Variations on Chinese Cuisine
Have you ever been curious about the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese cuisines? Where did orange chicken and Peking duck originate? How do Sichuan (Szechuan) dishes compare to against Hunanese or Shanghainese? After a while, these regional styles sound like a hodgepodge of chop suey ñ which, by the way, was invented in America, as was the revered fortune cookie. Many Chinese restaurants offer a number of regional cuisines on the same menu, so it is not that easy to distinguish the difference when all dishes are equally delicious. Here is a quick primer on the most prevalent Chinese cuisines found in America.
Cantonese cuisine originated from the areas of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong in southern China. Canton is an old port city that today is referred to as Guangzhou. Dim sum meaning touch the heart, the Chinese meal of small tidbits of food presented on roving carts, began in this region. Freshness is supreme to the Cantonese. Live fish and seafood are held in tanks just before being dispatched immediately for cooking. Cantonese sauces are mild and subtle so as to not overpower the freshness of the ingredients. Popular Cantonese dishes include steamed whole fish, crispy-skinned chicken, shark's fin soup, and roast suckling pig.
Mandarin cuisine is the food of the northern imperial courts of old Peking, known today as Beijing. In this region, wheat instead of rice is widely used, as is a pale leafy cabbage, known as Napa cabbage in America. The crepe like wraparound mu-shu pork and crispy Peking duck accompanied with steamed buns originated in this area. Mandarin cuisine, an elaborate style arising from the imperial days, is often intricately decorated with vegetables carved into flowers, animals, and designs. In another northern dish, Mongolian hot pot, diners cook their own meats and vegetables in a large boiling pot of flavorful broth at the table. Other popular Mandarin foods are pan-fried pot stickers, garlic and scallion Mongolian beef, and beggar's chicken.
The Shanghainese have mastered the arts of braising and stewing so full-bodied flavors commingle on the tongue. Generally considered the cuisine of China is southeastern region of Zhejiang Province, the sauces tend to be rich due to slow cooking techniques and reduction of sauces. The area is also known for preserving food by pickling vegetables and curing meats. Noodle products are heartier as in Shanghai noodles. The region is sherry-colored wine, Shao Xing, is exported worldwide and is an important ingredient in many dishes. Popular regional dishes are cold appetizer dishes such as drunken shrimp, and wine chicken, stewed "lion's head" meatballs, sea cucumber with shrimp roe, and pickled greens with pork.
Chili peppers and red peppercorns are used in Sichuan (Szechuan in Cantonese) cooking to stimulate the taste buds and counter the bitter cold of winter. Sichuan dishes are considered spicy, although the heat is not immediate, it can creep up on you. Through pickling and salt-curing, the vegetables and meats of this region are preserved to last through the harsh winter. The combined flavors of vinegar with sweetly fried food originated in this central western region. Well known Sichuan dishes are Szechuan beef, stir-fried green beans, cold noodles with peanut sauce, and spicy stir-fried Ma-Po tofu. Go to Szechuan Style Cuisine to read more.
The food from Hunan is hot, hot, hot. It's often difficult to distinguish Hunan from Sichuan cuisine, as many Chinese restaurants in North America tend to serve both regional styles side-by-side. The cuisines dovetail nicely as the two provinces also are neighbors in Chinaís heartland. The Hunanese use preserved basics such as hearty oils, garlic, and chili-based sauces. The stir-fried meats are often seared prior to stir-frying, creating sauces and dishes that exude comfort. Popular dishes from Hunan are orange beef or chicken, spicy eggplant in garlic sauce, and hot crispy fish. Chinese Hunan Cuisine