It doesn’t make you any less of a gourmet if your favorite Chinese dishes are internationally loved classics like sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao chicken and Peking duck.
But there’s no harm in shunning the usual Chinatown offerings to try lesser-known regional cuisines that are just as mouthwatering.
Chinese food is as complex as the Chinese character “biang” – a 57-stroke character linked to biangbiang, a type of flat noodle from Shaanxi province.
There are two major classifications of Chinese cuisines based on geographical locations and cooking styles. First up are those termed the Four Major Cuisines: Lu cuisine from Shandong province; Chuan cuisine from Sichuan; Yue cuisine from Guangdong; and Su cuisine from Jiangsu.
These, along with the following, make up what are called the Eight Great Cuisines: Zhe cuisine from Zhejiang; Min cuisine from Fujian; Xiang cuisine from Hunan; and Hui cuisine from Anhui.
Some scholars even stretch it further and say there are 34 cuisines for China’s 34 regions – but the big eight are the most common ones.
Here, we take a look at some of China’s most interesting yet under-appreciated cuisines.
Fit for ancient emperors, Shandong cuisine (also known as Lu cuisine) is a sophisticated culinary art dating back more than 2,500 years.
Case in point: There are 11 basic ways of deep-frying alone.
Shandong province’s diverse landscape – from the Yellow River, the vast North China Plain and Mount Tai (one of the five great mountains of China) to the shorelines of the Bohai Sea and Yellow Sea – is often reflected in its sumptuous use of sea and land ingredients alike.
Foods are hearty, flavorful and often showcase a chef’s skill in controlling the fire while cooking. Slow stews, taking hours to make, are among the highlights in Shandong.
Hailed as the head of the Four Major Cuisines of China, Shandong cuisine has dominated imperial kitchens since the Spring Autumn Period (771 to 476 BCE).
Confucius – the famed Chinese philosopher and politician – was also influential in molding Lu cuisine, creating his own eponymous sub-branch.
Two Shandong dishes to try are ba chicken – ba is a unique way of cooking in which an item is deep-fried briefly before stewing on a medium fire for hours – and yi pin tofu – a tofu box stuffed with eight braised ingredients such as dried scallops, sea cucumbers, ham and bamboo shoots, then steamed in chicken stock.
Chaozhou (or Teochew) cuisine has been a relatively niche regional food for a loyal group of foodies in the know – or those who thought they were in just another Cantonese restaurant.
A sub-category under Yue (Guangdong province) cuisine merely because of its location, Chaozhou cuisine is a world apart from its Cantonese counterparts – say, dim sum – in terms of cooking methods.
The southeast province delivers fresh seafood dishes with vibrant umami flavors.
Some of the most popular Chaozhou dishes are served cold, or at room temperature – like cold steamed fish.
To preserve the freshness of the fish, Chaozhou fishermen would traditionally boil their harvest in salty seawater before selling it at market.
These days, fresh fish is marinated in a blanket of salt before it’s steamed. When the fish cools to room temperature, it’s served with Poling soy paste.
Oyster omelet and Chaozhou congee are two other Chaozhou dishes to try.
While Sichuan’s numbing, spicy cuisine is popular around the world, the real spice capital of China – Hunan province – is still comparatively undiscovered.
Hunan even has a folk song dedicated to chili, which includes the lyrics, “It doesn’t count as a dish if there is no chili. A touch of chili triumphs over an exquisite meal.”
Located in a mountainous landlocked province in southern China, Hunan cuisine (also known as Xiang cuisine) is often cooked with a generous portion of oil, salt and chili.
But Hunan’s spiciness is multi-layered with a wide array of tongue-tangling flavors. For example there’s suan la (hot and sour), duo jiao (salted chopped peppers) and douchi la (spicy fermented black soy beans).
Duo jiao chopped fish head and Hunan green pepper fried pork are two dinner staples.
In a Hunan restaurant, you can also find a number of familiar dishes, such as steamed sparrow ribs with fermented beans and braised pork, but with a spicy kick.
Just a two-hour drive away from Shanghai, Hangzhou’s food – like the city itself – is often overshadowed by its more famous seaside neighbor.
