Chinese food is one of Australia’s most familiar cuisine types. Yet Chinese culinary traditions are a lot more diverse than the stock standard dumpling or fried rice selection you’re used to seeing at your local Chinese restaurant.
“[People in the West] generally identify Chinese cuisine as the kind of food that is eaten with chopsticks,” says Y. M. Wong, executive chef of Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts. “They are concerned about the taste of the cuisine and may not spend too much time understanding the culture and cooking techniques.”
Wong – who was born in Yangzhou, China, and moved to Hong Kong over 30 years ago – says his favourite style of Chinese cuisine is Shanghainese food (from Shanghai).
“It’s delicate like an art piece, highlighting cutting techniques and craftsmanship as well as the taste of the food. This style of cooking uses a lot of pork, freshwater seafood, seasonal vegetables, Zhenjiang vinegar, soy sauce and Huadiao Chinese wine.
“Braised minced pork ball is my favourite dish. It is one of the most popular home-style cooking dishes in Shanghai. It makes me remember of my childhood in Yangzhou where my mum used to spend hours chopping pork, marinating it, frying the pork balls and then braising them. This traditional dish serves well with steamed rice.”
Shanghainese food is just one of the many hundreds of styles of Chinese cuisines, which can be traced to various regions, towns and ethnic bloodlines existing throughout the large nation.
These days, modern Chinese cuisine falls under eight key classifications, with each style belonging to a major Chinese province. Styles include Shandong, Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui and Fujian cuisines.
“China occupies such a huge area - 9.597 million km², whose vast landscape encompasses grassland, desert, mountains, lakes, rivers and more than 14,000 km of coastline,” he says.
“Each region has its own distinct styles of cooking and local produce. The ingredients used in each cuisine are based on the natural and agricultural products of each region; hence each region is unique with its own culture – whether it be food, etiquette or art.”
How to distinguish each style
Shandong cuisine is found in northeastern China, covering Beijing, Tianjin and the Yellow Sea. Dating back to the Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BC), this cuisine is influenced by ingredients from the coastline.
“Shandong cuisine is fresh and salty with a lot of seafood dishes,” Jack Wong says.
“Scallops, squid and sea cucumbers commonly feature. It’s also renowned for its crispiness with many dishes stir-fried or deep-fried. This cuisine features bread over rice, as well as noodles, vinegar, corn and eggplant.
"The ingredients used in each cuisine are based on the natural and agricultural products of each region; hence each region is unique with its own culture – whether it be food, etiquette or art.”
Many Australians may feel like they’ve already encountered Cantonese cuisine, as this is the main style of Chinese food currently served in many Chinese restaurants today from places like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Dumplings and dim sum are technically Cantonese. Cantonese cuisine includes seafood and soups. Marinades and broths are popular, as are hoisin, oyster and plum sauces.
The cuisine uses simple cooking techniques featuring stir-fried, steamed and braised dishes, and easy marinades including vinegar and salt. Side dishes may include seasonal vegetables and tender bamboo.
Jiangsu food comes from the areas around the Yangtze River, northwest of Shanghai. The cuisine covers soups, complicated cooking techniques and aromatic dishes. Sweet and sour spare ribs and salted dried duck, are staple dishes.
Anhui (Hui Cai) and Fujian
Anhui is an inland region located southwest of Shanghai and Fujian is also situated away from the coastline – so it's understandable that both cuisines do not feature a lot of seafood. Instead, woodland vegetables, interesting herbs and gamey meats are used in these cuisines, in dishes that are stewed, braised or roasted.
Jack Wong’s favourite cuisine is Sichuan, which emphasises flavours through the use of Sichuan peppercorns, chillies and spices.
“Some of the popular Sichuan dishes are marinated cold chicken with peanut in spicy sauce, Sichuan-style stewed fish, and sautéed diced chicken with spicy red chilli.
“The cooking techniques are unique and complex, involving simmering, steaming, boiling, frying and more. The utensils used to present or cook the dishes also aim to bring out the natural flavours of ingredients.”
Get ready to bask in a Chinese food bounty like no other as Adam Liaw's brand-new series Destination Flavour China starts from Wed, 28 Nov at 7.30pm on SBS, with an encore Sundays at 9.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) and then after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more!
Destination Flavour China is sponsored by Cathay Pacific. For more information, please visit cathaypacific.com.au
This crispy skin chicken is one of the most popular dishes on the Lotus menu. The secret ingredient? The Shanghai spicy soy - think Chinese-style Worcestershire sauce and your tangy tastebuds are there. The Chefs' Line