With China covering the immense land within its boundaries, it is no surprise that there are many regional variations in Chinese cuisine. Traditionally, Chinese cooking is divided into five styles of regional cuisines. It is headed by the 3 great schools of Peking to the north, Szechuan to the west, and Chekiang-Kiangsu to the east. Fukien and Canton, of lesser importance cover the southern region.
Peking: the northern cuisine
The northern China presents a great contrast to the rest of the country. The North China Plain, edged by mountains to the north, stretches away in the west to the borders of Inner Mongolia, and is crossed by the infamous Yellow River . Due to its location, the climate is harsh for much of the year. The spring is dry and dusty, the summer is hot and wet, and the fall is calm, dry, and sunny, while the winter is long and freezing cold. It is dramatically subject to drought from the failure of the late spring rains and to flood when the Yellow River, for centuries unstable in its bed, floods over into the low-lying countryside. Thus, the lives and diets of the people living in this region are dictated by these seasons.
Wheat is the staple food, as opposed to rice in the rest of China, due to the harsh climate making it unsuitable to grow rice. Wheat flour is used to make dumplings, breads, steamed buns, noodles and large Chinese biscuits/pancakes. Meat is much more of a luxury up here, mostly eaten during festival times. Mutton and lamb are popular, most likely due to the influence of the neighboring Mongolians. Most northern family meals are dominated by vegetable dishes for economical reasons. Chinese cabbage is the most popular vegetable, as it is most suited to be stored over the winter. Dishes in general are much more plain, solid and nourishing. Soy sauce is used very generously. The use of leeks, onions, garlic, salted and pickled vegetables such as turnips, white radish and cabbages are important items in a rather monotonous diet.
Peking, which lies to the northern corner of the region, has been the capital of China since the 15th century. It is the land of fried bean curd (tofu) and water chestnuts. With it being the capital, and the city of the emperor's residence, it is the only area in the region where the availability and the variety of food is abundant. The Imperial chefs were compensated handsomely, and along with the large, wealthy market in the capital, the infusion of gourmet chefs from all over China brought about a great concentration of culinary expertise in Peking . This tradition is what characterizes Peking cuisine today, which is lighter and more elegant than that of the outlying regions. The greatest delicacy of the region is, of course, the elaborate, world-renowned dish Peking duck. In Peking, ducks are specially bred for this dish and force fed to just the right degree of plumpness and tenderness in preparation for this dish.
In the part 2 of this 4 part series, we will cover Szechuan: the western cuisine.
Editor's Note: Helen Fan grew up in a family that has owned various Asian restaurants all over North America, from Vancouver (Canada), Houston (Texas), Decatur (Illinois), to Chicago (Illinois). She, and the rest of the Fan family are now sharing their decades of knowledge on the art of Chinese cuisine at Chinese Home Cooking.