From southern Cantonese barbecue and dim sum to the mouth-numbing spices of central Sichuan province, China is home to an incredibly diverse cuisine. An ancient food culture, Chinese cuisine is a rich combination of history and environmental diversity. Chinese food culture is not a monolith — it’s a deeply regional cuisine that’s constantly evolving, evidenced by the country’s rapid economic growth.
Rice vs. Wheat
Although rice is the dominant staple grain in China, certain regions traditionally favor wheat-based noodles or bread. This is most evident in the north, such as the northeastern region of Dongbei. Here, the staple food is steamed wheat or corn breads, along with wheat-based noodles and dumplings. Historically, wheat was grown in the north due to the area’s dry and cold climate, all unsuitable for rice cultivation.
In comparison, southern China is a rice-based cuisine. This region is also the most heavily populated area of China. Besides its pure grain form, rice is also made into noodles and pastries (savory and sweet). The food of southern China will be the most familiar to Americans, featuring dishes like dim sum, Cantonese barbecue, and sweet and sour pork.
In China, many people also believe there’s an inherent cultural and personality difference that accompanies the wheat versus rice culinary divide. Northerners are generally seen as more “down to earth” and physically robust, while Southerners are more clever and cultured. There are even scientific studies on the subject. In 2014, a group of Chinese scientists published a paper that found northerners to be more individualistic and self-reliant while southerners are holistic and communal. The scientists theorized that these differences stemmed from the inherent differences between wheat and rice cultivation. Rice requires a great deal more labor, cooperation, and complex irrigation systems compared to wheat. As stated by one of the scientists regrading southern rice growers, “strict self-reliance might have meant starvation.”
Regional and International Diversity
Chinese cuisine can vary wildly depending on the region. Similar to the vast differences between European cuisines across countries, the food culture of China is comparably expansive in scope. For instance, the cuisines of landlocked central Sichuan and Hunan provinces both highlight spice, but in very different ways. Sichuan cuisines uses a combination of dried chilis and numbing Sichuan peppercorns while Hunan food focuses of fresh and pickled chilis for heat. In contrast, the cuisine of Jiangsu province on the eastern coast of China is delicate, slightly sweet, and not spicy. The famous soup dumplings hail from Jiangsu province.
Despite the ancient lineage of many Chinese dishes, there’s a sizable international influence in Chinese cuisine. Muslim halal food is very popular in central and western China. Most halal cuisine in China comes from the Hui people, a Chinese-speaking Muslim ethnic minority group. Many popular Chinese ingredients, such as corn or tomatoes, are prominent elements despite being from the Americas. In fact, the Chinese names for foreign vegetables often highlight their outside origins. For example, there are two ways to say tomatoes in Mandarin Chinese — xi hong shi (“west-red-persimmon.” The word “west” means foreign in this context) and fan qie (“foreign-eggplant”)
Chinese cuisine has also spread around the world due to centuries of Chinese immigration. There are countless diaspora Chinese communities throughout Asia and the Americas that has blended Chinese cuisine with local customs and ingredients. Some examples include Malaysian Chinese, Indonesian Chinese, Peruvian Chinese, and of course, Chinese American food.
The Chinese Meal Structure
Most Chinese meals are centered around a starch, most often rice, and several dishes of vegetables and meat. A hot soup, usually a light broth with vegetables, is eaten at the end instead of dessert. Sweet dishes are traditionally eaten as snacks with tea, separate from main meals.
Many Chinese vegetable dishes will include meat or seafood as flavoring. Although there are countless meat-centric dishes, this type of food was traditionally only eaten during wedding banquets, Chinese New Year or other celebrations. In Chinese these types of lavish dishes are called “da yu da rou,” meaning “big meat big fish.”
Of course, meat consumption is changing with China’s rapid modernization and growing middle-class. The average Chinese person now consumes 30 kg (66 lbs) of pork a year. In comparison, the average American consumer eats about 26 kg (57 lbs.) of beef a year.
