International Cooking: Food from China

This is a week I have been looking forward to, but I’ve also been apprehensive about it. China is a large country with many varying cuisines. I knew I wouldn’t be able to represent all Chinese cuisines in one week, but I did my best and managed to hit 5/8 of the major cuisine groups. I didn’t find the Chinese subreddit as helpful as I had hoped; quite a few people basically just scoffed at my plans, saying China was too big to represent in one week. I mean, I knew that and said I knew that. And most people doing this challenge only do one dish per country so I do feel like I’m putting in a lot of effort! But anyway, I think my post probably didn’t get as much visibility as it could have because most of the upvotes were countered by downvotes.

China is located in East Asia, and it is the world’s most populous country, home to over 1.4 billion people. People have inhabited the country for many, many years. In fact, China is considered one of the world’s oldest civilizations, though not much is known about the country’s history until 2100 BCE, which was when the first dynasty emerged, known as Xia.

China’s history is far too long and detailed to do justice here, and this post is already very long, but if you are interested you can start by reading this Wikipedia article on China.

What Do People Eat in China?

China is such a large, diverse country that there are eight major cuisines (and more that are not considered as prominent). The first four are known as the Four Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine, while the next four emerged towards the end of the Qing Dynasty and are relatively new.

Lu (Shangdong) cuisine originated in Shangdong province in northeastern China, and it’s the oldest known cuisine. In fact, many of China’s culinary traditions most likely stem from Lu cuisine. Since Shangdong is a coastal province, many dishes include seafood. Some popular Lu dishes are jian bing and scallion braised sea cucumber.

Chuan (Sichuan) cuisine comes from Sichuan province in southwestern China and tends to use a lot of oil, salt, and spices. Most people will think of Sichuan food as being spicy, which it generally is. It’s interesting to note here that Sichuan peppercorns aren’t actually spicy; they have a kind of citrusy taste and they create a tingly, numbing sensation in your mouth. In Sichuan cuisine, they are typically paired with chilies. Dan dan noodles is a popular Sichuan dish that I made this week.

Yue (Cantonese) cuisine comes from the region around the Pearl River Delta in southeastern China, including Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macau. It’s the most popular Chinese cooking style outside of China. Yue cuisine takes pride in using ultra-fresh ingredients, particularly seafood. Most recipes focus on highlighting the pure flavor of each ingredient using methods like steaming, poaching, and simmering. Because of this, Cantonese food is often quite healthy—most dishes don’t use much oil, and dairy products are not used either. Some classic Cantonese dishes include Cantonese steamed fish and dim sum dishes such as Cantonese spring rolls.

Su (Jiangsu) cuisine is from Jiangsu province, located on the east coast of China. It has some similarities to Yue cuisine, in that seafood is popular and recipes tend to focus on highlighting the flavor of each ingredient. But what makes Su cuisine different is the generous use of vinegar, sugar, and rice wine in braised dishes. Su dishes are also often presented rather artfully. Some popular Su dishes include lion’s head meatballs and Shanghai scallion pancakes.

Min (Fujian) cuisine comes from the Fujian province of China in the southeast. A variety of meat and seafood is usually featured, and many herbs and spices are often used, not just for flavor but to make the dishes aromatic. Soup is very popular, and rice wine, fermented rice wine, and fermented red yeast rice are all common ingredients. Common condiments include fish sauce and shrimp paste.

Hui cuisine originated in Anhui, a relatively small, landlocked province in the east of the country, bordering Jiangsu. It features more braises and stews and fewer stir fries than the other Chinese cuisines, and I’ve seen it described as ‘hearty mountain peasant food’. Wild herbs, mushrooms, vegetables, game, tofu, and ham are all common ingredients. Some common Hui dishes are smelly Mandarin fish and hairy tofu, also known as ‘stinky tofu’. Perhaps these dishes are delicious, but they could have been given more appetizing names!

