So, you think you know Chinese food? The ubiquitous cuisine we in the west consider to be Chinese accounts for only a tiny percentage of the vast array of dishes represented by this huge country’s many regions. In truth, the tastes, flavors, textures and recipes vary as widely and broadly as the dialects, cultures and accents that are spread throughout sprawling China, from delicate bites of dim sum in Hong Kong to the bold and spicy plates of sizzling Sichuan. Meanwhile, as we imagine Chinese food as the preserve of the late-night takeaway in a box, or the accompaniment to a movie on the couch, award-winning chefs are serving up world-class and cutting-edge dishes from Shanghai to Beijing. So, let us debunk the myths and unravel the fabulous, flavorsome mysteries of Chinese cuisine. Come with us on a culinary tour of China region by region, to whet your appetite for some of the delights in store at each stopping point.
The central, eastern region of Sichuan is responsible for the most widely-served cuisine in China. Thanks to the inclusion of the Sichuan peppercorn, as well as lots of chili, garlic, ginger and peanuts, the dishes tend to be spicy and bold, even leaving a lingering tingling or slightly mouth-numbing sensation. Get a taste for the flavors and sights of Sichuan, including the stunning scenery of Jiuzhaigou Valley with its blue lagoons and towering limestone cliffs. Take a cable car up Mount Emei to reach the Golden Summit – home to first Buddhist temple built in China – and visit the playful inhabitants at the Panda Base. Enjoy a stay at the luxurious Ritz Carlton in Chengdu, where chefs at Li Xuan restaurant serve up expertly-prepared dishes from centuries-old recipes, their origins firmly rooted in Sichuan.
Fans of the spicy flavors of Sichuan need only travel a little southeast to indulge in cuisine that is even hotter – that of Hunan province, a rich agricultural area that produces and includes a lots of vegetables and herbs. Emphasis is placed on the use of oil and cooking techniques that produce crispness, softness and tenderness, so sautéing, stir-frying, steaming and smoking are commonplace preparations. Pair the natural flavors with the area’s natural beauty on a journey to Zhangjiajie in Hunan, where you can embark on a real-life Avatar adventure. The National Forest Park has been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark thanks to its 3,000 breathtaking rock formations, which provided the other-worldly backdrop for the hit James Cameron movie. Hike among the mountains and lakes to get a sense of where the ingredients come from.
The more southerly areas of Guangdong and Hong Kong are responsible for internationally-popular Cantonese food, characterized by braising and stewing and the use of sweeter and lighter flavors. Seafood and rice dishes are prepared with skill, using fine and rare ingredients and presented with care and precision. Luxuriate in flavors and release your inner connoisseur on a comprehensive foodie tour of fabulous Hong Kong, from the bustling produce markets that supply Kowloon’s Sham Shui Po neighborhood to family-run restaurants established for generations. For a little change, switch up the palate with world-class French cuisine at Michelin-starred Caprice, and stay at stylish Upper House, where the international menu has also received the nod from “The Guide”.
In the central east, the cuisine of Jiangsu has developed from the local recipes of Yangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing. Broadly, it tends to be fresh, salty and sweet, with a focus on seafood and healthy ingredients presented with an artistic flair. In Shanghai in particular, the food tends to be especially refined, with exquisite cooking techniques producing tasty, aromatic and beautiful fare that often features in gourmet feasts. This city, where modern meets ancient, provides a taste of quintessentially diverse China, from the Art Deco buildings of the French Concession to the historic Yu Gardens in Shanghai’s Old City, and the museums packed with priceless artefacts from mighty dynasties. Meanwhile, the Bund’s gastronomical hotspots continue to top the world’s best restaurant lists, including the notable FU1015 with its traditional banquets. For perfect views of that glitzy neighborhood, stay at the opulent Peninsula hotel, where the suites, spa and dining options are second-to-none.
Directly south of Jiangsu, with Shanghai on the border, Zhejiang province is known for similar flavors and a common emphasis on fish, but the cuisine here is less elaborate and even fresher. With nods to Japanese styles of cooking, Zhejiang dishes are often raw or almost raw, and if cooked, the most common methods are quick-fry, stir-fry, braising and steaming. Venture to the provincial capital, Hangzhou, with its scenic West Lake, to discover the ancient concept of shan-shui – the harmony between mountains and waters. Discover further authentically Chinese natural arts among the pavilions and pagodas at Suzhou’s historic gardens, and at 28 Hu Bin Restaurant, experience the harmony of flavors as you sample the region’s distinct dishes. Stay amid tea fields and forest on the city’s outskirts at peaceful Amanfayun, or within China’s first and only wetland preserve at the stately Banyan Tree Hangzhou.
Sandwiched between Zhejiang and Guangdong, Fujian province uses the produce of its seas and mountains to create light dishes with a mildly spicy, sweet and sour tastes. Its distinctive features include fine cutting techniques, unique seasonings and elegant presentation. For a combined adventure, tie in a trip to nearby Taiwan: compare and contrast flavors and explore the island’s many charms, from history and culture in Tainan to shopping in cosmopolitan Taipei, where the Mandarin Oriental awaits with elegant suites and sumptuous dining.
Inland, to the west of Jiangsu, mountainous Anhui produces cuisine even wilder than that of Fujian province, using local plants and animals in hearty stews, braising and cooking with more oil. The flavors come from areas along the Yangtze and Huai rivers and sweetness is added with sugar candy. Head for Huangshan in Anhui to experience – besides the toothsome cuisine – some of China’s natural wonders: hike up to the misty peak of Yellow Mountain, cross the Fairy Walking Bridge at Xihai Grand Canyon and watch the sunrise over the ethereal landscapes, totally unique to this part of the world.
Shandong province in the far northeast was one of China’s earliest inhabited areas, and as such, it established the pattern for northern cooking styles, delighting the Emperor with its seafood, meat and soup dishes. Predominant flavors here are salty and briny with the use of vinegar to preserve fish, often the central feature thanks to the region’s long coast. Just a short journey north of Shandong finds you in Beijing where all sorts of adventures await. Step onto the Great Wall, a journey that goes all the way to Lhasa across the rooftop of the world, or remain in the city to take in Beijing’s highlights, including the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Whatever you do, be sure to sample the world famous Peking duck in the historic courtyards of Liqun. Stay at the Waldorf Astoria Beijing for a sense of the dramatic and historic.
So, now that you know your way around – culinarily speaking – what are you waiting for? Follow your nose and indulge your tastes with a gastronomically adventurous journey to China.