Chinese cooking is renowned for its high quality and diversity, and hospitality is of utmost importance. At this modern banquet, held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, traditional Chinese dishes are served along with bread and butter, and knifes and forks, for Western guests.

Chinese cuisines were developed partly as ways of maximizing security in a world of scarcity and frequent famine, but also responded to the desires of the well-to-do to show off wealth and sophistication. Grain staples are basic, but the distinctive elements are flavorings, including soy sauces, Chinese “wine,” ginger, onion relatives, and peppers. Regional variation is enormous, with four to five major culinary areas and many minority cuisines.

To one-fifth of the people in the world, Chinese food is not something they order from a menu in a restaurant or have delivered to their front door in little white cartons—it’s home cooking.

Chinese cooking is of notably high quality and diversity. However, China was also the “land of famine,” as Walter Mallory called it in 1926, and the cooking has been shaped by scarcity. For thousands of years the vast population of Chinese people lived on grain, with small amounts of vegetables and soybean products. People ate small amounts of meat; many tasted it only on major festival days such as Chinese New Year. Tea and “wine” (in China it is made from grain rather than grapes) were equally rare luxuries. Famine was frequent, and malnutrition widespread, with endemic deficiencies of iron, calcium, and vitamins B and C. As early as 1406 the government issued a manual on how to use roadside weeds and the like during famines. Even now hundreds of millions of people in the rural interior of China live on little more than boiled grain with a few vegetables and little meat.

Foods are cooked quickly at high heat because fuel was always scarce and expensive; stove design and cooking techniques combine to allow a family to cook a full three-course meal on a handful of dry grass. Cooking techniques also spared oil.

However, in much of the Chinese world a spectacular rise to affluence has profoundly changed the cooking, and people often go to opposite extremes, especially those who remember the old days.

China’s population is 93 percent Han Chinese, speaking one or another language of the Chinese language family. Fifty-five officially recognized minority groups also exist, each with its own language (or languages) and culinary traditions. A few generalizations apply throughout. The overwhelming majority of Chinese depend largely on grain, usually wheat and rice. Other foods usually serve as toppings or accompaniments for the grain staple. In the vast majority of meals the grain is either simply boiled (fan) or made into noodles (mian). Bread is common in the north and dominates in the west but is not a major food for most Chinese. Until recently vegetables were the most common accompaniment; cai means both “vegetables” and “dishes in general” in Mandarin (Putonghua), the majority language of China. Chinese cabbages (Brassica spp., in countless varieties) are the most commonly used and widespread; other vegetables include cucumbers, giant radishes, spinach, tomatoes, and many kinds of beans. The meat of choice is usually pork in most of China, but lamb replaces it in the west and northwest, andfish dominates along the coasts. Fruit was the only common sweet until recently; China has an enormous range of fruits. Today sugar is common and cheap, leading to more diverse but less-healthy desserts.

Native to China, and characteristic of its cooking, is the soybean. Soybeans became important largely within the last 2,000 to 2,200 years because of the invention of bean curd (doufu, tofu) and of fermented bean products such as soy sauce. Bean curd production and soybean fermentation both release more protein, vitamin, and mineral value in the beans. The yeast used in fermentation adds vitamin B-12, an essential nutrient that is otherwise often lacking in Chinese diets.

Throughout China by far the most common cooking method is boiling. Grain and noodles are usually boiled. Soup is the most common dish to eat with grain staples. Drinks, such as tea, are normally boiled. Boiling is usually quick—soups are not simmered long—but complex stews often require hours of cooking. One major boiling type, most common in central China, is red-cooking: cooking meat slowly in a rich stock with much soy sauce, ginger, star anise, and other flavorings so the meat becomes dark red and tender. Second comes steaming: cooking in a closed pot or bamboo steamer above boiling water. Third is stir-frying (chao), the characteristically “Chinese” cooking method in which thinly sliced food is stirred for a short time in a small amount of extremely hot oil. This saves fuel and oil. More fuel-intensive methods like deep-fat frying, baking, and roasting were rare until recently.

The food of the Han Chinese—and minority groups influenced by them—is sharply distinguished by a specific spicing pattern: garlic, green onions, fermented soybean products, ginger, and, often, Chinese “wine.” (Chinese “wine” is made from grain, thus technically a beer or ale, but it is strong and noncarbonated and thus resembles wine, hence the usual translation.) To these are often added chili peppers (especially in the south and west), white pepper (black is rare), and sometimes other spices. Until recently unrefined vegetable oils—rapeseed (similar to canola), maize, peanut, sesame—provided distinctive flavors, completing a flavor mix that was uniquely and distinctively Chinese. These oils are now replaced by refined oil, frequently from soybeans.