Xiang (Hunan) cuisine incorporates the cuisines of the Xiang River region, Dongting Lake, and the western part of the Hunan province, a mountainous province in southern China. It shares some similarities to Sichuan cuisine, as dishes are often heavy on oil, salt, spicy chilies, and garlic. One of the main differences is that Hunan cuisine does not feature Sichuan peppercorns, and is typically hotter. Fermented, salted, and pickled ingredients are popular here. One common Hunan dish is Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork belly.

Zhe (Zhejiang) cuisine comes from Zhejiang province, which is located on the east coast of China and features many rivers. Dishes make use of a large range of fish and shellfish from the ocean and rivers, which can be prepared in a myriad of different ways, including raw. A variety of sweet confections such as rice balls filled with sweet red bean filling are found here. One important ingredient in Chinese cooking, Shaoxing wine, comes from the city of the same name in Zhejiang province. A few popular dishes from Zhe cuisine include dong po pork and beggar’s chicken.

One thing all provinces have in common is the consumption of a wide variety of tea. I meant to have jasmine tea with my dim sum dishes but I was so busy cooking that it completely skipped my mind!

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Chinese dishes I didn’t make!

Red-Braised Pork Belly

Red-braised pork belly

There are many versions of red-braised pork belly, and I chose to make Chairman Mao’s version, which is what you would find in the Hunan province. Even this particular version of the dish can have varying ingredients within Hunan. I used a recipe from The Woks of Life, which uses ginger, sugar, scallions, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, cinnamon, star anise, bay leaves, and chili.

This was a really easy dish to make, though it was a bit time-consuming. You cut up some pork belly and blanch it, then coat the pork in a sugar mixture in a wok. Then you add all the flavorings and water and let it braise until tender. When it’s cooked to your liking, you reduce the sauce so that it makes a glossy coating on the pork.

This was delicious and I would make it again, but I would use skinless pork belly. I used skin-on, which seems to be what is usually used, but I think I only really like pork skin when it’s been turned into crackling.

Dan Dan Noodles

Dan dan noodles

Dan dan noodles come from the Sichuan province of China. I’ve made a simple version of these noodles before, and they were pretty good. I was excited to try an authentic recipe and made sure to get all the ingredients, including sui mi ya cai, which is some kind of fermented vegetable.

I used the recipe from The Woks of Life. It begins with chili oil, made with Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon, star anise, red pepper flakes and, of course, oil. Then you make the meat mixture, which consists of pork, hoisin sauce, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, Chinese five spice, and the aforementioned sui mi ya cai. Next, you make a sauce with sesame paste, soy sauce, sugar, five spice, Sichuan peppercorn powder, some of the prepared chili oil, and garlic. Finally, everything comes together: you add some sauce to your bowl, then cooked noodles and leafy greens (I used boy choy), followed by the pork mixture, chopped peanuts, and scallions. You mix everything together and enjoy!

These noodles were really good, and I think the sui mi ya cai definitely added a certain flavor that took them to the next level. I still have leftover chili oil, which I find to be delicious on eggs (and probably many other things too).

Lion’s Head Meatballs

Lion's head meatballs

These lion’s head meatballs are large, pork meatballs that are fried, braised, and served with vegetables (I also added some rice). They are a classic dish in Huaiyang cuisine, which primarily represents the Jiangsu province.

This was another recipe from The Woks of Life. The meatballs are made with ground pork, ginger, scallions, egg, breadcrumbs, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, five spice, cornstarch, water, and minced water chestnuts. This is a long list of ingredients for meatballs but it was worth it. I was supposed to use fatty ground pork, but mine was lean, so I added some melted butter to the mixture. I don’t know how these meatballs are supposed to be but I felt they were very moist and delicious.

The meatballs are deep-fried until golden, which I think is primarily to ensure they hold their shape while braising because the meatball mixture is quite soft. The braising liquid is flavored with ginger, scallions, sugar, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil. Once the meatballs are cooked, the braising liquid is thickened a little with cornstarch to form a sauce. This sauce was really good too. Like, I could easily just drink it (and maybe I did drink some of it).

