The food culture in China is unique, with flavors and dishes some people might find unrecognizable. But Chinese food is not only unique by itself – there is great diversity in food and culture throughout the different regions within China as well. These differences give us reason to celebrate all of Chinese culture!
I recently sat down with a great friend to do just that. Her love for China, its culture, and its food runs deep! I wanted to find out what’s important to know about the food culture in China, and what it can tell us about the country as a whole.
Meet Jana! She’s a native Texan who moved to China after college, studying the language and traveling around the country.
Jana moved back to Texas a few years ago and we’ve been friends ever since (thanks to my husband, who has known her since college). But she left her heart in China!
Since she’s my resident Chinese expert, I asked her to help me learn more about China. In the process, she hooked me up with some truly authentic (and delicious) Chinese takeout! Since we ordered out, I don’t have a recipe for you today. Instead, let this be a strong encouragement to seek out Chinese food culture in your neighborhood – it may not be far from your own kitchen!
The number one thing Jana thinks people don’t realize about China is how diverse it is. So many of us think about China in one certain way, and don’t realize the vastness of the country and therefore the vast differences across regions, groups of people and even styles of cooking and food cuisines.
China is one of the biggest, most densely populated nations in the world, yet many people lump all Chinese people into the same category and assume they are all alike. How naïve! Are New Yorkers like Texans? Maybe some of them, but surely not all. Are you anything like your neighbors, or even your siblings? I know my sisters and I are all very different – from our tastes in food to our music preferences and everything in between! It’s not hard to imagine then how people from the northern parts of China might differ from those in the southern, or eastern, or western parts.
Chinese culture begins thousands of years ago, in the B.C. eras, with earliest records dating back to the 1600s. That much history almost demands diversity! Pair that with the highest population in the world, and you’re bound to run into differences in culture, traditions, and cooking styles wherever you go. There are 56 ethnic groups in China currently. This number has changed and fluctuated during China’s history, but what remains constant is the way in which each group sets itself apart from others based on religious practices, morals, and traditions ranging from marriage to language.
To give you an example of the diversity of China, let’s go over some of the heavy hitters, which contribute to a culture’s definition anywhere.
China recognizes five religions – Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The government itself is both Communist and atheist, and while religious freedom is technically law, religions not listed here are officially illegal, though there are undoubtedly some people practicing different or traditional religions.
The national language of mainland China is Mandarin. It is the language most commonly spoken and would be used in news broadcasts, performances, written news, and used in subtitles. That being said, there are seven dialects of the Chinese language, though there are differences within these dialects as well. Some of these differences in dialects are so vast they are as far apart as Italian and French! Many Chinese people speak English as well, which is often taught as early as elementary grades.
It should be no surprise that food culture in China varies by region and ethnic groups. There are several cuisines and cooking styles, each of which could surely be dissected and explored all on their own. They can roughly be divided by geographical region – northern, eastern, western, southern, and central China.
Wheat harvests thrive in the northern areas of China, making it a diet staple here. You’ll find more noodles and dumplings in Northern China and its cuisine as a result. In comparison, the climate of southern China is friendlier to rice production – the cuisine there is heavier in rice content. It also includes more varieties of fruits, veggies, and meats. You’ll also find sour, pickled foods in the south, especially in the mountain cultures. This is in part because of the high population of farmers here with historically low incomes – pickling is a great way to preserve food and ensure you can use it for a long time!
Central Chinese cuisine is typically very flavorful and is known for its spiciness, even described as numbingly hot! The eastern region is known for sweeter fair, as well as more seafood and lots of vegetables. In the west, you’ll find higher concentrations of Muslims, and so halal food is common here. The designation as halal indicates food, and especially meat, has been prepared according to Muslim standards and requirements.
Western Chinese food is particularly unique, taking inspiration and flavors from its neighbors, like Nepal and India, for example. Tibet is a western region bordering these other countries and food there is notably diverse, even from other parts of China!
If you’re intrigued by this mini breakdown of Chinese food culture, you can find more in depth information here!
Like many cities, Dallas has a large Chinese community and plenty of opportunities for cultural celebration and immersion. One of the easiest ways to start taking advantage of these opportunities is to try out an authentically Chinese restaurant, like the one Jana introduced me to. Hometown Café was its name and delicious food was totally its game!
With one of the biggest populations in the world, is it any wonder that the food culture in China is one of the most diverse out there as well? Beyond its food culture, Chinese culture worldwide is diverse! Let me encourage you to kick out that preconception that all Chinese food, cultures, and people are the same.
Get out there and explore different parts of the Chinese cuisine! Go meet some people from other cultures and listen to their stories! Check back here soon and let me show you more of the amazing cultures and cuisines around the world!