It was not so long ago that everyone in the West thought of “Chinese food” as a single cuisine. A country as large as geographically and climatically varied as China naturally has a wide range of regional cuisines.
There is an immense amount of debate, confusion and error about just how many regional cuisines there are, but most knowledgeable gourmets agree that at least four major Chinese regional styles exist:
- Cantonese, centred on southern Guangdong province and Hong Kong;
- Sichuan based on the cooking of this western province’s two largest cities, Chengdu and Chongqing;
- Huaiyang, the cooking of eastern China –Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai- an area of lakes, rivers and seashore;
- And Beijing or “Nothern” food, with its major inspiration from the coastal province of Shandong.
Some would add a fifth cuisine from the south-eastern coastal province of Fujian.
What distinguishes these regional styles is not only their recipes but also the particular types of soy sauce, garlic, fish, oil, pork or other basic ingredients used in preparing the signature dishes, as well as the proportions of the various ingredients.
Timing and temperature are also critical factors. All regions use various forms of ginger, garlic, spring onions, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, sesame oil and bean paste, but generally combine them in highly distinctive ways.
When the Grand Canal was built in the Sui dynasty (A.D. 581-618), it gave rise to several great commercial cities at its southern terminus, including Huaian and Yangzhou, after which the regional cuisine Huaiyang is named.
The region’s location on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River in China’s “land of fish and rice” (synonymous with the Western “milk and honey”) gave it a distinct advantage in terms of agricultural products, and it was renowned for such aquatic delicacies as fish, shrimp, eel and crab, which were shipped up the canal to the imperial court in Beijing.
The cooking of Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai generally falls into the category of Huaiyang cuisine, which was developed by the great families of the imperially appointed salt merchants living in Yangzhou.
Huaiyang cuisine is not well known outside of China, perhaps because it rejects all extremes and strives for the “Middle Way”. Freshness (xian) is a key concept in the food of this region, but xian means more than just fresh.
For example, for a dish of steamed fish to be xian, the fish must have been swimming in the tank one hour ago; it must exude its own natural flavour and must be tender yet slightly chewy.
Xian also implies that the natural flavour of the original ingredients should take precedence over the sauce, and Huaiyang chefs achieve this by careful cutting and paying close attention to the heat of wok, which is, after all, merely a thin and sensitive membrane of cast iron separating the ingredients from flames of the stove.
Chinese chefs and Huaiyang chefs, in particular, control the flames of their stoves like a pianist uses the pedal.
Some of the best known Huaiyang dishes are steamed or stewed and thus require less heat and a longer cooking time than most fried dishes; examples include Chicken with Chestnuts, Pork Steamed in Lotus Leaves, Duck with an Eight-Ingredient Stuffing, and “Lion Head” Meatballs.
Zhejiang cooking art developed on the basis of the local kitchens of Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shaoxing and Wenzhou and is characterized by fresh, perfumed, crunchy, soft and delicious dishes.
Zhejiang province is rich in fishes and shrimps and possesses numerous places of interest. Numerous famous and popular dishes are prepared with attention.
Zhejiang kitchen is specialized in the following techniques of preparation:
chao (blow up), zha (deep-fried), hui (put some starch dough as the food is taken out of the frying pan), liu (deep-fry food at first then coat with ready juice of spices and starch), zheng (steaming) and shao (cook in the brown sauce).
It owes its celebrity to dishes such as " West Lake Vinegar Fish ", " Deep-fried Freshwater Eel ", “ Slow-cooked Pork ", " Longjing Shrimps ", " Dried soya Cheese ", " Beggar Chicken ", " Fish Ball Soup ", “Steamed Pork with Preserved Dried Vegetables”, “Rolled Cuttlefish", etc.
Shao Hsing Wine
The rice wine of Shao Hsing in Zhejiang province is renowned throughout the world, not only as an accompaniment to Chinese food but also as a flavouring ingredient in cooking.
It’s made by a process that has remained unchanged for more than 2,000 years. In outdoor urns covered with seaweed mats, rice is fermented with local lake water and an ancient strain of yeast that has been cultivated for centuries.
The process can’t be rushed – the wine ages at least 18 months, and sometimes up to 100 years.
Clear-simmered West Lake Fish
- 6 tablespoons black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon chilli sauce
- 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
- 1 whole fish (1 ½ to 2 pounds), such as tea bass or red snapper, cleaned and scaled
- 6 slices ginger, lightly crushed
- 3 green onions, lightly crushed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Black Vinegar*
Note: To the south of Shanghai is the central coast province of Zhejiang, which is famous in Chinese food circles for its aged black vinegar – a delightfully sweet-smoky condiment made from fermented rice, wheat and millet of sorghum. You may see it sold in Chinese markets as “Chinkiang Vinegar”.
If you can’t find it doesn’t be sour: balsamic vinegar makes a good substitute, though you may want to reduce the amount of sugar in your recipe.
- Combine sauce ingredients in a saucepan; set aside. Cut a slit, ¾ -inch deep, along either side of the dorsal fin.
- Pour 2 inches of water into a wok or pan large enough to hold the fish. Add the ginger, green onions, and salt; bring to a boil.
- Add fish; reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until the fish turns opaque, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove fish from wok and place on a serving plate.
- Heat sauce over low heat and cook, stirring, until sauce is heated through. Pour sauce over the top of the fish.