The overwhelmingly large variety of Chinese cuisine comes mainly from the practice of dynastic period, when emperors would host banquets with 100 dishes per meal. A countless number of imperial kitchen staff and concubines were involved in the food preparation process. Over time, many dishes became part of the everyday-citizen culture. Some of the highest quality restaurants with recipes close to the dynastic periods include Fangshan restaurant in Beihai Park Beijing and the Oriole Pavilion. Arguably all branches of Hong Kong eastern style or even American Chinese food are in some ways rooted from the original dynastic cuisines.
A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine, but perhaps the best known and most influential are four major schools – Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Jiangsu cuisine and Sichuan cuisine. These can be expanded into eight – Shandong, Sichuan, Yangzhou, Guangdong, Hunan, Fujian, Anhui, and Zhejiang. Sometime Beijing and Shanghai cuisines are added. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as available resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyle. One style may favour the use of lots of garlic and shallots over lots of chilli and spices, while another may favour preparing seafood over other meats and fowl.
Cantonese Cuisine 广东菜 [guǎngdōngcài], also called Yue cai 粤菜 [yuècài] is southern Chinese cooking. Dim sum, literally “touch your heart”, is a Cantonese term for small hearty dishes. These bite-sized portions are prepared using traditional cooking methods such as frying, steaming, stewing and baking. It is designed so that one person may taste a variety of different dishes. Some of these may include rice rolls, lotus leaf rice, turnip cakes, buns, shui jiao-style dumplings, stir-fried green vegetables, congee porridge, soups, etc. The Cantonese style of dining, yum cha, combines the variety of dim sum dishes with the drinking of tea. Cantonese style is the unique and charm dishes, which enjoy a long history and a good reputation both at home and abroad. It is common with other parts of the diet and cuisine in Chinese food culture.
Shandong Cuisine 山东菜 [shāndōngcài] is commonly and simply known as Lu cai 鲁菜 [lǔcài] With a long history, Shandong Cuisine once formed an important part of the imperial cuisine and was widely promoted in North China. However, it isn’t so popular in South China and even in the all-embracing Shanghai. Bread and noodles are often used instead of rice. The chief specialty is Beijing Duck, eaten with pancake and plum sauce. Another chicken specialty is Veggar’s Chicken, supposedly created by a beggar who stole the emperor’s chicken and then had to bury it in the ground to cook it – the dish is wrapped in lotus leaves and baked all day in hot ashes.
Jiangsu Cuisine 江苏菜 [jiāngsūcài] also known as Su cai 苏菜 [sūcài] Cuisine for short is noted for its use of seafood. It favours cooking techniques such as braising and stewing. It is very famous all over the world for its distinctive style and taste. It is especially popular in the lower reach of the Yangtze River. Typical courses of Jiangsu cuisine are Jinling salted dried duck (Nanjing’s most famous dish), crystal meat (pork heels in a bright, brown sauce), clear crab shell meatballs (pork meatballs in crab shell powder, fatty, yet fresh), Yangzhou steamed Jerky strips (dried tofu, chicken, ham and pea leaves), triple combo duck, dried duck, and Farewell My Concubine (soft-shelled turtle stewed with many other ingredients such as chicken, mushrooms and wine).
Sichuan cuisine 四川菜 [sìchuāncài] or 川菜 [chuāncài] is the hottest of the four categories, famed for bold flavors, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the unique flavour of the Sichuan peppercorn 花椒 [huājiāo] and zhitianjiao 指天椒 [zhǐtiānjiāo], Peanuts, sesame paste and ginger are also prominent ingredients in Szechuan cooking. Specialties include frogs’ legs and smoked duck; the duck is cooked in peppercorns, marinated in wine for 24 hours, covered in tea leaves and cooked over a charcoal fire.
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