As the third largest country in the world, China is a mix of geography, climate and culture. This is reflected in the variety of its cuisine.
Some say China has four main cuisines, divided by the compass. These are Cantonese (south), Sichuan (west), Huiyang (east), and Beijing (north). This is simple, but perhaps not so accurate. In China, “southern” means south of the Yangzi River. Look at a map and you will see this is half of China.
Each region has a different approach to cooking, with the difference mainly in ingredients. For example, some say the northern “staple” food is wheat, and the southern is rice. In fact, you will find the basic flour-based foods like noodles, dumplings and wonton (a Cantonese word), all over China. Shanghai, in the east and just south of the Yangzi, is the home of panfried dumplings and juicy “xiao long bao”. However, you are more likely to find the coarse grain bun called wotou in the north, or in remoter rural regions.
Another way to classify different cuisines is through spices. Sichuan cuisine is famous for chilli, but Hunan Province, east of Sichuan, is also well known for turning up the chilli.
The south, mainly Guangdong Province, has a reputation for stir-fried dishes and the “yum cha” dining tradition. Some people criticise this cuisine for being too oily, even arguing it is only the oil that gives southern food its flavour.
In the southeast province of Fujian, the speciality is noodle soups with a wide variety of seafoods. The coastal city of Xiamen is best in this area, and should be considered a distinct cuisine.
Two things are done quite differently in Chinese cuisine, soups and desserts. In most Western cuisine, it is customary to begin a meal with soup, to stimulate the appetite. In China, soup is drunk at the very end of the meal, to aid digestion.
It is also not the Chinese custom to finish a meal with dessert. Some say that eating sweet food soon after savoury food is bad for your health.
But this does not mean Chinese cuisine has no regard for sweets. In fact, the range of cakes, sweet dumplings and other dessert snacks is huge, and is a cuisine in itself. Chinese sweets, however, are usually eaten on special occasions, such as red bean buns at New Year, or moon cakes.