Food & Drinks in China

If you think good Chinese food consists of sweet and sour pork and fried rice – think again. While fried rice is cooked in China as a meal consisting of leftover rice, sweet and sour pork does not feature on the menu for locals at all. So this begs the question – what exactly is true Chinese cuisine and what are the real food and drinks that Chinese people actually eat and drink?

As China is such a large country with thousands of years of history rivalling Ancient Egypt, it come as no surprise that real Chinese cuisine consists of several styles – some of which is extremely popular in the rest of the world. There were formerly 4 most influential regional/provincial cuisine styles (called the “Four Great Traditions” in China, and these are the Cantonese, Sichuan, Huaiyang, and Shandong. However, this has expanded to 8 culinary traditions – the four additional ones being Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang.

The main features of these cuisines are:

  • Cantonese/Guangdong – A southern Chinese-style which is well known over the world for its flavoursome food such as dim sum.
  • Huaiyang – It is rarely spicy, but usually sweet. It uses the main ingredient as the pivotal ingredient and is usually sweet. It is meticulous and light, and uses pork, freshwater fish, and seafood. Typical dishes include crab soup dumplings, steamed dumplings, thousand layer cake, steamed buns, and tofu noodles.
  • Shandong – Despite the fact that Cantonese food is the most famous around the world, the most influential style is actually Shandongese cuisine. Most culinary styles have developed from Shandongese food and even modern schools in Northern China such as those in Beijing have branched off from Shandong cuisine. This style originates from eastern China, but most homes in Northern China actually make Shandong-style foods. Shandong cuisine consists of 2 culinary styles – Jiaodong and Jinan. Jiaodong is known for its light tastes and wide variety of seafood ingredients used. Jinan is known for its soups as well as incorporating soups into dishes. They also have unique vinegar that has been brewed for hundreds of years – it has a rich and complex flavour which some actually drink on its own.
  • Sichuan – Even through the ancient days, the style of this “heavenly country” which is abundant with food and natural resources was famous for being spicy and pungent as it features chilli, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorn. It also uses ginger, sesame paste, and peanuts. Food here is hot, sour, pungent, aromatic, bitter, sweet, and salty. It uses 20 different cooking techniques including drying, salting, steaming, braising, and pickling. Typical foods from this region include Sichuan hotpot, ma po tofu, tea smoked duck, and kung po chicken.


There are also many more Chinese cuisines recognised which reflect regions or the type of Chinese ethnic group that they belong to. In terms of Beijing cuisine, there are actually 4 styles - Beijing, Imperial, Aristocrat, and Tianjin. All of these different cuisines are different from each other due to a variety of factors such as ingredients available, geography, climate, lifestyle, cooking techniques, and history. In fact, most foods in China have some kind of story behind them – even the humble noodle and tofu!

Staple food for the Chinese people is rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables, herbs, and seasoning. Wheat is favoured especially in the north where they make dumplings, noodles, steamed buns, and bread. Contrary to belief, desserts are also popular such as suncakes and baobin.

Other than water, the staple drinks of China include tea, liquor, and herbal drinks. There are a variety of different teas available, such as green tea, white tea, oolong tea, and scented tea. Herbal drinks are almost is similar to a tea-like soup but it only made by medicinal herbs. Yellow wine has a long history in the country and has an alcohol content of 10 to 15%. However, there are also Chinese liquors that contain 60% alcohol or more.

As China attracts more expatriates, western cuisine is also available in areas such as in the global economic powerhouse of Shanghai. This major city has many non-Chinese restaurants such as American, French, and Italian. These range from fast food chains such as Pizza Hut or McDonald’s right up to classy fine dining.