Chinese food: a bluffer’s guide

Don’t know your Anhui from your Zhejiang? Read our handy guide before your next meal out

A knowledge of the regional cuisines is crucial to any understanding of Chinese food. Don’t know your Anhui from your Zhejiang? Read our handy guide before your next meal out in Dubai.

Shandong cuisine

The area’s long coastline means seafood features prominently, especially high-cost ingredients such as abalone and sea cucumber. This cuisine initially set the standard for gourmet food in northeast China. Expect plenty of elaborate soups, which often cost more than the regular dishes. This boils down to the ingredients used: scallops, fish, whole organic hens and so on. Shandong cuisine also uses heavy and distinct sauces and seasonings. They cook liberally with onions and garlic and like their food to be hearty and salty. Wheat-based breads and cakes also feature prominently: think steamed baozi and mantou, savoury pancakes and flat minced pies.

Must-try dishes
Sweet and sour yellow river carp
The gold standard of sweet and sour fish. The fish has to be presented whole and is cooked so that the tail points up to the sky. If you’re a fan of sweet and sour, the balance and texture of this dish will blow you away.

Dezhou braised chicken

In the past, this dish – from the city of Dezhou – was prepared by steaming the chicken. It is now more commonly braised. The chicken should be extremely tender and has a beautiful Chinese five-spice flavour.

Braised king prawns
This dish features a heavy, soy-based sauce that envelops the king prawns. The prawns should be a special variety that migrate between the Bohai Sea and the brackish Yellow River.

Sichuan cuisine

Long considered to be simple and unsophisticated by many Chinese gourmands, Sichuan food has become hugely popular among regular diners and Westerners – partly because of its straightforward nature. But there is also great variety: ‘a hundred dishes; a hundred different flavours’, as the old local saying goes. The biggest misconception is that it’s all about the spicy, numbing flavours.

Not true. Sichuanese dishes are about the layering of flavours to add depth. Chillies were only introduced to this cuisine a few hundred years ago; Sichuan peppercorns and ginger were the original spicy condiments. The Sichuanese also lay claim to the chilli broad bean paste (doubanjiang); the paste is umami-rich and an important building block in the cuisine. Finally, Sichuan cuisine is not meant to be expensive. The ingredients are cheap and do not require elaborate skills. Chefs only need to understand how to balance and play with the flavours.

Must-try dishes
Strange-flavoured chicken
This is chicken on the bone. The name comes from the sesame paste, which was once considered a ‘strange’ condiment introduced by Muslim traders. It is essentially tahini.

Fish-flavoured aubergine
Aubergines are cut into strips or angled cubes and pan-fried to seal in the juices. A sauce using lots of garlic, scallion, ginger, chilli broad bean paste, vinegar, sugar and dark and light soy lends the dish its flavour layering. Despite the name, there’s no fish involved (it refers to the sauce).

Spiced fish stew
Thin slices of fish are served in a large bowl full of oil, chillies and bean sprouts. Don’t let the oil intimidate you – pick up the slices of tender fish and the oil glides back into the bowl.

Cantonese cuisine

One of the pinnacles of Chinese gourmet cooking. Perhaps the most adventurous eaters in China, the Cantonese enjoy light, subtle flavours, and try to avoid using too many condiments and seasonings. They stick to the basics of high-quality soy sauce, salt and pepper, and rely heavily on prime raw ingredients. This is also the preferred cuisine for Chinese fine dining. Due to the reliance on delicate, quality ingredients, Cantonese chefs have to be skilled in handling and preparing dishes. A key part of Cantonese cuisine, dim sum, is often misunderstood. ‘Dim sum’ does not mean dumplings, but rather a collection of small dishes, including dumplings, but also cakes, roasted pigeon and so on.

Must-try dishes
Stir-fried vegetables

Ask for what’s in season and fresh in the kitchen, and have them prepare it ‘baizhuo’, which is to say quickly blanched and then topped with a slightly sweet scallion-infused soy sauce.

Steamed fish

Pick a live fish from a restaurant aquarium and the kitchen will steam it simply with ginger and soy sauce.

Fujian cuisine

Fujian cuisine is heavily influenced by its coastline and mountainous inland terrain. Seafood- and soup-heavy, there are three main strands to this cuisine: Fuzhou, which is light, with little salt and heavy on the sweet and sour; Southern Fujian, where they like their food sweet and spicy; then Western Fujian, with a heavy use of salt and a taste for the hot, using mustard and pepper to turn up the fire. The Min people from Fujian are the main settlers in Taiwan. As such, Taiwanese food is heavily influenced by Fujian cuisine.