Sichuan Dry-Fried Beans

Sichuan dry-fried beans

I made this Sichuan dish mostly because I had sui mi ya cai leftover from the dan dan noodles, and it’s usually pretty easy for me to fit a vegetable dish into the week. This was an easy dish to make. Traditionally, the beans are deep-fried, but the recipe I followed showed a healthier technique. First, you cook green beans in a wok at high heat. Then you remove them and cook some pork, garlic, chili, and sui mi ya cai. Finally, return the beans to the wok with Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, and stir-fry for another minute before serving.

I ate these for breakfast with fried eggs, drizzled with a little chili oil leftover from the dan dan noodles. I can highly recommend eating them like these!

This recipe also came from The Woks of Life.

Steamed Pork Buns

Steamed pork buns

This is the first of five dishes I made in one night in an attempt to replicate (albeit on a much smaller scale) a dim sum spread, which is representative of Cantonese cuisine. Steamed pork buns are one of my favorite dim sum dishes and something I’ve always wanted to make, so this was a great opportunity.

First, you make a simple dough with yeast, sugar, water, and flour. Then, while it’s proofing, you get started on the filling. The filling is made by cooking ground pork with ginger, onion, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, ground bean sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, white pepper, sesame oil, and scallions. It’s thickened with cornstarch at the end, which I think is intended to make sure the filling doesn’t leech liquid.

Once the dough has finished proofing, you divide it into equal pieces. Each one is rolled into a circle, then the filling is added, and you are meant to pleat the top until it joins together and looks all pretty. The recipe gave another option—just gather the dough together and turn it over so you have the smooth side facing up. That’s what I ended up doing after a failed attempt at pleating. I probably could have got it if I had more time, but I had five dishes to make, so I felt I needed to be quick.

The filled buns sit for another 15 minutes or so before being steamed. Mine didn’t come out looking that pretty, and they stuck a little to the walls of the steamer (I didn’t have enough steamer space because I was steaming sticky rice at the same time, so some of the pork buns went into my small steamer which wasn’t really big enough). I think that this could have been remedied by ensuring they had adequate space in my larger steamer. Ultimately, they came out tasting really good, which is what matters. I’d make these again and dedicate more time to them in order to get the pleating right.

This recipe was from The Woks of Life.

Spring Rolls

Spring rolls

I think most people are familiar with spring rolls, and they are one of my favorite dim sum dishes. There are many different varieties, but I went with a traditional Cantonese version as part of my dim sum spread. These were filled with a variety of vegetables and ground pork (it was meant to be finely shredded pork loin but I was already using ground pork in other dishes so this was easier). Once assembled, I froze these as the recipe said you can do so and fry at a later time. This allowed me to save myself some work on the day I was preparing everything else for my dim sum night, and then all I had to do was fry them from frozen. I also made a sauce, which is a simple combination of Worcestershire, sugar, and soy sauce.

These were excellent, but I knew they would be. They were even good baked in the oven, which is what I did with those I didn’t fry initially. The recipe I used is from The Woks of Life.

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice

Typically, there is always steamed rice whenever I’ve had dim sum. But I decided to omit that and just serve this sticky rice instead, since it’s something I’ve always wanted to make. It is traditionally steamed in lotus leaves, but I used parchment paper instead which I think worked pretty well.

This is a mix of glutinous rice, chicken thighs, mushrooms, and a variety of sauces and spices. The rice had to soak for a few hours and the chicken marinated at the same time. Then the chicken, mushrooms, and flavorings were cooked before being combined with the rice. The mixture is wrapped in lotus leaves (or, in my case, parchment) and steamed.

This turned out delicious and it was really pretty easy to make too. The recipe I used is from The Woks of Life.

Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce

Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce

I decided I needed something healthy to go with my other dim sum dishes, and I’ve always enjoyed Chinese broccoli (gai lan) with oyster sauce, so that’s what I made. This is very simple. The Chinese broccoli is blanched and covered in oyster sauce. The recipe I used, from Omnivore’s Cookbook, also included garlic, ginger, and a little sugar with the oyster sauce, a combination that I really enjoyed.

