China has a ton of regional variation when it comes to food. Some of the tastiest and most popular regional cuisines come from 8 provinces: Anhui, Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. They're a mouthful to say, so someone thought it was a good idea to group them together and call them the "Eight Great Regional Cuisines". As it turns out, the number "8" also happens to be the luckiest number in Chinese culture! But that's a different story. Here we just want to provide a brief intro of the eight different provinces and their cuisines. So if you aren't familiar with them or just want to learn more, go forth and scroll!
Guangdong cuisine, aka Cantonese cuisine, is the most well known style of Chinese cuisine in the world. Cantonese cuisine originated in the southern province of Guangdong where the climate is humid and subtropical with long, hot, and wet summers, which is ideal for agriculture. Guangdong also has abundant acccess to seafood because of its long coastlines and numerous rivers, many of which meet to form the Pearl River Delta, one of the busiest harbors in the world and home to some of China's largest, most cosmpolitan port cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.
These geographical advantages have provided Cantonese people with ready access to a large variety of both local and imported ingredients. In fact, Cantonese people are infamous for eating animals that many other Chinese people don't normally eat. This includes snakes, snails, and even dogs! There's a popular saying about the Cantonese palette: "Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven must be edible". In other words, if you're not human, you might just be unlucky enough to find yourself on a Cantonese dish!
Sichuan cuisine is famous for its spicy and tongue-numbing dishes. Sichuan cuisine originated in the area around Sichuan and Chongqing provinces, which are located inland in southwestern China. The western part of Sichuan is mountainous and features bamboo forests where giant pandas call home. The eastern part, however, is located in the flat and fertile Sichuan Basin with a climate perfect for farming. In fact, people call Sichuan the "heavenly country" because it grows so much food! But Sichuanese cooks can also prepare heavenly food. The capital of Sichuan is Chengdu, which is an honored member of UNESCO's Cities of Gastronomy, a group that recognizes cities with sophisticated but delicious foods.
Two of the secrets to Sichuan's tasty dishes are Sichuan pepper and chili peppers. Sichuan pepper is native to, big surprise, Sichuan province and has a lemony/metallic taste that leaves a numbing and tingly sensation in the mouth. The spice has been used in Sichuan cuisine for ages. Chili peppers, however, was first imported from Mexico in the 17th century but quickly became a key ingredient in Sichuan cuisine. It's the chili pepper that gives most Sichuan dishes its eye-watering heat. Together, Sichuan pepper and chili peppers form the basis of ma la sauce, the tongue-numbing and spicy sauce found in many Sichuanese dishes.
Of the Eight Great Regional Cuisines, the cuisine of Jiangsu is considered the most refined. Their fancy shmancy reputation means Jiangsu dishes are often served at formal events like corporate banquets. But if stuffy banquets aren't your thing, you'll have no problem finding plenty of food stalls serving delicious homestyle Jiangsu dishes in cities like Nanjing and Suzhou.
Jiangsu cuisine originated in, you guessed it, Jiangsu province, which is located in eastern China along the coast. The capital of Jiangsu is Nanjing, one of China's biggest and most important city and where you can taste some of the best examples of Jiangsu cuisine. That's because Nanjing was once the imperial capital of several different Chinese dynasties, and their cooks had the responsibility of preparing some of the best food in China to please the tummies of their emperors! The emperors aren't in town anymore, but fortunately the people kept all the good food.
Zhejiang cuisine originated in Zhejiang province, which is located just south of Jiangsu province in eastern China. The province of Zhejiang is also known as a "land of fish and rice" because of their high agricultural output. Arguably the best Zhejiang food can be found in Hangzhou, a beautiful city that was once the capital of the illustrious Song dynasty and is now the capital of Zhejiang province.
One of Hangzhou's most famous dish is "Beggar's Chicken". It's not the most appetizing name, but the dish is famous for a good reason (hint: it's delicious). The story goes that a Hangzhou beggar had stolen a chicken from a farm. But the beggar didn't have any pots or utensils to prepare the chicken. So he came up with an idea. He wrapped the chicken in lotus leaves and packed it with clay to form a makeshift pot. Then he dug a hole in the ground, lit it with fire, and buried the chicken to cook. When he dug up and unwrapped the chicken, he discovered that baking the chicken in lotus leaves and clay had made the chicken unbelievably tender and aromatic.
