It would not be an exaggeration to say that food is the highlight of many people’s trip to China. China is home to one of the world’s greatest culinary cultures and even to label it as “Chinese food” doesn’t do justice to the sheer range and variety of dishes on offer. Food is an integral part of Chinese culture and it should be an integral part of your trip too. Below is just a taste of what Chinese cuisine has to offer - we hope it inspires your culinary exploration!
Chinese Dining Etiquette
Meals in China are usually convivial and easy going, but below are a few general tips to make sure you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes!
- The guest of honor sits in the seat facing the entrance
- Let older people or honored guests eat first
- Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your bowl, since this resembles funeral incense and is considered a bad omen
- Since most meals consist of several dishes to be shared between the whole table, don’t hog one dish or reach over others to get to a dish you want
- Don’t lick your chopsticks
- If dishes come with “serving chopsticks” (in addition to your own personal chopsticks), use them
- Don’t be surprised if you see people fighting (or play fighting!) to pay the bill
The Eight Great Cuisines of China
China’s regional cuisines are as diverse as its geography, climate, and people. Regional cuisines were codified and expanded over thousands of years of war and peace, migration and consolidation, and internal and external influences, and by the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the cuisines of eight provinces – Anhui, Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang – had achieved prominence. Today, these are considered China’s eight “official” culinary traditions and they remain some of the most popular in China.
However, an attempt to categorize any cuisine naturally fails to sum up the true extent of its complexity; China has a large number of ethnic minorities (56 officially recognised ones, to be exact) who each have their own culinary traditions. Other popular cuisines that don’t appear on the list below include vibrant, almost southeast Asian Yunnan cuisine and Islamic-influenced Xinjiang cuisine.
Cantonese Cuisine (yue cai, 粤菜)
Probably the most well-known type of Chinese cuisine outside of China, many consider Cantonese cuisine to be the height of Chinese culinary sophistication and Cantonese chefs are thus highly sought for their ability to use delicate, high-quality ingredients and light cooking methods.
Jiangsu Cuisine (Su Cai, 苏菜)
Jiangsu cuisine enjoys a reputation on a par with Cantonese cuisine for its refined, light cooking, which prizes high quality ingredients and slow-cooked stocks. The cuisine originates from the southern cities of Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi. Nanjing was a former capital of Imperial China, so the cuisine has strong imperial influences.
Sichuan Cuisine (chuan cai, 川菜)
Incredibly popular throughout China, Sichuan cuisine is characterized by pungent, spicy flavors. Key ingredients include chilli, garlic, mouth numbing Sichuan pepper, and doubanjiang (a paste made from broad beans and chillies), which combine to add complex layers of flavors to dishes such as kungpao chicken and dandan noodles
Fujian Cuisine (min cai, 闽菜)
The food of Fujian is influenced by its coastal location, with seafood featuring heavily in many dishes. The cuisine is known for its extensive use of soups and the emphasis placed on fine knife skills, which are used to capture and enhance the flavor of different types of seafood.
Zhejiang Cuisine (Zhe Cai, 浙菜)
Zhejiang dishes combine the delicate cooking methods of the south with the stronger, savory flavors of the north, so this is a popular cuisine with people seeking a balance between the two. Fans of Zhejiang cuisine will also point out its lack of grease.
Hunan Cuisine (Xiang Cai, 湘菜)
With its spicy heat, smoky flavors and frequent use of pickles, Hunan cuisine is one of the boldest of the eight great cuisines and is almost as popular as Sichuan cuisine, to which it is often compared. Hunan cuisine is actually much spicier thanks to its liberally use of both fresh and pickled chillies.
Shandong Cuisine (Lu Cai, 鲁菜)
Shandong cuisine is considered the foundation for many of the cuisines of northern China, including Beijing cuisine. Hearty, salty sauces are common, even for seafood, perfectly suited to the region’s cold, dry winters. Thanks to Shandong’s location in the northern, wheat-eating region of China, steamed and baked breads also play a major part.
Anhui Cuisine (Hui Cai, 徽菜)
The food of mountainous, land-locked Anhui province relies heavily on local ingredients such as game, mushrooms, and wild vegetables. Since these ingredients can be hard to find outside of the province, Anhui-style food is less well known around China than the seven other cuisines.
The Eight Dishes you Shouldn’t Leave China Without Trying
No matter how long you spend in China, make sure you don’t leave without trying at least a few of these most iconic dishes!
