by Eric Doan
As some of you know, I am currently studying abroad in Shanghai, China. As some of you also know, I am a huge foodie, to the detriment of my wallet and waistline. So I decided to take it upon myself to learn y’all about Chinese cuisine and Chinese food culture.
Chinese cuisine is the most diverse cuisine, period. There are no alternative facts, because there is no cuisine that has as much variety of ingredients and flavors as Chinese cuisine. You can divide Chinese Cuisine into subcategories over and over and you still would not capture the complexity and diversity of Chinese cuisine.
The most common subdivisions of Chinese cuisine are the “Four Great Traditions”. These are Yue cai (Cantonese/Guangdong cuisine), Chuan cai (Sichuan cuisine), Huaiyang cai (Jiangsu cuisine), and Lu cai (Shandong cuisine). These cuisines are unified by Chinese cuisine’s love for balance and wood ear fungus. Nevertheless, in a blind taste test you might not be able to tell that they’re from the same country. Yue cai is the most common Chinese cuisine you’ll find in America. It’s known for a plethora of seafood and a complex sweetness (XO sauce anyone?). Chuan cai (my favorite) is renowned for intense numbing spiciness (ma la). Most of the spicy dishes use the same basic ingredients: dried chilis, ginger, scallions, garlic, Sichuan peppercorn, and doubanjiang. The doubanjiang (fermented broadbean paste) introduces spicy and umami flavors in the same way that spicy miso or doenjang do, while Sichuan peppercorn introduces a unique numbing spiciness. Finally, Lu cai and Huaiyang cai are admittedly not my favorite. But they’re too of the oldest cuisines out there. Lu cai and Huaiyang cai is known for their use of Zhenjiang vinegar and Shandong which add great complexity to their dishes. And actually, one of my favorite dishes, basi digua (candied sweet potatoes) is a Lu cai dish.
I could go on and on, because you can continue to divided Chinese cuisine into eight great traditions, like Hubei cai and Hunan cai, and then even further into twelve great traditions. It’s safe to say that I have fallen in love with Chinese cuisine. But sadly I will not be able to cook it at home. Chinese ingredients like doubanjiang are never up to par in America as they are far too salty. (And frankly any fermented bean paste in America is going to be trash compared to what you find in Asia, like miso). More importantly, burners in America, especially electric burners, do not get as hot as Chinese burners, which means the wok will not be as hot as it needs to be to cook many Chinese dishes.
There is so much more to Chinese cuisine than what you find in America. Cantonese cuisine is great, but it is the vast majority of what you’ll find in America because, for a while, a vast majority of Chinese immigrants were Cantonese. But if you live in the NY area or on the west coast, fear not! There is plenty of Sichuan food nowadays. In my opinion, Chengdu Taste in LA is the best Chinese restaurant in America. There is also seemingly a growing number of Shanxi/Shaanxi cuisine these days. If you’re ever in North Jersey, Shan Shan Noodles is excellent for Shanxi cuisine, and House of Eggrolls has amazing Shaanxi style biang biang mian. And of course, Flushing, NY is the best spot for any kind of Chinese food you want. Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao > Joe Shanghai’s. Not even close.
I’m not Chinese, but Chinese cuisine is truly a testament to the diversity and size of China. I love continuing to explore Chinese culture through its cuisine. Join me on this journey when I get back to Nash-Vegas.