How many Chinese cuisines are there? The most influential and typical known by the public are the “8 Chinese Cuisines”. Actually Chinese cuisine has more than 8 genres. China is large and the climate, ingredients, history and dining customs vary from place to place, leading to the differences in cooking methods and dish flavors and forming the different cuisines.
As early as the Shang Dynasty (17th century BC - 1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC), China’s dietary culture has taken shape. In the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD) and Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 AD) , the northern and southern food already had their own characteristics: generally sweet in south and salty in north. By the early Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 AD), four most influential cuisines prevailed. What are the four main styles of Chinese cuisine at that time? They are cuisines of Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong and Jiangsu respectively. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, the four new cuisines - Zhejiang cuisine, Fujian cuisine, Hunan cuisine, and Anhui cuisine appeared; together with former four cuisines, they were listed as “8 Chinese Cuisines”.
Today, the hot and spicy Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are the most popular in China; the Cantonese cuisine with light taste and delicate cooking methods is not only sought after in China, but also popular around the world.
1. Sichuan Cuisine / Szechuan Cuisine / Chuan Cuisine
Chinese: 川菜 chuān cài
Popular in: China’s Sichuan Province, Chongqing
Features: hot and spicy, mouth-numbing; using a lot of pepper, chili, garlic, and Pixian bean chili paste.
Originated in Southwest China, Sichuan cuisine is the most popular cuisine in China. Sichuan dishes are famous with its spicy, pungent and hot flavor and red color. Sichuan chefs prefer seasonings like various pepper and chili, garlic and broad bean paste which is the soul of Sichuan dishes. Hot Pot is the most popular Sichuan dish in China and is the first choice when dining together with friends.
Notable Sichuan Dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Ma Po Tofu, Dandan Noodles, Fish-Flavored Shredded Pork, Sliced Pork in Hot Chili Oil, Sliced Beef and Ox Organs in Chili Sauce
2. Cantonese Cuisine / Guangdong Cuisine / Yue Cuisine
Chinese: 粤菜 yuè cài
Popular in: China’s Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau
Features: mild, fresh and natural taste; widely use of materials and rich cooking methods
Cantonese cuisine is welcomed by people around the world and is the representative Chinese cuisine. The cooking methods of Cantonese dishes are always complex, flexible, exquisite, and creative. Most Cantonese dishes taste mild and fresh, preserving the natural taste of food materials. The food materials are extremely rich which include poultries, birds, sea food, land animals and various vegetables and fruits.
Notable Cantonese Dishes: Ah Yat Abalone, White Cut Chicken, Cantonese Roasted Goose, Roasted Suckling Pig, Char Siu (Chinese BBQ Pork), Poached Lobster in Soup, Slow-cooked Soup, Beef Chow Fun (Beef Ho Fun)
3 Major Styles in Cantonese Cuisine: Guangzhou Cuisine, Teochew Cuisine (Chaoshan Cuisine), Hakka Cuisine(Dongjiang Cuisine)
3. Hunan Cuisine / Xiang Cuisine
Chinese: 湘菜 xiāng cài
Popular in: China’s Hunan Province
Features: spicy, hot, salty; preference for chili & fermented soya beans; dark dish color
Originated in Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 - 256 BC), Hunan cuisine, also Xiang cuisine, is another cuisine popular throughout China with the spicy taste. Hunan dishes are even hotter and spicier than Sichuan cuisine since they have even more dried or fresh chili in dishes. Hunan people also invent sour and spicy taste and numb and spicy taste, and they like pickled and preserved vegetables and meats very much.
Notable Hunan Dishes: Steamed Fish Head with Chopped Chili, Steamed Preserved Meat, Chairman Mao’s Red Braised Pork, Fried Pork with Chili, Tasty Lobster, Changsha Stinky Tofu, Hunan Rice Noodles, Spicy Salted Duck
4. Shandong Cuisine / Lu Cuisine
Chinese: 鲁菜 lǔ cài
Popular in: China’s Shandong Province and Southern Liaoning Province
Features: umami, salty, sweet and sour flavors; using much soup, scallion, ginger and garlic; good at cooking sea food
Originated in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC), Lu cuisine is the only self-originated cuisine among 8 Chinese cuisines which has the longest history of 2,500 years, hence seen as the No. 1 of 8 great cuisines of China. Shandong dishes pay much attention to the quality and natural taste of food. Soup and scallion are key seasonings and sea food plays a crucial role in Shandong cuisine. Most Shandong dishes taste fresh, umami and moderately salty.