If you only have time for one meal in Beijing, make it Peking duck. The dish as we know it today first came into being in the Ming dynasty, and the first Peking duck restaurant, Bianyifang, opened in 1416 – and is still in business today! To make the dish, ducks, bred specially for the dish and slaughtered after 65 days, are usually roasted over fruitwood until the skin is crisp and the flesh is juicy, before being sliced and served with pancakes, sweet bean paste sauce, cucumber, and scallions. You can, of course, sample Peking duck in many cities across China, but for the best experience, you must eat it in its namesake city. Popular options for Peking duck in Beijing include hyper-modern Da Dong, local joint Siji Minfu, and Hua’s Restaurant, set in a restored hutong courtyard.
You may think you’ve had kungpao chicken back home, but you’ll be blown away when you try the real deal in China. Instead of the gloopy sauce and cashews that often mar versions of the dish in the west, true kungpao chicken (better known by its Chinese name gongbao jiding) features chunks of chicken, peanuts, and leeks in a moreish spicy-sweet sauce. The dish is thought to be named after Qing dynasty official Ding Baozhen, who was governor of Sichuan province. His title was gongbao, or “protector of the palace,” from which the dish’s name is taken.
Sweet and sour mandarin fish
Hailing from Jiangsu province, this dish is a real showstopper! You may also see this dish translated on menus as “squirrel fish,” but don’t let that put you off – it doesn’t actually contain squirrel! The flesh of the fish is scored in a crisscross pattern so that when it is cooked (usually deep-fried) it opens out like a bushy squirrel tail. The deep-fried fish is then drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce and garnished with diced vegetables.
Originating in Xinjiang, chuan’r is usually used to refer to lamb kebabs spiced with cumin and chili, although technically it just translates as “kebab.” Lamb (and associated lamb offal) is most common, but you can also find chicken wings, vegetables, and even naan bread grilled with the same spicing. The kebabs are part of the Chinese Islamic cuisine of the Uyghur people and are popular not only in Xinjiang, but across north China.
Our guests often tell us that these steamy, soupy dumplings are the culinary highlight of their trip to China. A specialty of the Shanghai region, xiaolongbao are usually filled with pork or sometimes crab roe. The soupy filling is made by placing a small cube of jellified pork stock inside the dumpling before it is sealing, which then melts in the heat of the steamer. You will likely find the xiaolongbao served alongside a dish of fragrant black vinegar with ginger slivers for dipping, which is used to cut through the richness.
A popular – if not the most popular – noodle dish hailing from Shaanxi province, this noodle dish is also famous for using one of the most complex Chinese characters in existence, biáng. Said to represent the onomatopoeic sound of noodle dough being slapped on a table, the character is so obscure that it isn’t included in most modern dictionaries. Made with wheat flour, the thick, belt-like noodles are topped with chili oil and braised pork.
No trip to Chongqing would be complete without trying the city’s famous spicy hot pot. In contrast to other types of Chinese hot pot, where the ingredients are more important than the broth, here the broth is king, flavored with chilies, dried spices like star anise, and lots of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Diners can up the spice level even further by dipping the cooked meat or vegetables in a small plate of dried spices, usually including chili and cumin.
A type of long, slow braising, red cooking takes its name from the deep red-brown color imparted by dark soy sauce and caramelized sugar during the cooking process. By far the most common version of the dish is red-cooked pork. It is said that red cooked pork with Chairman Mao’s favorite dish (he even brought his favorite chefs with him when he left Hunan for Beijing to make sure he wouldn’t have to suffer through inferior versions).
Vegetarian and Vegan Dining
Vegetarian dining can be a bit of a lottery in China. While Chinese Buddhism has a long-established tradition of vegetarianism, many chinese people are choosing to follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons, and tofu is easily available as a good source of protein, some smaller restaurants seem to think that if a dish only has a small “seasoning” of meat it counts as vegetarian. That being said, most restaurants will be willing to adapt dishes or recommend vegetarian dishes for meat-free diners. Learn or keep the below phrases to hand to make dining out easier:
我吃素 wŏ chī sù - I am vegetarian
我吃纯素 wŏ chī chūnsù - I am vegan
我不吃肉／鸡蛋／海鲜／猪肉 wŏ bu chī ròu / jīdàn / hăixiān / zhūròu - I don’t eat meat / eggs / seafood / pork
你有什么素菜？nĭ yŏu shénme sùcài? - What vegetarian dishes do you have?
这个菜有肉吗？zhège cài yŏu ròu ma? - Does this dish have meat in it?
这个菜能不能不加肉？zhège cài néng bù néng bù jiā ròu? - Can you make this dish without meat?
If you are a strict vegetarian or vegan and would prefer to eat in a restaurant that doesn’t handle any meat, there are still plenty of options. You’ll will find dedicated vegetarian restaurants in most major cities - check international vegan and vegetarian restaurant listings website Happy Cow to find more options at your destination.