With its sprawling landscape, densely populated cities and varied climates, China is a mixed bag when it comes to geography, culture and, importantly, cuisine. It’s said the country is home to at least four distinct cuisines; those being Cantonese (south), Sichuan or Szechuan (west), Huiyang (east), and Beijing or ‘northern’ food. In each region, you’ll find vastly different approaches to cooking. The south, for instance, is responsible for introducing us to stir-fries, congee and yum cha classics like braised chicken feet, barbecue pork buns and egg tarts. Sichuan cuisine is typically spicier than elsewhere in China. (Although Hunan dishes, like these cumin-coated lamb ribs, are packed with heat, too.) A typical Sichuan banquet will include dan dan mian (pork and chilli noodles), sweet-spicy eggplant and stir-fried water spinach.
Rice is a staple through the majority of China, however, in the north wheat is the favoured carbohydrate. The north-western city of Xi’an is famous for – and synonymous with – a spicy lamb Xi’an burger that comes in a pita-like pocket. Soft and fluffy steamed buns are also served plain alongside meals. Scanning the country, it would be remiss not to mention Shanghai’s famous export the soup-filled xiao long bao, and the nation’s delicious dumpling offering.
While the Chinese don’t usually finish a meal with ‘dessert’, they do have a great range of sweets, many of which are enjoyed around Lunar New Year. Classic recipes include red bean mochi cakes, fermented glutinous rice dumplings and peanut butter rice balls served in green tea.
To quote China Doll head chef Frank Shek from Series 1, “You've got to have your ginger, garlic, shallots, chillies, a couple of soy sauces – one light, one dark – and you're in business”. Other pantry staples include oyster sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, sesame oil, five-spice powder and potato starch for battering or thickening dishes. Dried mushrooms and bean paste are handy, too. When it comes to vegetables, enjoy the choy. Purchase bok choy, pak choy, choy sum, gai lan and the large Chinese cabbage known as wombok. Don’t forget the rice.
Multi-purpose: For healthier cooking, buy a bamboo steamer to sit in your wok. Line it with a cabbage leaf or hole-punched baking paper to avoid sticking.
Ready to wok: Season a new, nonstick wok before its first use, and never clean with detergent! Instead, clean with water, placing it back on the heat to burn away impurities. Wipe with a slightly oiled paper towel and voila.
Fast and furious: To borrow a French phrase, mise en place is essential to stir-fry success. Have all your chopped ingredients and sauces in place, ready to toss into the wok at the precise time.
Loyal oil test: To test if oil is hot enough for deep-frying, stick a chop stick in the wok. If the oil sizzles around it, start cooking.
One, two punch: Soak dried mushrooms, such as shiitake, for 30 minutes before cooking with them. The water, when strained, can also be added to your dish for extra flavour.
View our Chinese recipe collection here.
Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? It's Chinese week on The Chefs' Line and tune in 6pm weeknights starting August 6. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more!
Smoking food at home can be done. I made this in a shoe-box Hong Kong apartment without the fire department investigating so give it a go. Just open windows and turn on the extractor fan!
"This is a version of the classic spicy Beijing noodles, but I’ve reduced the pork and increased the vegetables. Make sure you use free-range pork mince – your best bet might be to source it from your local farmers’ market." Matthew Evans, For the Love of Meat
Lunar New Year is one of my favourite times of the year because everywhere I turn I see my favourite things: noodles, dumplings, rice cakes, red bean that and matcha this.
This is a version of the classic Australian take on Chinese sweet and sour pork, a dish often thought of as daggy, but one that, when done well, has a beautiful balance of salt, vinegar and subtle sweetness. This recipe also carries heat from the chilli and sichuan pepper, both of which combine well with this particular cut of goat.