Illustrations by Adam Waito.

Dividing and Conquering the Cuisines of China

The lasting myth of China's "eight great cuisines" makes little sense when attempting to understand the country's enormous array of food traditions.

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Apr 27 2017, 2:34pm

Illustrations by Adam Waito.

Most Chinese epicures will assure you their country has eight great cuisines. At first glance, this way of delineating China's culinary cartography does seem to simplify an incredibly complex food culture. This concept is so ingrained in popular Chinese thought that few consider why only Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Sichuan, and Hunan might measure up as the sole members of this elite club. Fewer still wrestle with whether these are the only provinces with bona fide grand culinary traditions, whether this notion has any factual basis, what it means both culturally and gastronomically to be excluded, who is left out in the cold and why, and what the rest of the country is enjoying for dinner.

To give these questions a bit of perspective, China has around 5,000 more years of history and an extra billion people when compared to the United States—it's enormous in every sense of the word. Moreover, it encompasses a wide variety of climates and almost every sort of geography possible—from endless deserts to deep jungles to frozen mountain ranges—and all of this is divided among 23 provinces, four municipalities, five autonomous regions, and two special administrative regions. The ethnic Han Chinese make up 92 percent of the population, and so they're responsible for most of their country's cultural identity and flavors, but China's foods have also been indelibly colored by a wide assortment of cultures and peoples.

So, does dividing China's food traditions into eight great cuisines make any sense at all?

After spending close to a decade dedicated to trying to comprehend the many components of this country's enigmatic gastronomy, I've found that this concept is, simply, nothing less than arbitrary. Even setting aside the culinary contributions of China's other ethnic groups and discounting the impact of such powerful forces as the dining habits of its rich and famous, its vibrant local street foods, its many religions, and a fascinating mixed bag of external influences, justifying the "eight great" way of thinking remains genuinely problematic, for it leaves out way more than it embraces.

The West tends to think of China as a mysterious place that is more or less monochromatic in terms of culture, language, and even food. But in some ways China is much like Europe, for they are almost the same size and contain a wide variety of cultures.

To a certain extent, yes, the "eight great" do represent some major Han Chinese gastronomic centers during the first half of the 20th century, for each of these provinces is home to a unique school (or three) of haute cuisine. But even if we take this into account, north and south China still end up getting short shrift, with only one representative each in the form of Shandong and Guangdong, respectively. The chili-loving provinces of Hunan and Sichuan embody China's center, while the rest all belong more or less to eastern China. That leaves more than three-quarters of the country unaccounted for.

Perhaps even more important, the "eight great" categorization is not in the least helpful. If, for instance, Beijing's foods are said to be covered by Shandong's mantle, what does that really mean? Was Shandong the sole or even the most important influence on the capital's way of dining? What about the imperial kitchens, the Muslims, the Manchurians, the Mongols, and the Silk Road traders? How about all those wars and migrations and foreign powers and revolutions? Did any of these come into play?

Of course they did. Beijing's foods are in many ways a crystallization of this capital's long history, its rich tapestry of immigrants and travelers, its place at the center of East Asian culture, and its role as the vortex into which ambitious chefs have been inexorably drawn. Beijing's cuisine is like no other. It certainly is connected to Shandong and many other northern foodways simply because they all share so many ingredients and lifestyles and ethnicities, as well as weather and geography. But the fact remains: Although they are both part of northern China, Shandong does not equal Beijing, nor does Beijing equal Shandong. Moreover, every other part of China can lay similar claim to a unique lineage, singular history, different set of influences and customs, and distinctive cuisine.

Historically, China has been much more practical in its approach toward categorizing its foods and cultures and people, for it merely divided them into north and south, using the Yangtze River as a general demarcation line. The earliest attempt to define each area's ingredients in the broadest way was made around 1,700 years ago, when Zhang Hua wrote: "The people of the southeast eat aquatic creatures, but in the northwest they eat land animals." And then, Shen Kuo noted about seven centuries later that "most southerners like the savory and northerners like the sweet." This theme continued with little variation until fairly recently. For example, it was only 200 years ago that Qian Yong noted: "Northerners enjoy that which is heavy and flavorful, while southerners want the fresh and light; northerners have lavish servings and greatly prefer numerous dishes, while southerners show skill at plating and greatly prize freshness in their fruits and ingredients." And so, far from being an authoritative take on China's food traditions, the concept of the "eight great cuisines" didn't even exist until a few decades ago. Nevertheless, this way of categorizing the nation's culinary styles is mysteriously accepted as gospel now, even though no one has been able to pinpoint when these groupings came about, who thought them up, or even why they were created.

It should be mentioned that China has one other popular way of viewing its foods, which is through the lens of the "four great cuisines." These probably predate the eight by no more than a few decades at the most. And yet, even these four lay claim to little more than vague beginnings—their earliest mention is found in a literary sketchbook from the early 1900s, with Shandong, the Jiangsu city of Suzhou, Guangdong, and Sichuan representing the cardinal points of the compass. This description is much more general than that of the eight. But then again, Xu Ke's relatively obscure book merely lumped all of the north together, mentioned the foods of the south and the east, chatted a bit about the spicy tendencies found in Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, and Sichuan, and talked in passing about the foods of Hubei and Fujian.

