Cheat Sheet: Chinese Regional Cuisine

Get schooled in the world of flavors that make up China's expansive regional cuisines

Do you know your Cantonese from your Sichuan? Here’s a primer on China’s regional differences.

Eight fairly distinct regions of China make up the cuisine of the Han Chinese, about 92 percent of the country’s 1.39 billion people. Han Chinese are the principal ethnic group native to East Asia, the group we simply think of as “Chinese.” 

The remaining 8 percent consists of ethnic groups like the Muslim Uighur in the Xinjiang province, the southern minority tribes in Yunnan, Tibetans and the descendants of the Mongols in northern China. 

Much like Italian cuisine is divided by “butter-based” regions of the north and “olive oil-based" regions in the south, Chinese cuisine is similarly split by environmental differences. Noodles, dumplings and steamed buns are the norm in the colder regions of northern China dominated by wheat. In the warmer, lusher south, rice is king. Rice is eaten at every meal and ground into flour as an ingredient for noodles, dumpling wrappers and crepes. 

Of the eight culinary regions, Sichuan, Hunan and Guangdong (Cantonese) are the most renowned. Shandong, Jiangsu and Anhui in the north, and Fujian and Zhejiang provinces in the south comprise the lesser-known regions.

Most people are familiar with the spicy, ma la (mouth-numbing) qualities of Sichuan peppers—a hallmark of the cuisine. This is just one aspect of Sichuan’s food. Fiery chili oils, fish-flavored eggplant and pickled chilies simmered with ginger and garlic are also Sichuan’s culinary features.

The food in the landlocked region of Hunan, on the other hand, is dark and rich, redolent of fermented black beans and long braises. 

The other three northern culinary regions are characterized by their use of wheat in the form of steamed buns, shaved or hand-pulled wheat noodles and tart-spicy flavors. There are great similarities in the cuisines of three southern regions of Guangdong. Fujian and Zhejiang, with Cantonese cuisine prevailing.

Of the non-Han Chinese cuisines, Uighur is probably the most familiar. Unlike all other Chinese cuisines, the food of this predominantly Muslim region is halal. The Uighurs have more in common culturally and linguistically with the Turks and Uzbeks, which is reflected in their cuisine. They bake a round, flat, bagel-like bread sprinkled with sesame called girde nan, a close cousin of the Turkish simit. Spices like cumin, fennel seeds and dried peppers are prevalent, and lamb and goat are the chief sources of meat. 

South China’s regions of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi are made up predominantly of the Bai, Dai, Miao, Naxi and Hani minorities. The food of this region bears great similarities to their closest culinary and cultural neighbors, Vietnam, Laos and the Isaan region of Thailand. Sticky rice, wild mushrooms, fish sauce and sour and spicy flavors are the marks of this region. Instead of using spices to flavor their food, herbs like cilantro, basil and mint are used liberally along with incendiary scud chilies, tiny chilies we commonly think of as Thai chilies.

The final minority grouping consists of the nomadic and pastoral people of Tibet and Mongolia. The food reflects the hostile and bleak environment of their homeland. These are also the Chinese regions where dairy is commonly used in the form of yak butter, cheese and yogurt.