Regional Cuisines

Cuisines in China vary by regions. The country’s most important culinary divide is between north and south.

The North

North of the Yangzi (Chang) River valley, wheat generally dominates, but other grains have been important. In early historic times foxtail millet (Setaria italica), domesticated almost as early as rice, was the staple. Other millets and sorghums were grown. Wheat reached north China from the Near East by 2000 BCE and began to displace millet some two thousand years later with the coming of good flour-milling technology. After New World food crops reached China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, maize also gained at millet’s expense. Maize is now used largely for animal feed; millet has almost vanished. Rice has been bred to grow in shorter, cooler summers and has spread far north of its historic range. Thus today north China depends largely on wheat, with rice a strong second. Vegetables are less diverse and often were almost limited to Chinese cabbages and radishes among the poor until diversification campaigns began around 1980. The favored fruit was melons, especially watermelons and melons of the Persian (Iranian) type. Jujubes, apples, and pears were locally common. Lamb was as common as, or more common than, pork in the drier areas.

Grain in the north is much less apt to be simply boiled. Rice and millet are treated that way, but wheat is ground into flour and then made into noodles, bread, or dumplings. Baked loaves of the sort known in Europe did not exist in traditional times. Baked bread was of the Persian form: flat, often layered sheets, often sprinkled with sesame seeds, and baked in a large jar or much larger underground oven. Today bakers burn firewood, clear out the ash, and bake the bread (usually stuck to the walls) in the residual heat. Large breads baked on racks are typical in the northwest, but elsewhere the breads are small—miniaturized Persian flatbreads known as shaobing (roasted cakes). More common in most of the north are large unfilled dumplings, steamed instead of baked. These are the staple foods in some areas. They are known as mantou, a word formerly used for smaller filled dumplings and cognate (of the same or similar nature) with words for these latter items in neighboring languages (e.g., Korean, Turkic). Such smaller dumplings, with many kinds of fillings—most often chopped meat flavored with onions, garlic, ginger, and other usual flavors—are known as jiaozi and are universal snacks.

Sliced vegetables are stir-fried or steamed on their own or are stir-fried with small bits of meat with a great deal of chopped Chinese cabbage, onions, chives, or other common green foods. Vegetables also appear in soups and stews. Among the latter are many made in “sand pots.” These are clay pots with much sand in the clay, making the pot tougher and less prone to overheat and burn the food. They are ideal for cooking tough cuts of meat slowly and thoroughly. Sand-pot cooking is found all over Chinabut is most popular in the colder parts, where the stews are ideal for long, cold nights.

Within the north regional differences are conspicuous. The far northwest relies heavily on lamb, large baked breads, and onions. Shaanxi eats relatively straightforward, less-complex dishes. Beijing is, naturally, a center of major sophistication, with a huge range of local specialties. These include the famous Beijing duck, for which ducks used to be raised specially, with their feeding and care specified from hatching onward. A more recent, world-popular creation is Mongolian barbecue, which is neither Mongolian nor a barbecue but rather a Beijing creation that involves stir-frying meat on a grill with the usual flavorings. Further southeast Shandong has an ancient cuisine more influenced by its locally fertile soil and its long coastline; more fruits, vegetables, and seafood are available.

Southern Cuisines in General

From the Yangzi Valley southward rice is overwhelmingly dominant as the staple food. It provided 90 percent of calories in the far south until the last generation. It still provides about two-thirds of grain calories in China. Rice was domesticated in or near the Yangzi Valley; farmers have grown it there for at least ten thousand years. Maize and root crops are far behind. The south has a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. It is much wetter than the north, with many rivers and lakes, and it has a long coastline; thus, fish and other aquatic foods—ranging from frogs to jellyfish—have always been extremely important, providing most of the animal protein wherever people live near water. Elsewhere, animal protein is almost entirely pork, chicken, and duck.

Major ingredients are thus fairly standard across the south. Dividing up the two great regions according to actual cooking styles is more controversial. Some authorities recognize four regions by keeping the north as one but dividing the south into west, far south, and east. Others recognize five (the north split into northwest and northeast), others eight, and still others see all of China’s historic “eighteen provinces” as having unique cuisines. The conservative position is taken here: Four are recognized, with some major subdivisions noted.