Notable Shandong Dishes: Sweet and Sour Carp, Braised Sea Cucumber with Scallion, Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce, Braised Prawns in Oil, Steamed Stuffed Tofu, Dezhou Braised Chicken, Caramel Sweet Potato, Omelet Chicken Slices, Four Joy Meatballs…
5. Jiangsu Cuisine / Su Cuisine
Chinese: 江苏菜, 苏菜, sū cài
Popular in: China’s Jiangsu Province
Features: umami, mild, slightly sweet, and natural; exquisite cuttings and precise control of heat; delicate dish appearance
Jiangsu cuisine, the representative of South China food, is famous for its delicate appearance and lightly sweet, umami, natural and mild taste. Jiangsu dishes preserve much original flavor of food materials. The main food materials are mainly freshwater fishes, river fish and sea food. The cutting is extremely exquisite and changeful and the control of heat is precise. The dishes are always served delicately.
Notable Jiangsu Dishes: Nanjing Salted Duck, Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish, Braised Meat Balls in Brown Sauce, Stewed Tortoise and Chicken, Beggar’s Chicken, Yangzhou Fried Rice, Boiled Shredded Dry Bean Curd, Pork Trotter Aspic Jiangsu Style, Mutton in Fish Maw
4 Major Styles in Jiangsu Cuisine: Nanjing Style, Huaiyang Cuisine, Suxi Style, Xuhai Style
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6. Zhejiang Cuisine / Zhe Cuisine
Chinese: 浙菜 zhè cài
Popular in: China’s Zhejiang Province
Features: light and fresh, crisp and tender; good at controlling fire heat; prefer yellow wine as special seasoning
Popular in Zhejiang, Zhejiang cuisine is often lightly seasoned with appealing appearance. Zhejiang cuisine chefs prefer fresh food materials like sea food, freshwater fishes, and vegetables in season and they are extremely strict in the selection of raw materials. In addition, Zhejiang cuisine is well-known for its varied cooking methods and frying is the most frequently used.
Notable Sichuan Dishes: West Lake Fish in Vinegar Gravy, Fried Shrimps with Longjing Tea, Dongpo Pork, Braised Bamboo Shoot, Deep-Fried Beancurd Rolls Stuffed with Minced Tenderloin, Sliced Lotus Root with Sweet Sauce, West Lake Beef Soup, Steamed Pork with Rice Flour in Lotus Leaves
7. Fujian Cuisine / Min Cuisine
Chinese: 闽菜 mǐn cài
Popular in: China’s Fujian Province
Features: light, fresh, sweet and sour; special condiment red vinasse; woodland delicacies and sea food widely used for ingredients
Originated in Fuzhou in Fujian, Fujian cuisine dishes are light, fresh, mellow and non-greasy in general. The food materials used are pretty rich, containing both materials in land and seas. The common seasoning include red vinasse, sugar and vinegar. Like Jiangsu cuisine, Fujian cuisine attaches great importance to cutting techniques as well.
Notable Sichuan Dishes: Buddha Jumps over the Wall, Braised Sea Clam with Chicken Soup, Sweet and Sour Litchis, Sliced Whelk in Red Vinasse, Fuzhou Fish Balls, Oyster Omelette, Drunken Ribs
8. Anhui Cuisine / Hui Cuisine
Chinese: 徽菜 huī cài
Popular in: China’s Anhui Province
Features: salty and fresh, light, preserving the original flavor of ingredients; preference for hams; light cooking methods including braising, stewing and steaming
Popular in Anhui Province, Hui dishes taste salty, fresh, and light and have the unique flavor of ingredients. Hui cuisine attaches importance to dietetic invigoration with natural ingredients. It is worth notice that Anhui cuisine dishes have the effect of nourishing body for multiple ingredients with varied nutrition are matched scientifically.
Notable Sichuan Dishes: Stinky Mandarin Fish, Fried Hairy Tofu, Steamed Partridge, Stewed Bamboo Shoots of Wenzheng Mountain, Huangshan Stewed Pigeon, Li Hongzhang Chop Suey, Stewed Soft-Shelled Turtle with Ham, Braised Masked Palm Civet
Further Reading on Chinese Cuisine History
In Shang and Zhou Dynasties, China had developed its dietary culture. By Tang and Song Dynasties, the dining customs in the north and south developed respectively. People in North liked sweet food while in South liked salty food.
During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 - 1279 AD), the northerners moved to the south in large numbers. Gradually, the northern food culture had influenced the south and formed its own style in the south. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese cuisine was divided into Beijing style, Jiangsu style and Cantonese style. Beijing-style dishes were salty, and the Jiangsu-style and Cantonese-style dishes were sweet.
By the early Qing Dynasty, there existed four most influential cuisines: Shandong cuisine, Sichuan cuisine, Cantonese cuisine and Jiangsu cuisine.
Later, the dining habits of various parts of China developed considerably. Sichuan cuisine was further divided into Sichuan cuisine and Hunan cuisine. Cantonese cuisine was divided into Cantonese cuisine and Fujian cuisine. Jiangsu style cuisine was divided into Jiangsu cuisine, Zhejiang cuisine and Anhui cuisine. By late Qing Dynasty, Sichuan, Cantonese, Hunan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Anhui cuisines gradually become the most influential and popular, finally forming “8 Chinese Cuisines”.