Believe it or not, the most famous and beloved Chinese dishes in the United States — think lo mein, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies — are not often eaten in China itself. In fact, for a country with the size of nearly 32 Italys or 15 Frances and a long history that spans thousands of years, China prides itself on one of the world’s most enriched and complex food scenes. Thanks to the geographic variations, historic legacies, and the world’s biggest population, almost every Chinese city has its own food specialty and each Chinese region its own menu.
Chinese food culture can be loosely defined into two camps: North and South. Within those, the Eastern and Western regions of each have their own distinctions. Broadly speaking, the climate north of the Yangtze River is colder and the south warmer, resulting in different choices of carbs (wheat in the North and rice in the South), ingredient options (the South has more seafood and river fish, while the North has more red meat), and palates (Northern food is stronger and heavier, many Southern foods are subtler and more complex, and Southwestern food is spicier partially due to the humidity).
Historically, Southern food from China has a bigger presence in North America, since the majority of early Chinese immigrants came from Southern provinces such as Guangdong (Canton) and Fujian. Many American Chinese foods, like lo mein, are Westernized Cantonese dishes. But as more and more Northern Chinese people immigrate to North America, there has been a spike of restaurants serving Northern Chinese foods. In addition, several new kinds of fusion Chinese cuisine have swept China and North America.
While it’s practically impossible to distill all Chinese foods into one guide (or several books even), for people who want to tap into the world of regional Chinese cuisines, this explainer serves as a basic guide to help you embark on a tasty dining adventure. Read on, and then travel from your own home by ordering takeout from regional Chinese restaurants — just use the “Chinese” cuisine filter on OpenTable to find places near you.
Popular dishes: Dim sum, wonton, char siu (barbecue pork), seafood
Background: Known for a variety of dim sum, char siu, wonton noodles, and seafood, Cantonese food is the longest-standing Chinese cuisine in North America first brought by workers 150 years ago. Guangdong, where Cantonese food comes from, is a rich and coastal province with plenty of seafood and local produce. Compared to heavier Northern food, Cantonese cooking has a mantra to retain the freshness and original flavor of ingredients.
Dim sum, or “snacks” in Cantonese, is crucial to locals’ daily ritual of yum cha, or morning tea. Visiting a Cantonese restaurant during breakfast or brunch hours, when Cantonese immigrants typically go, will likely provide a more authentic morning tea experience. Pick a tea — Pu’er (fermented) or Heung Pin (jasmine) — and try out the bite-sized steamed treats like har gow (shrimp dumpling), shumai (steamed pork and mushroom dumplings), and cheung fan (rice noodle rolls).
Popular dishes: Soup dumplings, freshwater fish, Dongpo pork, fried pork buns
Background: In North America, Shanghainese food broadly refers to China’s southeastern cuisine from Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu — but back in China, people from these provinces might have very strong opinions about each other’s foods. Xiaolongbao (soup dumpling) is the most recognizable dish in this genre, and there’s much more.
Historically, Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu are China’s wealthiest trading centers and the hub for silk, salt, and rice production. People in the area can afford pricey cane sugar, which is also reflected in the relatively sweeter menu. Dongpo pork, the tender pork belly marinated with soy sauce, sugar, and spices, is one of their signature dishes. Thanks to the Yangtze River, the region is also abundant with river fish, including the famous freshwater eel and hairy crab.
Popular dishes: Stir-fried pork, chopped chile pepper fish
Background: Strictly speaking, although most of Hunan province is south of Yangtze River, Hunanese cuisine is seldom categorized as Southern Chinese food — it’s spicy, heavy, and pretty much the antithesis of the mild and delicate Southern cuisines. Strong, flavorful spices are the calling card of Hunanese food, which has witnessed robust growth in the North American dining scene over past decades.
Located in central China, Hunan is historically less developed than the coastal provinces, which has impacted its menu. Homemade-style foods, instead of banquet dishes, are where Hunanese food shines. Stir-fried pork and beef, preserved meat, and rice noodles are some of the must-haves. If you can handle spicy food, chopped chile pepper sauce (Duojiao) is also a signature Hunan seasoning — compared with Sichuan chile pepper, the spiciness in chopped pepper sauce is more direct and less mouth-numbing.
Restaurants to try: Brandy Ho’s Hunan Food in San Francisco
Popular dishes: Double-cooked pork, diced chicken in chile pepper, Zhangcha duck, and hot pot
Background: Sichuanese food is one of the most influential Chinese dining genres in North America. Before Hunan joined the cuisine race, for a long time Sichuanese was the epitome of spicy Chinese food. With its signature chile pepper and mouth-numbing Chinese peppercorn, Sichuan cuisine introduces a layer of complexity to spicy food — but that’s not all of it.
Double-cooked pork, the signature Sichuanese dish, features thin-sliced pork that is first fried and then stir-fried with spices (thus the double-cooking). Once served in royal palaces for generations, Sichuanese cuisine also has a wide collection of non-spicy foods. The original kung pao chicken came from Sichuan, and it’s relatively mild. Zhangcha duck, the Sichuan-style duck roasted with tea leaves and camphor tree leaves, is also an aromatic, non-spicy option.
Spicy hot pot is another highlight of Sichuan cuisine. Diners cook fresh ingredients, such as vegetables, meat, and seafood, themselves in boiling, spicy broth placed on the table in front of them. The tradition is said to be passed down from local roustabouts.
Popular dishes: Rice noodles, mushrooms, Qiguo Chicken
Background: Yunnan, a southwestern province with lush rainforests and plateaus, neighbors Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. It has been missing from Chinese mainstream food culture for centuries due to distance. It never made the eight famous traditional Chinese cuisines, but thanks to modern logistics and Yunnan immigrants, the food has rapidly expanded overseas faster than some of the more famous cuisines.
The region has many southeast Asian spices, resulting in Yunnan cuisine sharing some features with Vietnanese foods. The rainforests also give Yunnan the best mushrooms in China; each summer, local farmers’ markets open up a dedicated section for the freshly collected wild mushrooms. Of all the tasty dishes, rice noodles is the most popular one in North America, due to the delicious noodle’s relatively easy preparation process.
There has been a steady rise of Northern Chinese foods in North America, but the history and variety are still limited compared to Southern counterparts. At many Chinese restaurants, you can find northern cuisines from Dongbei, Shaanxi, Tianjin, Beijing, and Inner Mongolia. Here are some of North China’s most distinctive dishes.
Dish: Peking duck
Background: The famous roasted duck from Beijing, the capital of China, is also served in many banquet-style Chinese restaurants, including some Cantonese ones. The thinly sliced duck, along with its crispy skin, is wrapped with scallion in specially made pancakes. This labor-intensive dish is one of the centerpieces served in many state banquets representing Chinese cuisine.
Background: To many Northerners, dumplings are the single most important festive dish — they appear in so many traditional Northern holiday celebrations that it became a running joke in Chinese food debates. Unlike the steamed dumplings served in Guangdong and Shanghai, Northern dumplings are boiled instead. Classic dumpling stuffings include pork, lamb, bok choy, leek, and combinations among them.
Dish: Mongolian hot pot
Background: The hot pot from China’s Inner Mongolia region is quickly expanding across the world, rivaling the spicy hot pot from Sichuan. While both versions involve boiling broth and self-cooking raw materials, there are several key differences: Mongolian hot pot focuses on thinly sliced lamb and beef, the broth is much less elaborated — some restaurants in China even insist on using just water — to keep the original taste of the meat, and the classic Mongolian version uses a special pot made out of copper with a charcoal chamber in the middle.
Restaurants to try: Grand Mongolian Hot Pot in Chicago