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Regional Chinese Cooking

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Chinese cooking is split into four main regional schools

Regional cooking is one of the great delights of Chinese food. Everywhere you go in the country you’ll find great chefs taking huge pride in local specialities unknown outside that particular area.

Chinese food is usually divided into the four great regional ‘schools’ of cooking, but this is a generalisation, within each region each city or town has its own variations.

The Northern School of Chinese Cooking

Northerners fill up on wheat based pancakes, buns, rolls, noodles and dumplings. Spring onions, cabbage, bean paste, garlic and vinegar are responsible for a lot of the flavouring. Two well known Beijing foods are Beijing duck and Zhájiànmiàn, both of which feature bean paste, spring onion and a wheat based staple.

The cooking techniques of these two foods, roasting and ‘explode frying’ respectively, are both typical of the Northern School.

The cookery of the Imperial Court developed in Beijing and became the jewel in the crown of the Northern School. Nowadays the Imperial palaces themselves heave with tourists and serve instant noodles and Starbucks coffee, but there are restaurants in Beijing that specialise in recreating the intricate delicacies of the Qing Imperial Family.

It is in the North that the influence of the Mongols is felt most keenly, most obviously in form of barbecues and hotpots. These developed when Mongolian soldiers turned over their shields to cook meat over a fire, or took of their pot-shaped helmets to use to stew meat and vegetables, or so the story goes. Hotpot, where meat and vegetables are boiled in a communal pot of boiling soup is a sociable way of eating popular throughout Asia, but particularly in the harsh winters of North East China.

The Western School of Chinese Cooking

The Western school is known for its heavy use of red chillis, peppers and strong flavours. The chilli is supposed to dry out your body, counteracting the humid climate of this region.

Hunan and Sichuan cookery are the best known local variations within the Western School. Hunan food has a reputation for being hot and down to earth, like its most famous advocate Chairman Mao Zedong. Some of the best known Hunan dishes include a kind of mashed potato (Tǔdòuní – 土豆泥), and tofu which is allowed to grow mould in the same way cheese is in the West.

Sichuan natives are rightly proud of their culinary traditions which are undoubtedly among the most renowned in China. Sichuan food combines heavy use of fiery red chillis and Sichuan peppercorn with other subtler, more complex flavours. Some Sichuanese inventions, like Kong Pao Chicken (Gōngbăo Jīdīng – 宫宝鸡丁), Pock-marked Mother Chen’s Tofu (Mápo Dòufu – 麻婆豆腐) and Fish-Fragrant Pork (Yúxiāngròusī – 鱼香肉丝) are served in Chinese restaurants the world over, whilst others are known only in certain areas, and some are still being invented. People from Sichuan like to brag ‘食在中国,味在四川’ which means ‘China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavour’.

The Southern School of Chinese Cooking

The hot humid climate of the South means that rice is the staple here. Steaming and stir frying are the preferred cooking methods, and the appearance and textures of food are highly refined. Southern cooking is the Chinese food best known outside China, because many early Chinese migrants came from this area.

The style of the Southern school is epitomised by the ‘xian’ taste. Xian translates to something like ‘savoury’ or ‘delicious’ and is common in seafood and mushrooms. In lesser establishments it is all too often achieved by overuse of the ‘cooks’ cocaine’ MSG, which sacrifices subtler flavours in the name of convenience.

It was the Cantonese who gave the world the tradition of ‘yam cha’, where endless tiny buns, wraps, pancakes and other delicacies collectively known as ‘dim sum’ are washed down with gallons of tea on long, lazy afternoons.

The Eastern School of Chinese Cooking

The Eastern School takes advantage of the natural bounty of the region – mountains of fresh seafood and Yangtse River fish. The chefs of this region, especially of the ancient cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou, have the best historical reputation.

Staples are based on both rice and wheat, and popular cooking methods include both stiry-frying and explode-frying. Flavours are generally light and delicate, with a tendency to use sugar more often than other regions.

A favourite Chinese dish from the Eastern School is ‘Red-Cooked Pork’ (Hóngshāoròu – 红烧肉), pork stewed in a dark sauce of soy, sugar, and various spices. Delicious.

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