If there is one cuisine that is known for being many things to many people, then it has to be Chinese. No other cuisine can claim to be authentic and yet as adapted as food from this part of the world.
For wherever one goes, there is bound to be a laborious Chinese community which settled long ago and brought along their style of cooking. Availability of ingredients may have led to modifications so eventually what emerged was a style of cooking that was based on the principles and philosophy of the mainland and yet distinctly different.
From New York to London, Australia to South Africa and even as far as Argentina, every country has evolved its own version of what is very generously and generically termed as Chinese food.
Even in India we have our own version of Chinese food, but that too varies, from the spiced and cooked-till-soggy style in the North to the more fiery and sharp flavoured in the South.
Yet, none of this comes anywhere close to the cuisine that is to be found on the mainland or around Southeast Asia. Here are five very established styles of the cuisine that can be found as one tours around the region.
1. Hunan: This is the cuisine that is rich and creamy with rice and fish aplenty. Among the various Chinese regional cooking styles, Hunanese is known to be among the most delicate ones both in flavours and textures.
2. Teochew/Fujian: Although I have grouped these, they do have slight differences. The dishes are mild in flavour and comprise seafood and vegetables aplenty. The cuisines are about the freshness of the ingredients and less about spices. Umami flavour is a big play in this cuisine.
3. Cantonese: Hong Kong and the Southern reaches of China are the principle regions for this food, although this is perhaps the most popular version of Chinese food. When you visit a restaurant, chances are that Cantonese comprises a major portion of the menu. The region is known to produce many chefs and as they travel the world they have made the cuisine popular and a culinary mainstay. In the original version, the food is more about offals, while regular meats like goat and lamb are rarer.
4. Sichuan: When you think of hot and spicy Chinese food, this is the region from where it comes— from the southern provinces of mainland China.
5. Peranakan: A type of Chinese cuisine that is found in Singapore. Singaporean Chinese draws heavily from its migrant population, so expect Malaysian, Indian, and even Thai influences. The food is spicy and flavourful. The famous seafood broth, Laksa is one example of this cuisine.
6. Taiwanese: This is more a regional variation that emerged from Chinese settlers and local Aboriginal tribes blending their recipes. And then the Japanese occupation also left its mark. The beef noodle soup is one popular dish. Seafood is important as a source of protein, but also given the isolated location of the island, a chief ingredient in many classic dishes.
So the next time you head out for Chinese and are aiming for something authentic, do have a word with the chef and know exactly what branch of the cuisine is about to be served up.