When we learn about culture, food may not be the first thing that comes to mind. We probably first think of language, tradition, and religion when we hear the word culture. But food has remained an important aspect of culture that withstands the boundaries of language barriers. China is one of the few countries where they have a variety of cultural heritage in different regions. The term “Chinese Food” is sadly a generalization of the existing wonderful variety of cuisine that China has to offer.
We often think that the best-tasting food comes from expensive ingredients or 5-star rating restaurants but this can never be further from the truth. In the words of Paul Prudhomme, an American Chef, “You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food” indicates that oftentimes the cheapest food found in humble market stalls and family recipes offers the most embodiment of culture into one single plate.
The Region Matters
China is a huge country and the country is separated from the Qin mountain and the Huai River in the center planes of China. Geographers use the reference 秦岭淮河线 (Qin Lin Huai He Xian) which translates to the Qin mountain Huai River Line. This makes it very hard for the people to travel in between the region of North and South. This separation influences the cultural diversity and the development of cuisine between the North and South.
The North region loves their flour. I repeat they LOVE their flour. Originally, millet was more of the staple source of grain the people used for food. However, wheat gained mass popularity and became the staple source of food during the fall of the Tang dynasty. This preference led us to the wheat-based dishes the northern Chinese cuisine is famously known for.
1. Knife Cut Noodles – Biang Biang Noodles
Knife-cut noodles originated from the Shaanxi province in the northwest region of China. They were originally a part of a poor man’s daily meal but now have gained popularity all over the world. The noodles are made of wheat, and instead of hand-pulled they were cut with knives, thus the English name knife-cut noodles. The name Biang Biang however, is what gives it the popularity it has now. The name Biang Biang is a dialect and its written form is not recorded in any Mandarin dictionary. Not only that, the written form of Biang has a whopping 58 strokes, 42 if it’s simplified which then went viral and rose to popularity for the noodles. You can check Wikipedia for the writing form because I can’t even type the characters here. The noodles are known to be wide and long just like a belt. It is later served with hot oil, mixed with chili and spices, giving it a fragrance that makes your mouth water.
2. Dong Xiang Lamb – Gansu Province
Dong Xiang is a name of a region in the Gansu province in northern China. This region boasts to have the best lamb meat sources in China. If you ever visit the Gansu province, it is highly recommended for you to try their lamb dishes braised, stir fry, or even skewered. 8 months old mutton will be cooked delicately stir-fried as they have the softest texture of meat. The meat of up to 1-year-old lamb will be used in braised dishes and skewers as they maintain their fat and texture in higher heat better.
3. Lanzhou Beef Noodle Soup
Beef noodle soup is a staple in several regions in Northern China. The most popular, however, are the Lanzhou Beef Noodle soup. As the name suggests, the dish is best produced in the region of Lan Zhou. The dish is known for its elastic noodles, bone broth and tasty beef pieces served together. There are 5 features of an excellent Lan Zhou beef noodle soup. Those 5 features are clear soup, clean white turnips, brilliant red chili oil, green parsley, and yellow noodles. If one of these features did not exist, consider the dish, not a true Lanzhou beef noodle soup.
The Southern Region, when compared to the North, has rice as their favorite food source. The southern preference for rice is similar to the modern meme of “Asians love rice”. The spread of millet and wheat only made their way in the northern region but never really made their way to the south as the region is separated by the Qin mountain and Huai river. The lack of transportation development then made it impossible to bring millet and wheat to the south. Instead of wheat and millet, the south has its own fixation with rice. Rice has been growing in the southern region since 3000 – 4000 years ago. These centuries of rice planting heritage have made rice an important part of the Chinese culture especially in the south.
4. Rice Noodles
The first rice noodle is said to first originate in Guangzhou. Rice noodles still remain popular today. During the Qin Dynasty, an invasion from the North to the South started. The North people enjoy eating noodles made of wheat flour. However, when they invaded the south, wheat was scarce and there was only rice in the southern region because the southern people loved rice. This led to the northern people creating noodles from the rice in the south during their time of the invasion. Rice noodles still remain popular today. One of the most popular dishes of rice noodles would be the fried rice noodles. This is a Cantonese dish that signifies a Cantonese chef’s true skill. Because you would have to make all the ingredients cooked equally while still managing that the noodles do not stick to the wok or burn.