After eating his fill, he realized he had an incredibly delicious discovery on him. So he stole some more chickens, cooked them using his patented process, and sold them on the streets of Hangzhou. Beggar's Chicken™ caught on with the locals and the former beggar and thief became a successful food vendor and lived happily ever after.
The cuisine of Hunan is the spiciest in all of China, spicier than even Sichuan cuisine. Like Sichuanese chefs, chefs from Hunan have wholeheartedly adopted the red hot chili pepper into their cuisines ever since the spice was introduced from the New World to China in the 17th century. But Hunanese dishes taste spicier than Sichuanese dishes because they do not use Sichuan peppercorns, which creates a numbing sensation against the searing heat of chili. It's also likely that Hunanese chefs just use more chili in general!
Hunan province is a landlocked region located in south central China. The most famous person born in Hunan is probably Chairman Mao, a founding member of the Communist Party of China and the founding father of the People's Republic of China. Like any true Hunanese native, Mao loved spicy food. In fact, he loved chilies so much that he once said, "You can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chilies".
Chairman Mao's favorite dish was said to be hongshao rou, a type of red braised pork with a touch of heat from chili. Because of his love for the dish, the dish is also known as "Mao's Braised Pork" and is served throughout China by many Hunanese restaurants. Mao's Braised Pork is so popular that the Hunanese government created an official recipe for the dish.
Shandong province is the northernmost member of the Eight Great Regional Cuisines. Shandong cuisine is part of the northern branch of Chinese cuisine, which includes more dough-based food in their culinary repertoire. This means people in Shandong generally prefer to eat bread and wheat noodles rather than rice, which is the staple dish in southern Chinese cuisine.
The most influential philosopher in China is Confucius. He was born near present day Qufu, a city in southwestern Shandong. His words of wisdom are preserved in the Analects, which includes a lot of advice for how people could form and maintain a strong country. He said a strong country is built on filial piety (devotion to elders), respect for society, and a commitment to education. What many don't know, however, is that Confucius was a foodie and held strong opinions about what's good and proper food, which he believed to be another important foundation of a strong country.
For starters, Confucius believed that dishes should be served in mouthsized portions (which means he probably wouldn't be a fan of steak). Proper dishes should also not depend on the taste of individual ingredients but on the skilled blending of all its ingredients. Furthermore, you should not eat food that smells bad. But he only said that because he's never tried stinky tofu.
Although Anhui cuisine is a member of the Eight Great Regional Cuisines, their cuisine is virtually unknown outside China. But it's also not very well known within China either compared to the likes of Cantonese or Sichuan cuisine. This may be because Anhui cuisine is considered peasant food whose dishes use a wide variety of wild ingredients obtained from local mountains, rivers, and lakes. But don't let the cuisine's humble and rugged reputation deter you or you'll miss out on wholesome and delicious dishes you'd never thought to enjoy.
Anhui is a landlocked province located in eastern China. It's the poorest member of the Eight Greats, but for this reason more of its natural beauty has been spared by the relentless development that's gripped other parts of China.
In southeastern Anhui are the famous Huangshan Mountains whose beautiful granite peaks, pine trees, and sea of clouds have all been a source of inspiration for poets and artists since time immemorial. The Huangshan Mountains have also provided a source of wild delicacies for local cooks. Their skilled use of wild herbs, mushrooms, and game in their dishes has given Anhui cuisine its hallmark reputation as hearty peasant food. But not every ingredient from Huangshan is wild. The region's rich soil and moist weather provide a great place to grow tea and some of China's best tea leaves come from Huangshan's tea plantations.
Fujian is a province located in southern China along the coast to the northeast of Guangdong. The people of Fujian are known to be seafarers and have had a long history of travelling by ships to other parts of Asia including Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan. And wherever the Fujianese have gone, they've also brought along with them their delicious cuisine, which has had widespread influence on different cuisines throughout Asia. Because of Fujian's close connection to the sea, one of most revered gods in the province is Mazu, who is believed to protect fisherman and sailors at sea.
Not surprisingly, Fujian cuisine is famous for their delicious seafood dishes. One of their most popular dish is a type of sharkfin soup that goes by an amusing name: Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. The story goes that a Buddhist monk was walking by a home that was cooking the sharkfin soup. The delicious smell of the soup overwhelmed his good senses (Buddhist monks like him are suppose to be vegetarian), so he scaled the wall of the home to taste the soup. When the monk was caught, he said he felt no shame because when faced with the same situation, even Buddha himself would have jumped over the wall and eaten the dish!