, di san xian is a home-style table staple with a full flavour that belies its humble origins. Thick wedges of deep-fried potato and aubergine are refried with green pepper, ginger, garlic and coated in a soy and sugar sauce.
These northern-style dumplings – also known as jiaozi – have a fine wheat flour skin which is typically stuffed with fillings like pork and leek or cabbage and egg, before being pinched closed and cooked in boiling water. They’re best paired with chilli oil and huge glug of Chinese black vinegar.
Because of its high elevation and often harsh climate, Tibetan (Xizang) cuisine has traditionally been very much geographically determined, depending heavily upon the animals and crops that can subsist in the plateau environment. The food relies primarily on goat, sheep and yak meats and dairy products, as well as various grains (primarily barley) and a staple flour called tsampa made from roasted barley or wheat. Think lots of dense breads; cheese, yogurts and yak butter; stews, soups and curries and other hearty, caloric foods. Tibetan cuisine also reflects those of neighbouring Nepal and India, sharing some of their flavours, techniques and similarly available ingredients. Overall, the fare found in this Himalayan region is quite different to that of most Mainland Chinese cuisines.
What to eat
Tibetan style steamed buns
Momo is native Tibetan food that’s edged its way into the cuisines of neighbouring Nepal, Bhutan and India. It’s a particular type of steamed dumpling similar to Chinese baozi and jiaozi, made from a flour-based dough filled with different combinations of minced meats (usually beef or lamb), cheeses and other ingredients.
Kao yangpai 烤羊排
Roasted mutton ribs
Smokey, slightly crisp and coated in aromatic blends of powdered spices, roasted meats are an important part of Tibetan fare, and there’s nothing quite like tearing tender chunks rib meat from roasted bones.
Tibetan barley bread
A round flatbread made from tsampa (barley flour), balep korkun is a common food in central Tibet, and it pairs deliciously with yak butter and honey come breakfast or snack time. While Tibet is home to many types of bread, balep korkun requires only three ingredients – tsampa, baking powder and water – meaning it’s particularly quick and easy to make.
Suyou cha 酥油茶
An everyday staple of Tibetan life, suyou cha is a creamy elixir of yak’s butter, water, tea leaves, salt and sometimes grains, it’s a warming, high-calorie drink ideal for the province’s climate and high altitude.
Taiwanese fare has deep roots in Chinese cuisine (most notably Fujian province just across the water) while also pulling influence from Japan. Location is of obvious influence for Taiwanese food – being an island with very little farmland, the cuisine was traditionally based on locally viable ingredients and resources, so seafood and subtropical fruits play heavily in the dishes. There’s also a particularly strong focus on xiaochi, from pungent sticks of chou doufu (stinky tofu) and glutinous Taiwanese meatballs to crispy fried chicken cutlets and gebao (flat buns stuffed with pork belly, peanut powder and pickled veggies). Notably unlike other Chinese cuisines, Taiwanese food also includes a large number of desserts, like many variations of shaved ice and the famous fenglisu, a soft pastry crust filled with tangy pineapple jam.
What to eat
The name for this classic Taiwanese dish comes from the three cups of sauce in which the chicken is simmered: equal parts soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil, with some versions replacing rice wine with sugar. Chunks of chicken briefly stew in the sauce until all of it is absorbed into the tender flesh.
Chinese shaved ice
A typical Taiwanese dessert, baobing comes in many varieties but begin with base ingredients of shaved ice and condensed milk, which are then topped with a combination of fruit, beans, tapioca, flavoured syrups and more.