Hangzhou cuisine is known for paying respect to the original flavor of the ingredients as well as its delicate knife work.
The city’s famous Dongbo pork, a thick slab of pork belly pan-fried and braised in wine for hours, is named after Chinese poet/Hangzhou foodie Su Dong-bo, who invented the dish about 1,000 years ago.
Songsao yugeng (a thick fish soup with bamboo shoots, ginger, pepper, wine and vinegar), beggar’s chicken (chicken encased in mud and grilled over a wood fire) and wok-fried river prawns with Longjing tea leaves are some of the must-try dishes for any Hangzhou cuisine newbie.
Through the use of unique seasonings and crazy knife work, chefs have made the province of Fujian a gourmet destination.
Some tasty highlights of this province’s cuisine – also known as Min – include sweet and sour lychee pork (pork that was cut skillfully so it curls up and resembles lychee when deep fried and seasoned), rouyan pork dumplings (even the dumpling wrappers are mixed with pork) and yam paste with gingko nuts.
Fotiaoqiang (“Buddha jumps over the wall”) is arguably the most famous dish representing Min cuisine of Fujian province. The stew got its name after a diner claimed that Buddha would forgo vegetarianism and leap over the wall to eat this delicious dish.
Its increasing popularity can be reflected by the success of Putien, a Singapore-based Fujian restaurant chain. Founded in 2000, Putien earned its first Michelin star in 2016.
Its many overseas branches have also won accolades as great places to sample Chinese food.
8 must-eats in Nanjing
Nanjing, the capital city of Jiangsu province, is one of the country’s most influential culinary destinations, thanks to its long history as an imperial capital in ancient China.
The city’s Jiangsu food (also called Su cuisine) is known for its exquisite presentation and rich flavors.
Among Nanjing’s most famous dishes is sweet and sour Mandarin fish. The fish is de-boned and sliced in a grid pattern so that it fans out when wok-fried.
The city also boasts a roast duck rivals its famous Beijing counterpart.
But what captures visitors’ hearts is Nanjing’s addictive savory street food like vermicelli with duck blood and salted duck. Click through the gallery above for more Nanjing culinary highlights.
It didn’t come as a surprise to Chinese foodies when in 2014 Shunde – often called the cradle of Cantonese cuisine – became the second city in China to be named a UNESCO gastronomical capital (the first one was Chengdu of Sichuan).
Shunde chefs go to great lengths to maximize the umami flavors of an ingredient, no matter how unassuming it may be.
To understand how laborious and creative Shunde cuisine is, consider braised pomelo peel.
First, the pomelo peels have to be submerged in running water, squeezed until dry, then soaked in more running water.
This process alone is repeated for a few days so the peels are softened and the bitterness is squeezed out. Then, the peels are deep-fried and braised with a broth made of pork bones, chicken, fish and dried shrimps for hours.
Finally, the peels – just the peels – are served with abalone sauce and shrimp roes.
Chen cun flat rice noodles with spare ribs and black bean sauce, as well as Dai Liang-style fried milk (fresh milk slowly stir-fried with egg white, shrimp, chicken liver and ham until semi-solidified), are two other lip-smacking Shunde specialties.
Though left out of the Eight Classic Cuisines of China, Yunnan food has amassed a huge following among foodies thanks to its abundant fresh ingredients and balanced flavors.
Travelers visiting the vast, mountainous southwest province should be sure to try Yunnan’s fresh wild mushrooms and Rubing, Yunnan’s goat cheese.
But what makes Yunnan eateries as popular as any fast-food chain across China is guoqiaomixian (translated as “crossing-the-bridge rice noodles”). It’s comprised of a delicious piping hot chicken broth, served with ingredients including vegetables, fish, herbs, spices and rice noodles that are added to the broth just before serving.
Japan’s Marugame – the world’s biggest udon chain restaurant company – recently acquired two Hong Kong-based Yunnan vermicelli chains, TamJai SamGor Mixian and TamJai Mixian. Both are famous for dishing out affordable and addictive, sour and spicy Yunnan-style rice noodles, and together they generated a revenue of $200 million in 2017.