China’s Many Cuisines

At China Cooks, we take a pragmatic approach to understanding Chinese cuisines based on the major culinary divisions that one is likely to encounter on a trip to China. Our list of regional cuisine tags is aimed at helping newcomers to Chinese food navigate the customary designations. These tags include border regions, the Chinese diaspora, and the special cuisines of groups such as Buddhists. Rather than taking a stand on what, precisely, “Chinese cuisine” ought to mean, let’s explore what it could possibly include.

The following list is a provisional roadmap, a guide for those who want to explore one of the richest culinary regions on our planet. It identifies synonyms to facilitate clarity, and uses an asterisk to draw attention to those cuisines that are most commonly named on Chinese food websites and restaurants. We cluster cuisines by culinary affinity, for our readers’ convenience, recognizing that all such groupings are tentative.

If we understand a “cuisine” to be a self-conscious––i.e., named––body of culinary practices, then China is home to not one, but to many cuisines. How many? This is hard to say, because Chinese cuisines can be grouped in different ways.

First, there is the division between cuisines of North China (běifāng cài 北方菜) and cuisines of South China (nánfāng cài 南方菜), which roughly corresponds with wheat-eating areas in the north, and rice-eating areas to the south, but this is only a crude contrast that does little to explain actual food practices.

The variety of cuisines in China is slightly better understood by looking at well-celebrated culinary traditions, such as the Four Great Cuisines (  cài  四大菜系). This list includes Lu Cuisine, representing northeastern China, Huaiyang (Yangzhou) Cuisine, representing the lower reaches of the Yangzi River, Chuan (Sichuan) Cuisine, representing the middle and upper regions of the Yangzi River, and Yue Cuisine, representing the area around the Pearl River Delta.

This four-part division still lacks much of the nuance needed to understand Chinese cuisines, leading others to propose lists of Eight Great Cuisines, or Ten Great Cuisines, adding other regional cuisines to the original four. These other lists are not consistently represented, however. There is considerable disagreement over where to draw boundaries and on what does or does not count as a “Chinese cuisine.”

To name a cuisine in Chinese, one generally combines a regional toponym with the suffix –cài 菜, meaning the prepared food of such-and-such region. China’s complex geography lends itself to the recognition of many such cuisines, and cuisines based on something other than a place name are also possible. A list of cuisines longer than four is certainly best, but cross-regional similarities of ingredients and methods suggest some limits to what should be considered an independent cuisine. Carolyn Phillips, in her cookbook All Under Heaven, identifies thirty-five cuisines, which she clusters into five culinary regions. Listen to her discuss her reasoning here, in a podcast on this site.

Enumerating 30-50 cuisines, give or take some, is probably about right for capturing the main divisions of food found in and around China, but how to identify the larger groupings remains a problem. You can read about one statistical attempt using online recipe collections here. Other suggestions include that of Zhao Rongguang, a famous scholar of China’s food history, who proposed adopting the notion of a cultural sphere to divide the culinary landscape. His system for China has twelve culinary spheres that overlap in places, better accounting for the fuzzy boundaries between traditions that one encounters in travel. Such a scholarly approach has advantages, and we have referred to Professor Zhao’s system when clustering our own list, below. Nonetheless, because his approach does not reflect popular use we have not adopted it outright. The complexity of Chinese cuisines will continue to stimulate debate, surely, for years to come.

Regional cuisines

* cài  鲁菜 = Shāndōng cài 山东菜 = Shandong

Jīng Jīn cài  京津菜 = Beijing and Tianjin

*Jīng cài  京菜 = Běijīng cài 北京菜 = Beijing

Tiānjīn cài  天津菜 = Tianjin

Hébéi cài 河北菜 = Hebei

*Jìn cài 晋菜 = Shānxī cài  山西菜 = Shanxi

*Dōngběi cài  东北菜 = Northeast/Manchuria

Liáoníng cài 辽宁菜 = Liaoning

Jílín cài 吉林菜 = Jilin

Hēilóngjiāng cài 黑龙江菜 = Heilongjiang

* cài  苏菜 = Jiāngsū cài 江苏菜 = Jiangsu

*Huáiyáng cài  淮扬菜 = Yangzhou and Huai River Basin

* cài  沪菜 = Shànghǎi cài 上海菜 = Shanghai

*Zhè cài  浙菜 = Zhèjiāng cài  浙江菜 =Zhejiang

Hángbāng cài 杭帮菜 = Hangzhou

*Huī cài  徽菜 = Ānhuī cài  徽菜 = Anhui

*Gàn cài 赣菜 = Jiāngxī cài  江西菜 = Jiangxi

* cài  豫菜 = Hénán cài 河南菜 = Henan

*È cài 鄂菜 = Húběi cài  湖北菜 = Hubei

*Yuè cài  粤菜 = Guǎngdōng cài 广东菜 = Canton

*Xiānggǎng měishí 香港美食 = Hong Kong

*Àomén měishí 厦门美食 = Macau

*Mǐn cài  闽菜 = Fújiàn cài  福建菜 = Fujian

*Kèjiā cài 客家菜 = Hakka

*Táiwān měishí  台湾美食 = Taiwan

Guì cài 桂菜 = Guǎngxī cài 广西菜 = Guangxi

*Xiāng cài  湘菜 = Húnán cài 湖南菜 = Hunan

*Yúnguì cài  云贵菜 = Guizhou, Yunnan

Diān cài 滇菜 = Yúnnán cài  云南菜 = Yunnan

Qián cài 黔菜 = Guìzhoū cài  贵州菜 = Guizhou

*Chuān cài  川菜 = Sìchuān cài 四川菜 = Sichuan (Szechuan/Szechwan) and Chongqing

*Xīběi cài  西北菜 = Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia

Qín cài 秦菜 = Shǎnxī cài 陕西菜 = Shaanxi

*Xīnjiāng cài 新疆菜 = Xinjiang

Zàng cài 藏菜 = Xīzàng cài 西藏菜 = Tibet

Měnggǔ cài 蒙古菜 = Mongolian (Inner Mongolia)

Inter-regional cuisines

*Qīngzhēn cài  清真菜 = Xinjiang/Hui/Halal

Gōngtíng cài 宫廷菜 = imperial palace

*Jiācháng cài 家常菜 = homestyle

* cài 素菜 = Buddhist and Daoist vegetarian

Sìyuàn cài 寺院菜 = temple food

Chuán cài 船菜 = food on boats and ferries

Shūshí 蔬食 = vegetarian or plant-based

Fusion Chinese (zhōngshì xīcān 中式西餐, měishì zhōngcān 美式中餐, Xīnjiāpō zhōngcān 新加坡中餐, etc.)

Cuisines of the private compounds of officials (Guānfǔ cài 官府菜)

Kǒngfǔ cài 孔府菜 = Kong Family Mansion, Qufu, Shandong

Dōngpō cài 东坡菜 = Su Shi

Yúnlín cài 云林菜 = Ni Zan

Lìjiā cài 厉家菜 = Li Family

Méijiā cài 梅家菜 = Mei Family

Tánjiā cài 谭家菜 = Tan Family

Hónglóu cài 红楼菜 = cuisine from the novel, Dream of the Red Chamber

Suíyuán cài 随园菜 = Yuan Mei