No monolithic Chinese cuisine exists. Instead, the country has given rise to a scintillating spectrum of unique gastronomies that reflect the local culture, history, climate, ingredients, and terrain.

Following that initial foray, no one managed to come up with a viable reason why Shandong, Suzhou, Guangdong, and Sichuan are so important to the exclusion of all others. The great Sichuanese chef Chen Kenmin (and father of Iron Chef's Chen Kenichi) offered four more wide-ranging categories back in 1980 when he suggested that the lands above the Yellow River are host to the northern cuisines as represented by Beijing, the upper reaches of the Yangtze are home to Sichuan and the western cuisines, the eastern cuisines encompass Shanghai and the lower reaches of the Yangtze, and the southern school centers around Guangdong and the Pearl River's environs. But even he qualified this by noting, "when it comes to defining China's cuisines, each province and each metropolis has its own unique style of cooking."

I was in the middle of writing a comprehensive Chinese cookbook called All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China when it struck me that a new approach was in order. Over the preceding decades—and ever since I officially became an adult, for that matter—I had done little but eat and cook from China's enormous array of food traditions, and as a result, too many delicious hints as to the true nature of these interlocking puzzle parts were popping up for me to ignore.

For example, the preference for salt or soy sauce or some sort of fermented paste defined certain areas. A predilection for pork or chicken or lamb or fish or bean curd suggested specific landscapes and ethnicities. Rice fed the humid south, but to its north an assortment of hearty grains led by wheat and corn kept cold winters at bay. Vegan Mahayana Buddhists dwelling along the Yangtze gave rise to a brilliant meatless cuisine. Muslims changed the way the northern and western areas ate with their inventive pastas and breads. The esoteric Buddhists of Mongolia and Tibet somehow bridged their unique food traditions over the Muslim Uyghur expanse of Xinjiang. Chili peppers from the Americas bathed the central mountain ranges with their pungent heat, and the ancient food traditions of the Hakka people echoed the cooking techniques of the northern plains while seasoning the dishes of the coastal southeast.

Illustrations by Adam Waito.

Using clues like these to point the way, I mapped out all of China—including its vast and universally unsung western half—according to the main ingredients, climates, terrains, ethnic groups, religions, historical migratory patterns, and dialects. These food traditions then sifted down quite accommodatingly into five main culinary regions.

The West tends to think of China as a mysterious place that is more or less monochromatic in terms of culture, language, and even food. But in some ways China is much like Europe, for they are almost the same size and contain a wide variety of cultures. And we have to remember that when it comes to dining, the lion's share of Europe's culinary traditions fits into broad families centered in specific areas, and each of these is home to common ingredients and ethnicities, like the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and so forth. From there, it's broken down further into distinctive food cultures such as French, and then into something more specific, such as Provençal or Lyonnais or Parisian.

And so, just as there really is no overarching European cuisine, no monolithic Chinese cuisine exists, either. Instead, the country has given rise to a scintillating spectrum of unique gastronomies that reflect the local culture, history, climate, ingredients, and terrain.

China's earliest inhabitants probably lived somewhere between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, but thousands of years ago the Han Chinese began setting out in search of new homes, spurred on by the familiar prods of overpopulation, war, famine, and unrest.

The majority, of course, settled in the fertile and temperate lands of the coast and the southeast, although many others traveled inland along its long river valleys, out along the Silk Roads to the west, and north into Mongolia and Manchuria. They intermingled with the indigenous occupants of tropical highlands and ice-covered steppes, were conquered by nomadic tribes who installed their own rulers on the Dragon Throne, and over time merged together into a country with a host of culinary influences. In short, the more I played with the moving parts, the more these five culinary regions shifted into sharp focus. Once that happened, one could even perceive the crisscrossing tendrils that accounted for 35 distinct cuisines in China.

The North and Northeast

Shandong, Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei, as well as Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang in the northeast.

Nowhere does Han Chinese cooking combine so well with Hui Muslim, Mongolian, Manchurian, and even Slavic food traditions. This is where one finds such dishes as Russian soup made with oxtails and carrots, Tianjin's juicy pot stickers that sub-in the Chinese love for pork instead of the traditional halal beef, and consort's chicken wings seasoned with an improbable dash of red wine.

Vast deserts cover most of the northern half of China, with little more than the Great Wall serving to shield ancestral Han lands near the Yellow River, though it often proved ineffectual against the foreign tribes that swept down into the area with conquest on their minds. Some of these people liked what they saw and decided to set down roots, eventually becoming part of the Chinese family and bringing with them an unequivocal preference for lamb, beef, noodles, and bread. The other great external influences on this area's local foods were the spices and ingredients that traders introduced from the Levant and Central Asia, which is why cinnamon and fennel, as well as cucumbers and eggplant, are used here.

