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With China covering the immense land within its boundaries, it is no surprise that there are many regional variations in Chinese cuisine. Traditionally, Chinese cooking is divided into five styles of regional cuisines. It is headed by the 3 great schools of Peking to the north, Szechuan to the west, and Chekiang-Kiangsu to the east. Fukien and Canton, of lesser importance cover the southern region.


The Northern Chinese cuisine

The northern China presents a great contrast to the rest of the country. The North China Plain, edged by mountains to the north, stretches away in the west to the borders of Inner Mongolia, and is crossed by the infamous Yellow River . Due to its location, the climate is harsh for much of the year. The spring is dry and dusty, the summer is hot and wet, and the fall is calm, dry, and sunny, while the winter is long and freezing cold. It is dramatically subject to drought from the failure of the late spring rains and to flood when the Yellow River, for centuries unstable in its bed, floods over into the low-lying countryside. Thus, the lives and diets of the people living in this region are dictated by these seasons.

Wheat is the staple food, as opposed to rice in the rest of China, due to the harsh climate making it unsuitable to grow rice. Wheat flour is used to make dumplings, breads, steamed buns, noodles and large Chinese biscuits/pancakes. Meat is much more of a luxury up here, mostly eaten during festival times. Mutton and lamb are popular, most likely due to the influence of the neighboring Mongolians. Most northern family meals are dominated by vegetable dishes for economical reasons. Chinese cabbage is the most popular vegetable, as it is most suited to be stored over the winter. Dishes in general are much more plain, solid and nourishing. Soy sauce is used very generously. The use of leeks, onions, garlic, salted and pickled vegetables such as turnips, white radish and cabbages are important items in a rather monotonous diet.

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Peking, which lies to the northern corner of the region, has been the capital of China since the Fifteenth century. It is the land of fried bean curd (tofu) and water chestnuts. With it being the capital, and the city of the emperor's residence, it is the only area in the region where the availability and the variety of food is abundant. The Imperial chefs were compensated handsomely, and along with the large, wealthy market in the capital, the infusion of gourmet chefs from all over China brought about a great concentration of culinary expertise in Peking . This tradition is what characterizes Peking cuisine today, which is lighter and more elegant than that of the outlying regions. The greatest delicacy of the region is, of course, the elaborate, world-renowned dish Peking duck. In Peking, ducks are specially bred for this dish and force fed to just the right degree of plumpness and tenderness in preparation for this dish.


The Western Chinese cuisine

Szechuan, the largest province in China, lies in a vast, densely populated, and fertile basin surrounded by mountains. Its principal connection eastwards is through the spectacular deep, narrow gorges cut by the Yangtze River. For centuries, due to its geography, the Yangtze River was the province's only means of communication with the outside world. Szechuan, in literal Chinese translation, means “Four Streams” and refers to the four main tributaries of the Yangtze River, which flows through the province.

With its sub-tropical, warm, and humid climate providing fertile soil, crops can be grown almost all year round, making Szechuan one of the most prosperous and economically self-sufficient regions of China . This area has been viewed by many as China in a microcosm and is often perceived as a country within a country. The Chinese call the Szechuan basin, “Tien Fu Chih Kuo”, which literally means “Heaven on Earth.”

Rice is grown in the summer, harvested in the late fall, and replaced by wheat to be harvested in the spring. Fruit, bamboo groves and vegetables grow in abundance, as well as edible mushrooms and fungi, such as wood ears and the silver fungi. Spices grow plentiful here too, particularly chilies and the famous Szechuan peppercorns.

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Szechuan food is best known for being hot, and spicy. Chilies, which are indigenous to the region, are used in great quantities in dishes, and are the most striking feature of Szechuan cuisine. The use of chilies comes from a popular regional belief that eating spicy food induces profuse perspiration that keeps the body cool, which in turn helps expel the toxins in the body and keeps one healthy. Another is that the “heat” from chilies and spicy food stimulate one's palate to be able to indulge the different tantalizing flavors presented in Szechuan cuisine.

Spiciness is not the only distinguishing feature of Szechuan cuisine. It utilizes the different textures of wide varieties of ingredients to produce chewy and crunchy dishes. Pungent flavored vegetables such as onions, garlic, and green onions are used frequently. It also takes advantage of the aromatic, nutty flavor of cashews, walnuts, pine nuts, and sesame seeds by incorporating them into dishes. The peppers lend an immediate fiery, numbingly hot, sensation to the food. But once this initial phase passes, an array of flavor of sweet, sour, salty, and bitterness asserts itself. Sesame paste is often the principal ingredients in sauces, although the use of sauces in Szechuan cuisine is not common, as the many dishes are fried and tend to be drier. Szechuan is also known for its food preservation techniques, because the warm, humid climate makes it difficult to keep food fresh. Salting, drying, smoking and pickling are popular methods used by households.

A neighboring province of Yunnan, is worth mentioning here. It lies in the far southwest, a mountainous and secluded region, and served as a cultural bridge between China , India , and Burma. With it being geographically isolated from the rest of China , Yunnan developed over the years as a highly distinctive cuisine of its own. Its best known delicacy is the ham, which many consider the best in the world. It is also noted for its game, such as rabbit and venison, and it is the origin of exotic menu items such as bear's paws, snakes, snails, and slugs.