The West

Classic west Chinese cuisine apparently developed largely in Hunan and spread through Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gueizhou. This is famous as China’s truly spicy cuisine. In ancient times hotness came from herbs such as smartweed (Polygonum spp.), white and other peppers, and Chinese brown “pepper,” actually the small fruits of a citrus relative (Zanthoxylum spp., used quite widely in China and Southeast Asia but primarily in west China). With the coming of New World food crops, chilis appeared and were soon recognized as the ultimate in la (piquancy, “hot” spiciness). Sichuan and Hunan food hastoned down in recent years, but formerly some Sichuan dishes contained more chilis than meat, and sometimes almost half the dish was chilis. A range of extremely hot seasoning pastes, made with chilis, fermented beans, and flour, adds yet more to the diet. More common here than elsewhere in China is “aged peel,” which is dried tangerine peel that imparts a powerful citrus perfume to the food; it is considered to have important medicinal value.

Hunan and Sichuan are far inland, with access to river fish but not much seafood, so they tend to focus more on meat, bean curd, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and forest products. Sichuan is mountainous and draws heavily on montane (relating to the biogeographic zone of relatively moist cool upland slopes below timberline dominated by large coniferous trees) mushrooms and greens. Yunnan has a simpler cuisine with heavy use of beans and noodles. Yunnan hams are famous throughout China; they are similar to salt-cured mountain hams from elsewhere in the world (Virginia, Spain, Switzerland).

The Far South

China’s far southeast consists of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Guangdong Province; Guangdong’s capital, Guangzhou, is the center of China’s most complex and elaborate Cuisine, the Cantonese. There is a Chinese proverb that Cantonese “eat everything with legs except a table, everything that swims except a submarine, and everything that flies except an airplane.” This is exaggerated, but hundreds of species are common in markets, and a small neighborhood restaurant is likely to have over four hundred dishes on the menu. Summary is impossible, but some distinctive flavors give coherence to the cuisine. Foremost of these are fermented soybeans that turn black in the fermentation process; they have a unique, meaty flavor especially valued with strongly flavored meats and fish. Fast cooking at high heat is particularly common in the south. Sweet and sour flavors are often combined (but “sweet-sour pork” is generally a sad travesty of true Cantonese sweet-sour dishes). Cantonese food depends on extreme freshness and quality of ingredients. Fish are kept alive—ideally in clean water—until needed. Chickens and pigeons get special feed and care. Vegetables are picked when young and tender, not when full-grown and woody.

The urban cooking of Guangzhou is sophisticated and innovative. Simpler but highly quality-conscious and distinctive variants of southern cuisine flourish in Guangxi Province and in isolated parts of Guangdong, such as the Taishan area.

Cantonese have always tended to migrate from China to find a living elsewhere, and thus Cantonese food has spread worldwide. Simple rural forms of it are ancestral to the “Chinese food” familiar from Peru to England and from Italy to Canada. It has not always traveled well, and naive audiences can be subjected to dishes in which Cantonese ideals of freshness and quality are lost and cheaper ingredients are vastly increased relative to expensive ones. However, many gourmet restaurants in major cities around the world now provide Cantonese and other Chinese foods equivalent to those in the homeland.

The East

Eastern Chinese cuisine centers on the lower Yangzi River, from Anhui to the sea. This cuisine is now associated with Shanghai, but that city is a recent one, its site reclaimed in the last few centuries. The great old cities of the Yangzi delta—especially Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Yangzhou—were the crucibles of eastern cuisine. Coming from what has usually been China’s richest region, it uses more oil, more sugar, more exotic ingredients, more chickens and eggs, more fruit, and more of the truly expensive vegetables such as tender pea sprouts. More affluence means more fuel, so slow-cooked dishes (sand-pot casseroles, red-cooked stews) are common. Coming from a water world, it uses fish, frogs, crabs, clams, and other aquatic foods. It is also notably soupy. Its southern extension into Fujian Province is especially so; a Fujian twelve-course dinner will include two or three soups and one or two stews, and often the dessert is a soup also—sweetened creamed taro or sweet potatoes. At the Fujian-Guangdong border eastern cuisine meets Cantonese, producing a fusion cuisine among the Teochiu (Chiuchow) people. Many of the resulting dishes are famous, including whole roast goose with vinegar, fish balls with malt sauce, and eel dishes.

