When planning your Asia vacation around food, remember that China is a big place. And though food can noticeably vary from village to village, there are eight major regional cuisines: Cantonese, Sichuan, Anhui, Shandong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Hunan and Zhejiang. Each of these cuisines is steeped in a history that plays a role in how they are prepared with geography and available resources deeply impact the final results.
If your Asia vacation takes you to Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, prepare for excellent Cantonese seafood dishes served with rice.
When you think of authentic Chinese food, which is vastly different than American-Chinese food, you’re probably thinking of Cantonese cuisine. In general, chefs trained in Cantonese kitchens can find work throughout China and abroad.
The flavors of Cantonese food are balanced, relying heavily on the primary ingredients. Because of this, these ingredients are selected and used at peak freshness. Despite the reliance on freshness, fresh herbs are rarely used in the dishes, though exceptions are made for garlic, chives and coriander leaves.
Beef, pork, chicken and seafood are staples in Cantonese cuisine. But if you’re enjoying anAsian holidays in the region, don’t be surprised to find chicken feet, offal, duck’s tongue, snail, anteater or snake in your dish as well.
A number of sauces are popular in the region, such as plum sauce (sweet and sour), hoisin (sweet and salty) and oyster sauce (sweet, salty and a little “oystery”).
Even if you’ve never been to Asia, the name Sichuan probably rings a bell. Known for its hot and spicy flavors, this cuisine has a reputation for variation in seasoning and cooking methods.
The intense flavors from Sichuan Province – in contrast to Cantonese cuisine – rely on Sichuan pepper, black pepper, chili, broad bean chili paste, shallots, ginger and garlic.
Some of the most famous dishes are Kung Pao chicken, diced chicken with dry red pepper and peanuts; Fuqi feipian, thinly sliced beef seasoned with chili oil; and Sichuan hot pot, a tongue-numbing spicy dish. If you get the hot pot, be prepared to sample sea cucumber and unusual meats.
The landlocked province of Anhui provides the wildest of Chinese cuisine, as locals forage the mountain sides for herbs, berries, fungi and game. Anyone whose Asia vacation takes them to this region will notice the lack of frying and stir-frying, as locals tend to favor stews and braised meats.
Local farms produce bayberry, tea leaves, bamboo shoots and dates, while wild mountain herbs are selected and added to dishes for both aroma and medicinal effects.
If you’re feeling bold or in need of protein, steamed stone frog is one of the several famous regional dishes. But for those lighter or heart, there is also Luzhou roast duck, Li Hongzhang stew and egg dumplings.
Found along the northeast coast of China, Shandon cuisine, also known as Lu cuisine, is characterized by flash-fried seafood and vegetable dishes that aren’t too oily.
Like in Cantonese cooking, Shandon chefs focus on using spices and herbs to add light complexities to flavors rather than dominate the dish. Green onions, garlic, ginger and a dash of red pepper are often found in the dishes.
Shandon does not use some of the heavier sauces found in Cantonese cuisine, relying instead on vinegar and lots of salt.
This cuisine is another one that relies heavily on local delicacies, such as fish, turtles, indigenous mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Also known as Min cuisine or Hokkien cuisine, the dishes are often prepared to emphasize umami – the tantalizing fifth flavor for our palates.
If you’re a soup person, this province is a must-visit for your Asia vacation. Fresh seafood soups gain richness with exotic, wild ingredients brought down from the mountains.
A wealthier region of China, Jiangsu errs on the side of gourmet, rather than partaking in the tradition of the hearty mountain peasant food you’ll find in Anhui province. Chefs create richly aromatic and refined meals with a heavy focus on elegant presentation.
As a coastal province, it’s no surprise that seafood and sea vegetables play heavily into the region’s cuisine.
Food from Hunan province is perhaps even hotter than Sichuan cuisine, but a little less so because they don’t incorporate the Sichuan peppercorns. If you like Sichuan, it’s safe to say you’ll probably like Hunan cuisine. However, a mix of vinegar-chili and locally produced citrus allows dishes to evolve beyond simply spicy.
Once home to the capital of the southern Song Dynasty, the region serves up elegant, refined dishes that feature quality ingredients. The cuisine shares a philosophy with Japanese food as they both incorporate raw or almost-raw ingredients.
There are three styles of Zhejiang cuisine: Ningbo is known for salty seafood dishes, fully utilizing brines during preparation. Inland, there is Shaoxing, which uses less seafood, focusing instead on poultry and freshwater fish, while Hangzhou seems to include bamboo shoots in nearly every other dish.
Did we forget your favorite Chinese regional dish? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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