The Eastern Chinese cuisine

As you follow the Yangtse River eastward out of the Szechuan region, you will arrive into eastern China, which lies on a great plain formed by the Yangtze River and ends with its river delta. The river delta encompasses some of the most fertile land in China, and flows into the sea just north of the famous city of Shanghai . The Yangtse River region in eastern China experiences a temperate climate with warm springs, hot summers, cool autumns, and relatively cold winters. It is the greatest rice-producing region in China , and you will find a plethora of creative ways that the regional cuisines use to incorporate rice into the dishes.

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Rice wine is used extensively as seasoning and marinade. Rice is often used as a stuffing, or to make classic dishes such as Eight Treasure Rice Pudding - a deliciously sweet steamed pudding dessert . Lotus leaves are frequently used as wrapping material for steaming fish, meat, and rice. Paper-wrapped and cellophane-wrapped dishes are very common in the region, as well.

The eastern Chinese cuisine is basically divided by the Yangtse River into Kiangsu to the north, Chekiang to the south, and Shanghai in the delta region.

Shanghai is the largest city in China. It has been the center of China's trade and industry for centuries. Some argue that Shanghai does not have a cuisine of its own, being the “melting pot” of the region, while others argue that exact reason is why Shanghai cuisine should represent the eastern Chinese cuisine. Regardless, it does have its own distinctive local dishes called benbang cai. Benbang cai is noted for its use of red-cooking, with dark soy sauce, and its abundant use of sugar. All of which produces rich, sweet dishes with exquisite flavors and appearance.

The Chekiang and Kiangsu are known as the land of rice and fish, and is one of the wealthiest and most heavily populated regions of China. Their cuisines feature a broad variety of fish and aquatics, such as carp, clam, mullet, perch, and prawns. Minced chicken and bean-curd slivers are also specialties of these provinces. Foods are often arranged in attractive floral patterns prior to serving.

The Chekiang province is well-irrigated by the Yangtse River, criss-crossed with countless complex system of lakes, marshes, ponds, lakes, and multiple river channels, ideal for ducks, fish, frogs and eels. Chekiang cuisine is known to be the least greasy of the three, and well-regarded for its light, fresh, tender, soft dishes, with smooth, but rich fragrance. The dishes are also the least greasy of the three. Duck, freshwater fish, and shellfish dishes are the specialties.

Kiangsu Cuisine, most likely has the longest history in the region. Numerous regional specialty dishes are know to be centuries old. Fish and rice are the main ingredients, and the freshness of ingredients is extremely important, as many dishes require them to be cooked alive and quickly to retain the tenderness and its natural sweetness. Vegetables are often cooked with the fish in the same pot to preserve its freshness. Cooking techniques consist of stewing, braising, and roasting. The dishes in general are sweeter and greasier.


The southern Chinese cuisine

The provinces of Fukien and Canton make up the southern coast of China, and are the 2 major constituents of the southern Chinese cuisine. As expected, seafood plays an important role due to the geography. The southern Chinese cuisine takes full advantage of the plentiful supply of lobsters, crabs, prawns, shrimps, etc. They are usually stir fried or steamed with ginger, and onion to eliminate the fishy smell. Seafood is also utilized in their seasonings, as oyster sauce, shrimp sauce, and shrimp paste are widely used.

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Fukien, which lies northeast of Canton, features beautiful color, and wonderful mixture of sweet, salty, and sour taste in its dishes. “Red distiller's grain” is a famous flavoring often used in Fukien cuisine. It takes over a year to prepare from glutinous rice, fermented with red yeast, and emanates the most interesting aroma of the red yeast.

Of all the Chinese regional cuisines, Canton is perhaps the most familiar and best known to the western cultures. For hundreds of years, Canton has had extensive trade links with the rest of the world, from land, as well as the sea. As such, the art of Cantonese cuisine has long since been taken and spread around the world to represent Chinese cuisine. That, and the fact that the majority of the first group of Chinese emigrants in the 19 th century came from the Canton region, further cemented its influence in the west's interpretation of “Chinese cooking”.

The mild, tropical climate in the region produces an abundance of crop all year round. Ample supply of rice, fruit, and vegetables provide plentiful feed for livestock, which in turn, produces high-quality meat and poultry. Along with the wealthy of seafood along the coastline, the south has arguably the most extensive array of dishes in all of China. Having all this assortment of ingredients in their arsenal, the southern chefs pay a great deal of attention to the artistic presentation of the dishes, making them especially appealing to the eyes, as well as the taste buds.

Steaming, boiling, and roasting are popular cooking methods, which preserve the natural flavors and colors of the ingredients. The Cantonese have perfected, and are most renowned for the art of stir frying. Nothing epitomizes the essence of Chinese cooking better than stir frying to achieve food tenderness through quick cooking in order to retain the natural taste, flavor, and color of the ingredients. It is also perfect for those who are health conscious, as these Chinese cooking techniques require the least amount of oil.

Dim sum are little southern delicacies served on small plates or steam baskets for only breakfast or lunch. They are pushed around the restaurants on wheel-carts by the wait staff for the customer to pick from. It is especially popular among bird-lovers in the south. After walking their birds, they would visit Dim sum restaurants, hang the bird cages on a rack, and meet up with friends over tea and rounds of Dim sum to relax and mingle. If you've never tried Dim sum, then you are missing out on quite a unique experience.

This article was written by Helen Fan who grew up in a family that has owned various Asian restaurants all over North America, from Vancouver (Canada), Houston (Texas), Decatur (Illinois), to Chicago (Illinois). She, and the rest of the Fan family are now sharing their decades of knowledge on the art of Chinese cuisine at www.ChineseHomeCooking.Com

Published 20 May 2007

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