Chinese food is finally gaining global recognition but this is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cuisines of lesser-known regions

Home to more than 1.4 billion people, China is one of the most diverse countries in the world. The diversity of Chinese cuisine is as vast as the country itself; five geographic regions and more than 30 provinces and other administrative areas, each have their own unique dishes and techniques. To claim a love of Chinese food is therefore rather greedy, if not a little unenlightened.

Happily, thanks to the age of information, we are now seeing more interest in the subject of Chinese food, uncovering lesser-known regional cuisines in the process.

Chinese cuisine has historically been divided into the cuisines of eight provinces, collectively known as the “Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine”: Guangdong (or Cantonese), Sichuan, Anhui, Shandong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Hunan and Zhejiang, all of which have their own character and flavour. This, however, does not even begin to cover the variations where cultures have combined or clashed to create new traditions, languages and cuisines, though it does give many budding Chinese gastronomes a place to start.

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Above A food map of China's lesser-known regional cuisines (Illustration: Steve Yuen)

Generally, Cantonese, Zhejiang and Jiangsu cuisines are known for their natural, milder and occasionally sweeter flavours, with seafood featured in the most classic dishes; Sichuan and Hunan cuisine lean towards the hot and spicy; Shandong food is often described as savoury and also makes the most out of fresh seafood; Anhui and Fujian cuisines include dishes with wild, nourishing ingredients from the mountains or sea.

The term “regional cuisines” also extends to cities, with Shanghai, Beijing and, of course, Hong Kong holding their own in terms of food identity. Then there are the regions influenced by its borders such as Dongbei (meaning Northeast in Chinese), which has historical relations with Mongolia, Russia and Korea—not to mention ethnic groups or subgroups such as the Uyghur from Xinjiang or the Hakka people who migrated periodically throughout history.

Hong Kong, which has long been an international entrepot, has greeted numerous cultures and their cuisines with open arms over the years, allowing the city’s dining scene to evolve exponentially. This includes a variety of Chinese fare, some more familiar than others, that are well-marketed and as a result have become highly popular, with diners equally craving Cantonese dim sum, Shanghainese xiao long bao or Beijing’s famed Peking duck. These cuisines have now garnered global attention, but there is so much more to Chinese cuisine than this.

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Above The mud crab marinated in wine with ginger and coriander from Yong Fu

In recent years, the city has welcomed newcomers but also rekindled a love for older establishments that champion regional Chinese fare. Sun Hon Kee Restaurant, which boasts a long history in Fanling, has become popular for its authentic Hakka cuisine once more; while Putien, a Singaporean import named after the owner’s coastal hometown, offers Fujian cuisine with a focus on natural flavours; and Café Hunan, which is helmed by a chef who is passionate about cooking authentic Hunanese food, has opened several outlets across the city.

Yong Fu, a Shanghai-based brand that opened in 2019, is on a mission to showcase the flavours and ingredients of Ningbo, a historic port city in east China’s Zhejiang province. The restaurant takes a refined approach to its cuisine, serving up elegant versions of traditional dishes including mud crab marinated in wine with ginger and coriander, yellow croaker fish from Yinzhou in sour broth, and its signature Ningbo sweet sesame dumplings.

“The geographical location and climate of Ningbo have given unique resources to develop our gastronomic culture,” explains Qiong Yu, a Ningbo native and the general manager of Yong Fu. “Take Ningbo’s seafood as an example. We call it ‘small seafood’ (xiao xian) in Chinese, which is understood as ‘small in shape and delicate in flavour’. This is what Ningbo cuisine is all about: minimising complexity and aligning with the philosophy that less is more. Our cuisine uses the wisdom of ingredients and the flavour is all about savoury-driven umami.”

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Above Jiangsu Club's dong po braised pork belly

Another regional Chinese restaurant that has a similar drive is the recently opened Jiangsu Club. Here, the cuisine is focused on ingredients sourced from the Jiangsu region as well as neighbouring provinces. This includes products such as Jinhua ham, made from one of China’s four most prominent pig breeds, and top-quality Huadiao wine. Jiangsu Club’s culinary consultant chef Simon Ng Wang-chau has over two decades of experience specialising in Jiangsu cuisine and describes the cuisine as a mix. “It is collectively referred to as Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisine, as there are a lot of similarities between the two. Some will also include Wu Xi and Shanghainese cuisine.

“Jiangsu is known for a variety of cooking techniques—think stewing, braising, steaming, double-boiling and stir-frying, with traditional dishes mainly associated with thicker sauces or vibrant colours,” says Ng. “The cuisine also tends to focus on dim sum and a wide range of noodles.”

Then there are those who are modernising the more popular regional Chinese cuisines, such as Grand Majestic Sichuan. The restaurant, opened by Hong Kong-based group Bla