Must-try dishes
Chicken in fermented rice
An organic grass-fed fatty hen is the main ingredient of this traditional Fuzhou dish. The feature seasoning is fermented red rice, which is Fujian’s regional speciality. Aged for one year, this condiment has a unique red hue, sweet-sour taste and is wonderfully aromatic.

Buddha jumps over the wall

A complex and expensive soup typically served at banquets. More viscous than most other soups, it contains ingredients from both sea and land, including sea cucumber, chicken, fish maw, exotic mushrooms, scallops, and more. It is not at all typical of regular Chinese soups.

Hunan cuisine

Best known as the cuisine most loved by Chairman Mao. Rustic in style, the food is fiery and temperamental. As with Sichuan, this cuisine is from a landlocked and humid province – the Hunanese rely on fiery spice to repel ‘dampness’ in the body. The overwhelming and lingering taste sensation is the spice from chillies. The Hunanese prefer their chillies fresh and pickled, rather than the dried chillies favoured by the Sichuanese, and Hunan cuisine tends to be a lot spicier. They also rely on a lot of smoked and cured meats as the main ingredients, or to add flavour. Chilli, shallot and garlic are used liberally –and they do not shy away from oil.

Must-try dishes
Steamed fish head in chilli sauce
Typical of Hunan cuisine, the fish head is steamed to maintain its gelatinous texture. A spicy sauce of freshly chopped chillies with soy sauce and fermented black beans is then poured over to lend flavour.

Dong’an chicken
Slices of chicken breast are gently poached in chicken broth for added depth (some restaurants skimp and poach it in water) and are then fried in a sauce of fresh chillies, salt and vinegar.

Anhui cuisine

This cuisine is similar to that of Jiangsu in terms of the appreciation for delicate and sweet flavours. Unlike their eastern neighbours, they also appreciate spice, while seafood is virtually nonexistent due to the lack of a coastline. As it has always been a poorer region with a lack of access to supply routes, mountain foods play a much more prominent role here: think game, pangolin, frogs, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and other wild vegetables.

Must-try dishes
Bamboo

In the West, fresh bamboo shoots are almost never available and canned ones are always a letdown. In Anhui, the shoots are typically cut into diagonal strips and cooked with umami-rich ingredients
such as dried mushrooms.

Wild vegetables
Spring and summer are the prime foraging seasons for wild vegetables, which are either served as a salad – Chinese style, with a medley of soy sauce, salt, sesame oil and sometimes sugar as the sauce base – or as a stir-fry. Baby daffodil leaves are a favourite in Anhui and are typically served as a tossed salad.

Zhejiang cuisine

Zhejiang folks are very serious about their food – they have even built a culinary museum. The region’s temperate climate and coastline, along with the Yangtze River and a number of lakes, all contribute to its reputation as ‘the land of fish and rice’. The cuisine itself possesses the finesse and skill of Cantonese cooking, mixed with the more pronounced flavours of the north. Zhejiang food is also notable for its lack of grease – they use much less oil than in most other regions.

Must-try dishes
West Lake fish in vinegar
A sweet and sour Hangzhou style fish dish. It uses a gentler cooking technique than the deep-fried approach. Instead, the fish is poached so as to maintain its moist and soft texture.

River shrimp in green tea
A showcase for Zhejiang cuisine that allows the main ingredient to shine through. Here, fresh river shrimp (always a little sweet) are quick fried with a little salt and green tea leaves.

View where to try in Dubai


Where to try in Dubai

China Sea

For an ethnic and authentic Chinese dining experience in Dubai, China Sea is very hard to beat. The restaurant boasts the hustle and bustle of a eateries in China, serving a selection of dishes you rarely see on more Western-geared menus, to a primarily Chinese clientele.
Al Maktoum Street, Deira (04 295 9816).

Hakkasan

Time Out Dubai’s award winning Chinese restaurant represents the peak of modern and of-the-moment Chinese dining, with a highly creative menu of Chinese fusion, in an extremely stylish setting.
Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 384 8484).

The China Club

For a quintessential Cantonese experience, tuck into dim sum at this Old Dubai haunt, which offers a selection of fried and steamed little parcels, dumplings, cakes and puffs, served at an unlimited buffet as well as on a traditional dim sum trolley.
Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek, Deira (04 205 7333).

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