The Yangtze River Environs

The Huai Yang area, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Northern Fujian join together as its main branch, with the more inland provinces of Anhui, Henan, Hubei, and Jiangxi forming a sub-region.

If China's food culture were to have an epicenter, it would no doubt be located somewhere near the gastronomically sophisticated lower reaches of the Yangtze River, for inspiration from all over the country can be found here, from the most ancient cooking techniques of Henan and Shandong to the cutting-edge dishes of cosmopolitan Shanghai.

This is a place where the flaky crab shell pastries of upcountry Anhui find a welcome second home at the mouth of the Delta, gluten and bean curd reward Buddhist vegetarians with ingeniously meaty yet meat-free dishes, and Daokou poached chicken seasoned with a variety of gentle spices has entranced generations of devotees across a swath of provinces. The Yangtze is deep enough for seagoing vessels to sail a thousand miles upriver and, as a result, communities along this broad waterway have long been able to trade and interact. This is reflected in the shared interests of their cuisines: a pronounced love for freshwater fish and crustaceans, tender bamboo shoots, mild vinegars, rice wines, and excellent soy sauce.

The Coastal Southeast

The Hakka areas, Chaozhou, Southern Fujian, Taiwan, Taiwan's military families, and Hainan form the hearty northern half, while Guangdong and Southern Guangxi, the Pearl River Delta, Macau, and Hong Kong make up its more delicately flavored branch.

Refined seasonings hold sway in these warmer and wetter lands. Shaped by the enormous Pearl River, the ethereally light dishes of Guangdong's capital of Guangzhou, such as its deceptively simple steamed fish and poached chicken creations, trickled downstream throughout the Pearl River Delta to Hong Kong and Macau. But up in the area's craggy hills and along the rough coastlines that line the South China Sea, a more down-home style of cooking is shared by three major cuisines: Hakka, Chaozhou, and Southern Fujian. These are places where a dedicated love for the ancient cooking styles of the North China Plain combines with salty and fermented ingredients in hearty dishes like braised stuffed bean curd and Hakka "tamales" (zongzi); this common culinary heritage has in turn served as the main template for the foods on the islands of Taiwan and Hainan.

The Central Highlands

Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Northern Guangxi.

Chili peppers made their way from the Americas to China only a couple of hundred years ago, but in the Central Highlands they completely altered the way people eat. No matter whether they're raw, cooked, dried, pulverized, fermented in sauces, pickled in vinegar, or turned into crimson oils, the heat of chilies unifies the cuisines of this region. Dandan noodles and mapo doufu are just two of many amped up local dishes. Classic Han aesthetics run rampant in milder dishes, though, like Hunan's honey ham or the smoky camphor duck of Sichuan.

However, the flavorful aromatics of its many ethnic minorities—as in the Dai people's lemongrass chicken and Yunnan's cod with crispy bean sauce—are what set the food cultures of the Central Highlands completely apart from those of the rest of the country. Winding paths between the mountainous jungles along the southern edge of China allowed these indigenous people informal access into Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, introducing Southeast Asia's tropical seasonings into the local dishes.

The Arid Lands

Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu, the Northwest (namely Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Ningxia), Inner Mongolia, and Tibet.

Starting in the first millennium before Christ, the almost inconceivably rich and vibrant power of five dynasties—the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang—radiated out from Shaanxi Province and lured in the finest cooks and ingredients. Situated on the edge of the empire, almost half of China's landmass stretches out to the west of the imperial capital that is now Xi'an and is fed with dairy, meat, and wheat. Local ingredients like fresh lily bulbs and wolfberries (also known as goji berries) impart novel flavors and textures to the dishes of these desert domains.

Covered by the dry, sparsely populated expanses that stretch between the vast prairies of Mongolia, the shimmering sand dunes of Xinjiang, and the eternally frozen Himalayas, the Arid Lands are where salt usually supplants fermented sauces, fresh ingredients are favored over preserved foods, Indian spices spark the dishes of Tibet, and Han culinary traditions blend with the food cultures of Hui Muslims, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs in such dishes as cumin-scented lamb kebabs and pilaf, lotus patties perfumed with roses, and the vinegar-napped omelets called Buddha's hand rolls.

No matter how they're viewed, China's food traditions are far too complex to ever fit into eight or even four very limited categories. It's therefore high time that each place received the individual attention it deserves.

Even so, a lifetime will most likely never be enough to truly appreciate them and dine on all that they have to offer. No reason to stop trying, though.


Carolyn Phillips is a James Beard Award-nominated food writer, scholar, and artist. Her two fully illustrated books, All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney's + Ten Speed) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed), were published in August 2016, and Heaven has made most of the "best cookbooks of 2016" lists. Her weekly blog is "Madame Huang's Kitchen" (MadameHuang.com), and she tweets as @madamehuang, but Instagrams as @therealmadamehuang.