Siu Mai (Steamed Dumplings)

Siu mai

Siu mai are just one of the many kinds of dumplings you may find at a dim sum restaurant, and they were the final part of my dim sum spread. These ones are filled with ground pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and scallions, served with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, Chinese black vinegar, and chili sauce. They were meant to be topped with salmon roe, but I used tiny bits of carrot instead, which the recipe suggested as a substitution since it’s just for presentation anyway. Mine didn’t turn out looking that nice but they did taste really good!

I got the recipe from Recipe Tin Eats.

Jian Bing (Chinese Crepes)

Jian bing

I was hoping to fit in a breakfast dish, and when I saw these I knew I had to try them. Jian bing are thought to originate from the Shangdong province of China, though they are also popular in other provinces.

First, you make a crepe. Before flipping it, you cover it in beaten egg and sprinkle sesame seeds and scallions over the top. Then, after the egg has begun to set, you flip and add the fillings: crispy fried wonton wrappers, your choice of sauces, cilantro, and lettuce. Finally, you fold up, cut, and serve. I used spinach instead of lettuce, and I used hoisin and chili garlic sauce for the sauces. I think these tasted alright but needed salt somewhere, maybe in the crepe mixture. I also had trouble flipping them, even when following the directions in the recipe. But I’m sure this is the kind of thing where practice makes perfect,

The recipe I used is from Red House Spice.

  • Zhajiangmian – translated as ‘fried sauce noodles’, this dish consists of thick wheat noodles topped with a soybean-based sauce. Commonly made with pork and vegetables, but tofu or other kinds of meat can be used. This is a popular dish in Beijing.
  • Char siu pork – also known as ‘Chinese BBQ pork’, pork is marinated in a sweet and savory marinated before cooking. Red food coloring is often added too. Char siu pork often shows up in other dishes, such as in the filling for buns. This is a Cantonese dish.
  • Moo shu pork – a dish from the Shandong province, traditionally made from pork, cucumber, scrambled eggs, and mushrooms stir-fried in lard.
  • Kung pao chicken – a spicy dish made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chilies, from the Sichuan province.
  • Mapo tofu – a Sichuan dish made from tofu cooked in a spicy sauce with minced pork.
  • Buddha Jumps Over the Wall – yes, this is the name of a dish! The name is said to come from the fact that this soup is so good, even vegetarian Buddhist monks would jump over a wall to try it. It’s from the Fujian province and consists of a range of ingredients such as sea cucumber, scallops, chicken, pork tendon, bamboo shoots, and ginseng. Originally, shark fin was popular, but modern versions typically replace it with imitation shark fin or abalone. This dish requires a lot of preparation—often one or two full days—and it’s expensive due to the ingredients used.
  • Congee – made by cooking rice in a lot more water (or stock) than usual and for longer so that it reaches a porridge-like consistency. Although it’s commonly made of rice today, throughout history congee has been made with other grains too, depending on what was available locally. Congee can be very simple or include a variety of additions; it’s very customizable.
  • Peking duck – a duck preparation that has been made in Beijing since the Imperial era, resulting in roast duck with a thin, very crispy skin. It’s common to eat the meat rolled in pancakes with various toppings such as green onion and sweet bean sauce.
  • Har gow – shrimp dumplings, a popular dim sum item. The dough is made completely from starch which gives the dumplings a semi-translucent appearance once steamed.

Final Thoughts

As expected, this was one of the best weeks so far. It’s really hard to choose favorites because everything was so good, but I think I’d have to go with the dan dan noodles and pork buns. I’d like to return to Chinese cuisine one day and maybe do an in-depth project where I spend a week on each province. But that would be far in the future!

Next week, I will be cooking food from Colombia.

I would just like to acknowledge that I primarily used The Woks of Life to describe the cuisines of China. This website is a great resource for anyone interested in authentic Chinese cooking.

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