Although there is much debate and confusion over just how many styles there are, most would agree that there are at least four major regional styles: Cantonese, centered on the southern Guangdong province and Hong Kong; Sichuan, based on the cooking of this western province’s two largest cities, Chengdu and Chongqing; Huaiyang (also known as Jiangsu or simply Yang), the cooking of eastern China (Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai); and Beijing or ‘Northern’ food, which takes its inspiration from the coastal province of Shangdong. Some would add a fifth cuisine from the southeastern coastal province of Fujian.
The spread of traditional Chinese food began with Cantonese style cooking from the south of China and this style includes many of the more instantly recognisable Chinese dishes such as stir-fries, sweet and sour and chop suey. In recent years, Northern style and spicier food from Szechuan and Shanghai have become better known and understood outside of China.
Each of these styles have developed over time as a result of factors such as the geography, climate, history, lifestyle and cooking preferences of the region, and all have their own distinct flavour. What distinguishes them is not only their cooking methods, but particular combinations of ingredients. All regions use ginger, garlic, spring onions, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and sesame oil and bean paste, but combine them in highly distinctive ways, using a variety of different cooking techniques.
For example, Sichuan (also known as Szechuan or Szechwan) cuisine, is known for its bold, hot, pungent flavours, derived from the liberal use of garlic and chillies, whereas Jiangsu cuisine has a strong emphasis on matching ingredients according to season, colour and shape, and so-called ‘red braised’ dishes are popular (in which meat is braised in soy sauce, fermented bean paste and sugar to give it a caramelised flavour and reddish brown hue).
Rice is an essential part of any Chinese meal, no matter the region, and the Chinese table is always a shared one. A typical meal would combine several small dishes to be served at the same time and shared. Each dish should complement the other in terms of taste, texture, flavour and the overall visual effect. Tea is drunk before and after a meal, but rarely during.