Minority Cuisines

China’s minority peoples have distinctive cuisines of their own. Most of those in south and southeast China now eat more or less as their Cantonese and Mandarin neighbors do, although some exotic items such as water bugs may persist. In Yunnan, China’s most diverse province with over thirty minority peoples, specialties range from maize and chilis to the “boneless pig,” a method of storing lard—the meat and bones are carefully removed, the lard salted, and the hide sewed back up. The lard cures in the high mountain air. Some Yi peoples of Yunnan and Sichuan lived until recently on maize and buckwheat; one group, the Nuosu, were famous for their large buckwheat cakes. Rice is now available and more popular.

Tibetan food traditionally was based on roasted barley ground to flour (tsamba) and often beaten up in tea with yak butter. More elaborate foods, including pork, vegetables, and dumplings similar to jiaozi, have tended to replace this diet recently.

More distinctive, with links westward, is the cuisine of China’s far west, the huge province of Xinjiang. Until recently most of the population spoke Turkic languages and ate foods typical of central Asia and the Iranian world. Rice was often cooked as pilaf—stir-fried before boiling, purely a west Asian style. (Chinese fried rice is boiled, dried, and then stir-fried.) Bread is similar to Persian bread and is often a staple. Lamb or mutton is the major meat. Fruit, including apricots, melons, and grapes, is much more important than it is eastward; pilafs often include apricots or raisins. Spicing is sparse or may be influenced by west Asian cuisine (coriander, cumin, cinnamon); absent are the distinctive Chinese flavorings such as soy sauce, brown pepper, and Chinese “wine.” Noodledishes and dumplings, similar in appearance to Chinese counterparts, thus taste very different.

Mongolia borders China on the northwest, and Inner Mongolia is Chinese territory. Mongol peoples have become a minority here; 90 percent of the population is now Han Chinese. However, Mongol food survives in remote areas. It is based on small amounts of grain with a great deal of dairy products, usually fermented or made into cheeses. Fermented mare’s milk (kumiss) is popular. (Other milks do not have enough sugar to ferment, unless sugar is added, which was impractical in the old days when sugar was expensive and hard to get.) Mutton is the usual meat. Until recently wild products—game, wild greens, mushrooms, roots—were important, but these are now depleted.

Recent Changes

Chinese food has changed rapidly with the coming of affluence. Change began in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1950s and in mainland China in the 1970s and 1980s. East Asia’s economic “miracle” brought meat, tea, wine, sugar, and even more exotic items such as game and rare fungi into almost everyone’s reach. This released a great deal of consumption, partly because of years of “deferred gratification,” partly because food is crucially important in every aspect of social life from festivals and reunions to marriages and business deals.

Also, foods have come from around the world, and Mexican cactus fruit, European asparagus, and South American muscovy ducks are as familiar and localized as native Chinese delicacies. Chinese diners are adopting—and adapting—yogurt, hamburgers, and pizza.

Today the Chinese diet is more varied and vitamin-rich but disturbingly high in fat, refined sugar, highly milled grain products, and—for many—alcohol. This trend has had a predictably negative effect on health; deficiency diseases have been replaced by diabetes and heart disease. The future will probably bring balance. The still-inadequate diets of the rural poor will improve, while the affluent will modify their tastes in the direction of simpler, lower-calorie, higher-quality food.

Further Reading

Anderson, E. N. (1988). The food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hu Shiu-ying. (2005). Food plants of China. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Huang Hsing-Tsung. (2000). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 6. Biology and biological technology. Part V. Fermentations and food science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mallory, W. (1926). China, land of famine. New York: American Geographic Society.

Mones, N. (2007). The last Chinese chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Newman, J. (2004). Food culture in China. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Simoons, F. J. (1991). Food in China: A cultural and historical inquiry. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Source: Anderson, E. N. (2009). Cuisines. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 529-535. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dumplings, a favorite Chinese food and a specialty of southern China, are being steamed in a stack of bamboo containers over a fire in a metal brazier. Dumplings are made of wheat or rice flour skins stuffed with meat, vegetables, and sweets. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A Chinese proverb reflects the diversity of Cantonese cuisine, which caters to those willing to eat “everything with legs except a table, everything that swims except a submarine, and everything that flies except an airplane.” Before cooking, these fish were kept alive in clean water. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A chef prepares food. Cooking foods quickly at high heat became common practice in China because fuel was always scarce and expensive; stove design and cooking techniques allowed a family to cook a full three-course meal on a handful of dry grass. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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