5. Char Siu
Char siu originated from the Guangdong region in the south of China. Char siu is a dish although the name was given to the method of how the dish was made. Char siu is a Cantonese dialect and the word can be literally translated to “fork roast”, in Mandarin reading it is read as cha shao (叉烧). Although there are no specifications of which meat should be used, pork loin and pork belly remain some of the more popular cuts to be used when making char siu.
Common and Popular Dishes all over China
Despite most dishes being divided based on their regions, many of these dishes gain popularity throughout the country. Here is a list of dishes that have made their way far and wide from their origin to the rest of the country and even internationally.
Dumplings are popular everywhere in China. The creation of dumplings also differs from region to region. Take for example the infamous xiao long bao (小笼包). They originated from the Jiangxi province. The skin is made out of wheat flour, with broth and pork filling inside. Xiao long refers to the name of the bamboo basket to which they are steamed, whereas the bao refers to the buns. There are several ways to make this dish depending on where you are visiting. In the south, the dough of the skin is unleavened, thus they are thin and translucent with pork and soup fillings inside of them. If you go further to the northern regions, they are made with leavened though, thicker and usually bigger, sometimes twice the size of that made in the south.
7. Dim Sum
Dim Sum is a Cantonese word where it can be translated as “to touch the heart”. Dim sum is strongly associated with “Yum Cha” or the practice of drinking tea accompanied by several small portioned snacks. This practice originated in the Guangzhou region and became popular in the 10th century when the region had an increasing number of tourists and travelers visiting the area. The Hong Kong dim sum style is now the most popular and well-known around the world thanks to their carts that circle the restaurant floors and offer guests to choose their dishes of choice from the carts. This tradition still lives on today and is an especially popular choice for family brunch.
8. Hot Pot
Hot pot originated in Mongolia 800-900 years ago. Ingredients for hot pot then only include mutton and horse meat as they are the most staple ingredients available in the region. However, as they make their way to popularity across China, each region put their own signature twist to this ancient dish. The most famous is probably the Szechuan style. Hot pot is Huo Guo in Mandarin, but the Szechuan style was so popular because Szechuan peppercorn and other chilis are put in the broth giving the broth ma and la very fitting for Huo Guo (火锅) in the sense of “fire pot” instead of hot pot.
Buns are one of the most common dishes in China but are most popular in central China. The central region of China was said to be one of the earliest regions to use steam in cooking. Thus spreading the popularity of steamed buns across the northern regions of China and later to the whole country. Buns in mandarin are called bao () and are often equalized with the bread in the west and have different recipes and serving styles depending on the region. In the north, the buns are made from the north using millet flour or wheat flour. In the south, rice flour is used instead of millet flour or wheat flour. This gives the buns created by the southern region, softer and gluten-free. The buns created from steaming are often called mantou (馒头). When the steamed buns are given filling “sweet or savory” then they are called “baozi” (包子).
However, steamed buns are not the most classic way to enjoy buns in Chinese cuisine. The most classic way to enjoy buns is to bake them and eat them with marinated meat. Baked buns with marinated meat are popular throughout China but especially in the region of Xi An. This dish where the buns are baked instead of steamed and served with meat is named Gua Bao (挂包). Gua bao is now the most classic way to enjoy buns throughout China and pop culture around the world.
10. Pork Belly
Pork belly is a staple cut of meat in Chinese cuisine. You might recognize crispy pork also known as Shao Rou (烧肉). This style of pork belly cooking used a charcoal furnace and the meat seasoned with spices, vinegar, and salt. The most popular however is the red braised pork belly of Hong Shao Rou (红烧肉). The dish has several variations like the Dong Po pork from Hangzhou. But the most famous version of the red pork belly is the Hunan version where it was dubbed to be general Mao’s favorite dish. This later gave the dish a new nickname, Mao’s style braised pork (毛氏红烧肉).
What to eat next?
China serves many variations in its cultural heritage and practice. Their food dates back centuries old and has included many traditions, practices, and history in the way they are served, ingredients, and cooking methods. Let us know which dish made it to your next list of must eat!