Vegan Mapo Tofu
(Recipe from Chinah in Manhattan, New York)
Chinah is a fast-casual homestyle Chinese food experience which just opened a takeout and delivery location in the Financial District of Manhattan. Mapo tofu is traditionally made with meat. This vegan version still features the traditional flavors of fermented broad bean paste and Sichuan peppercorn; along with mushroom varieties to add texture and umami.
- 1 box of silken tofu
- A handful of dried shiitake mushroom
- A handful of dried lions mane mushroom
- 3 dried red chili pepper
- 1 tbsp, sliced ginger
- 3 tbsp, vegetable oil
- 1 tsp, Sichuan peppercorn
- 1 tbsp, fermented broad bean paste (doubanjiang)
- 1 tbsp, vegan oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp, corn starch, dissolved in cold water
- Soy sauce to taste
- Sugar to taste
- Garnish of your choice (scallions or cilantro)
- Soak dried shiitake mushroom and dried lion’s mane mushroom for 3-4 hours, remove stems from the lion’s mane mushroom to rid the bitterness, dice the rest.
- Dice the dried red chili peppers, and cut tofu into 1-inch cubes.
- Oil the pan on high heat, when oil is hot, put in diced chili peppers, ginger slices, and Sichuan peppercorns. Take all condiments out when fragrant, and discard.
- Reduce heat to medium, add doubanjiang, stir-fry until fragrant, add water to slightly above 1 inch in pan. Add vegan oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sugar to taste. Mix the sauce, and bring to a boil.
- Add tofu cubes gently into the sauce and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add the corn starch water. Plate and garnish with scallions or cilantro.
(Recipe from NiHao in Baltimore, Maryland)
NiHao is a contemporary Chinese restaurant located in the historic district of Canton, Baltimore. Spearheaded by Lydia Chang, the menu features collaborative Chinese cuisine by chefs Peter and Lisa Chang as well as Pichet Ong.
This dish features NiHao’s housemade vegan XO sauce and grated salted duck egg. An essential Chinese flavor, NiHao is taking salted duck egg one step further — instead of only using the yolk, it grates the whole egg (salted egg white is normally discarded for the level of saltiness). Traditionally, XO sauce contains pork and seafood. In NiHao’s version, edamame, shiitake mushroom, and seaweed are used to achieve that umami.
- 12 asparagus stalks
- 2 tsp, mushroom powder
- 4 tsp, vegan XO
- 3 tsp, salted egg (grated)
- 1 tbsp, canola oil
- Heat a pan over medium on the stove top. Ideally a cast iron pan, although a metal sauté pan or wok would also work.
- In a metal bowl, coat the asparagus evenly with oil.
- Add asparagus into the hot pan and char on each side for about a minute. Do not overwork the asparagus — they will not properly char.
- Add charred asparagus to a mixing bowl and season with mushroom powder. Toss to coat evenly.
- Plate the asparagus and garnish with drops of vegan XO sauce and freshly grated salted egg.
Vegan XO Sauce
Yield: 3 1/2 qts
- 4 qts, canola oil
- 13 oz, shallot, sliced
- 8 oz, garlic, minced
- 5 1/4 oz, ginger
- 9 3/4 oz, sweet potato, diced
- 8 3/4 oz, carrots, diced
- 6 1/3 oz, asparagus stems, diced
- 7 oz, edamame, finely diced
- 14 oz, shiitake, diced
- 4 tsp, seaweed, crushed/ripped
- 6 1/2 tbsp, brown sugar
- 1 pt, Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 pt, Tamari
- 4 tsp, mushroom powder
- Heat up oil in a large deep stock pot.
- Oil should be warm-hot before adding shallots. The shallots should float during cooking instead of dropping to the bottom.
- Fry shallots until golden and crispy. Place on a tray.
- Repeat procedure for every ingredient except for seaweed. These should be fried for only 30 seconds until it becomes slightly green.
- In another pot, heat up sugar until it dissolves.
- Add in all the fried ingredients and rest of seasoning. Mix and cover with oil.
- Store sauce in containers and place in refrigerator to cool.