The Eight Great Styles of Chinese Cuisine
There are said to be eight distinct styles of cuisine in China known as the ‘da-ba-cai-xi’ 大八菜系’, or literally ‘Great eight cuisines’, which are based in different regions of China. In reality, there are many, many more styles of cuisine than these eight – especially considering all of the different styles of food eaten by minority peoples, the fusion of cooking styles, the influence that other countries have had on Chinese dishes, etc. But these eight styles of cuisine form the cornerstone of Chinese gastronomy.
The first style of cuisine is famous all over the world for being spicy – ‘la’ 辣 – and ‘numbing’ – ‘ma’ 麻. Combined, the overall flavor is ‘ma-la’ 麻辣. This is Sichuan food: ‘sichuan cai’ 四川菜, which is shortened to ‘Chuan-cai’ 川菜. Some famous dishes are ‘ma-po-dou-fu’ 麻婆豆腐 or ‘Grandma Ma’s Tofu’, which is very spicy cooked tofu, and ‘shui-zhu-rou-pian’ 水煮肉片 or ‘Water-boiled meat (pork) slices’. In Chinese cooking, the word for meat ‘rou’ 肉 always means ‘pork’ if used by itself. This is because the most common meat eaten in China is pork. Chicken is ‘ji-rou’ 鸡肉, beef is ‘niurou’ 牛肉, mutton is ‘yangrou’ 羊肉, and pork is ‘zhurou’ 猪肉 OR simply ‘rou’ 肉. Sichuan food gets its ‘numbing’ flavor from a small pepper called a ‘flower pepper’ or ‘hua-jiao’ 花椒. Eat this if you wish to lose some feeling in your mouth!
The next style of cuisine is also famous around the world. It is ‘Cantonese’ or ‘guangdong-cai’ 广东菜. Shortened, this style is called ‘yue-cai’ 粤菜. ‘Yue’ is the old name of the region, and the name of the language ‘Cantonese’ is ‘yue-yu’ 粤语. This style of cooking is notorious for preparing and eating just about anything imaginable: snake, mouse, snail, cat, and so on. An example of this ‘strange food’ is a dish called ‘long-feng-dou’ 龙凤斗 which translates to ‘dragon-phoenix-fight’. It is a soup that is made of snake meat, representing the ‘dragon’ in the name, and chicken which represents the ‘phoenix’. Another famous style of food in ‘yue-cai’ is Dim Sum, or ‘dian-xin’ 点心. This means ‘touch of the heart’ for these are small dishes that come in a variety of flavors and ingredients.
Perhaps the spiciest food in China is ‘xiang-cai’ 湘菜, which comes from the province of Hunan 湖南. While Sichuan food is ‘ma-la’ 麻辣 or ‘numbingly spicy’, ‘xiang-cai’ is ‘gan-la’ 干辣 or ‘dry spicy’ and ‘suan-la’ 酸辣or ‘sour spicy’. For the ‘gan-la’ style, it’s just lots of red pepper and just… spicy. For the ‘suan-la’ style, there are lots of added pickles to give the peppers a sour taste. Some examples of this are ‘nong-jia-xiao-chao-rou’ 农家小炒肉 which is ‘farmers’ small fried pork’ and ‘la-zi-ji-ding’ 辣子鸡丁 which is ‘spicy chicken pieces’
Fourth on our list is food from Anhui 安徽 which is appropriately known as ‘hui-cai’ 徽菜. This style is well-known for dishes that utilize wild game and carefully cook them in appropriate amounts of oil, such as ‘xue-dong-shao-shan-ji’ 雪冬烧山鸡 or ‘Snow vegetable braised pheasant’ and ‘nai-zhi-fei-wang-yu’ 奶汁肥王鱼 or ‘milk stew fat mandarin fish’.
Next we have ‘su-cai’ 苏菜 which is a style of cooking found in Suzhou 苏州 province. This food is very mild and tender and sometimes sweet in flavor. Examples of this are ‘shi-zi-tou’ 狮子头 or ‘lion heads’ which are round balls of pork (not lion meat!) and ‘shui-jing-xia-jiao’ 水晶虾饺 or ‘crystal shrimp dumplings’.
Sixth is food from Zhejiang province, known as ‘Zhe-cai’ 浙菜. This style of cooking is full of very light and artistic dishes. They are known to be fairly sweet and non-oily. Due to the many rivers, lakes and wetlands found in the province, as well as bamboo forests, they tend to eat a lot of freshwater fish, lotus root, and bamboo shoots. One dish named after Hangzhou’s 杭州 famous West Lake ‘xi-hu’ 西湖 is ‘xi-hu-cu-yu’ 西湖醋鱼 or ‘West Lake vinegar fish’. This fish was originally caught out of the West Lake. Another famous dish is ‘dong-po-rou’ 东坡肉 which is succulent fatty-pork named after the ‘dongpo’ street of Hangzhou.
Food from Shandong 山东 is known as ‘lu-cai’ 鲁菜 and the dishes are primarily eaten with a wheat-based staple. Shandong is famous for steamed buns, such as ‘gao-zhuang-man-tou’ 高庄馒头 which means ‘High-stacked-buns’. There are also many types of wheat-based noodles, and in Qingdao 青岛, beer! Also near Qingdao and the coastal areas, seafood is prevalent. A popular dish is ‘nai-tang-ji-yu’ 奶汤鲫鱼 or ‘Milk-soup-carp’, which is carp slowly cooked in a very fragrant and mild milky-broth. While food in Beijing 北京 is a fusion of cuisines from all over China, much of Beijing’s food can find its roots in Shandong, which is close to Beijing. Even the origins of Beijing Roast Duck ‘Beijing-kao-ya’ 北京烤鸭can be traced to Shandong.
The eighth and final style comes from the province of Fujian 福建 and is known as ‘min-cai’ 闽菜, named after the traditional name of the region. This cooking is known for many kinds of nutritious soups such as ‘Fo-tiao-qiang’ 佛跳墙. The literal translation of this dish is ‘Buddha jumps the wall’, meaning that the aroma and flavor of this soup is so strong that even the Buddha would be compelled to hop over a wall in order to get to it! There are also many beautiful and colorful dishes such as ‘xue-hua-ji’ 雪花鸡 or ‘snowflake chicken’.
While this has only barely scratched the surface of what Chinese gastronomy has to offer, these eight types of cuisine – chuan, yue, lu, zhe, hui, xiang, su, and min – are the basics and deserve a great deal of attention. And the best way to learn about Chinese cooking, is of course to try them all! May your studies be enjoyable and delicious!