In this article, we provide an overview of the Eight Great Cuisines of China as well as a very short history of the term “Eight Great Cuisines”. This will be our starting point for a series of conversations with Chinese from these regions about the food of their hometown.
- Shandong (鲁菜): salty, braised seafood
- Sichuan (川菜): hot and spicy, Sichuan pepper
- Guangdong (粤菜): subtle flavours, stewing
- Jiangsu (苏菜): artistic presentation, balanced flavour; seafood and soups
- Zhejiang (浙菜): fresh and delicate, seafood
- Fujian (闽菜): mildly sweet and sour, soups
- Hunan (湘菜): Sour and spicy, stir-fry or steaming
- Anhui (徽菜): fresh and simple, stir-fry or stewing
If you have ever been to China, you will have noticed that literally every village has its own famous local dish. But then, looking at this map of the Eight Great Cuisines of China, the Provinces of the Eight Cuisines only cover a small part of China. Also, if we think of the 55 ethnic groups in China that are not Han, their cuisines are as well left out. Then, how did it come about that the food from these eight Provinces became the “great” cuisines? If we do not want to assume that there are eight cuisines just because eight is a lucky number, then we have to dig a bit deeper into the – unfortunately not very well researched – subject of Chinese food history.
There are and have been many ways to divide China’s rich food cultures into regional units. An example is the famous North and South divide based on the respective staple food (wheat in the North, rice in the South), or the saying of 南甜北咸东辣西酸 (South is sweet, North is salty, East is spicy and West is sour). Interestingly, the now very common division into eight great cuisines is actually a rather recent one. It appeared sometime in the 20th century, some say as late as the 1970’s.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, it became common to speak of “Four Great Cuisines.” In literary circles, this division into famous regional cuisines is usually dated back to Qingbao Leichao, an anthology of Qing-Dynasty essays published in 1917. These Four Cuisines (of Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, and Jiangsu) can also be seen as representing the cuisines of the North, West, South, and East, respectively. Over time, these cuisines were differentiated into the Eight Cuisines.
In the interesting book “Chinese Food Culture” (中国饮食文化), edited by Wang Shiman, the trend towards a regional differentiation of cuisines is explained with the development of the food sector. In their view, the talk of “Four Great Cuisines” started in the final years of the Qing Dynasty, because during that time, urban centers began to develop, with people pouring in from other Provinces. To cater for these urbanites who didn’t necessarily eat at home anymore, the catering trade began to flourish. As competition between restaurants increased, restaurant owners would try to differentiate themselves with name tags that included regional markers, such as “Guangdong Kitchen” “Sichuan Restaurant,” and the like.
Accepting his argument, we may well explain why the differentiation of the “Four Great Cuisines” into “Eight Great Cuisines” took place rather recently. Urbanisation in China accelerated substantially starting in the 1950’s, and especially with the Reform and Opening-Up Policy in the late 70’s, the catering sector started to boom.
So are we to see the Eight Great Cuisines of China rather as a result of a growing catering industry and clever marketing strategies? This is a question we will bear in mind when interviewing Chinese living in Switzerland who are originally from the regions of the Eight Great Cuisines. What is the flavour they associate with their home cuisine, what are their favourite dishes, and what are the challenges to preparing them here in Switzerland?