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China's Culinary Diversity in One Map

The Atlantic published a culinary map of China put together by researchers at the Beijing Computational Science Research Center.

"There remains a perception of China is that it's a giant land of sameness, a billion-man nation of people who think alike, talk alike, and eat alike. Instead, it's a nation cobbled together through over 50 centuries of invasion, war, consolidation, and treaty, one that has only really existed in its present form for a brief sliver of time. These regional differences -- of language and cuisine -- are truly vestiges of an earlier, less unified era."


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  1. Interesting, but a bit of a straw man, IMO. I cannot imagine how any educated person would think a nation as vast as China is homogeneous. Who would think food in Harbin would be like food in Macao? The culinary traditions of Fujian would closely resemble those of Gansu?

    20 Replies
    1. re: Perilagu Khan

      Well, the vast numbers who believe that "Chinese" food is only represented by the New York Cantonese-American genre of their childhood, for example, would seem to support the article's point. I can't tell you how many times I've heard an otherwise educated someone say, "that's not real Chinese food" when served something different.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        I think that's a case of people simply not giving the matter much consideration. But if you asked them, is the food at your local Chinese takeout representative of the food from the whole of China, I imagine most educated people would answer no. People eat Cantonese and Chinese-American because that is all that is available in most places except for large metropolei. Doesn't mean they think it utterly defines Chinese food.

        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          I guess you have a different interpretation of "that's not real Chinese food" than I do.

          1. re: Perilagu Khan

            >>...I imagine most educated people would answer no.<<

            This - to me - is the key to your response. The problem with it is that most are not educated enough (or care to be) to know that China has so many cultures/subcultures that are reflected in the various cuisines. To many people who saw Mao's hundreds of millions of "followers" in Maoist garb, each was a carbon copy of each other, thereby instilling the monocultural view of China. Today's media does little to dispel or educate their audiences. To most, Xinjiang, Sichuan and Shandong are analogous regions if they've even heard of or recognized them at all. Enforcing this here at home are the somewhat LCD menus that have the standard pseudo-Chinese dishes in just about every neighborhood throughout this country.

            For the handful of "Educated" peoples who might have a geographic grasp on the various regions, accessing dishes that are truly reflective of the respective regions' cuisines can be difficult at best. Without a community from which these dishes can have a supportive base, the more "ethnic" dishes are - at best - hiding behind vague brown sauce dish menus.

          2. re: Melanie Wong

            I see so many, who also classify "Mexican Food," by the limited experience that they have, in their particular region. Though much smaller than China, there are far too many regional differences to begin to list.

            Thank you for that map.


          3. re: Perilagu Khan

            Well, most people think of Indian food as homogeneous too. In fact, most people think of the entire Middleeast as one big similar group of people. They think a Turk is the same as an Arab same as a Persian...etc.

            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

              Adding to the ignorance, Moroccan restaurants are usually categorized as 'Middle Eastern.' The rest of North African doesn't even exist.

              1. re: Steve

                Yep. Out here in the San Francisco Bay Area where we have many Afghani restaurants, they're also called Middle Eastern. No folks, Central Asian.

                1. re: Steve

                  Given that a high percentage of folks couldn't find Mexico (let alone Morocco!) on a map, this is hardly surprising. It's almost like complaining that people don't know that the Oprichnina and the Smutnoe Vremia are not identical phenomena in Russian history.

                  PS--I would argue that there are sufficient commonalities in the cuisine stretching from Morocco to Kazakhstan that one could reasonably term it "Middle Eastern" cuisine, while still understanding that there is inevitably a great deal of variety within that vast region.Thus it's an acceptable shorthand.

                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                    No argument from me concerning ignorance in general, but it tends to be selective. The Levantine tradition also includes Greek cuisine....... but nobody calls Greek Restaurants "Middle Eastern."

                    1. re: Steve

                      I have a feeling that people judge based on religion.... every Islam countries sort of become one thing: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Afghan, even Pakistan, despite the fact that Turkey is very different than Pakistan.

                  2. re: Steve

                    There is a French word that called the Maghreb which covers North Africa & the Near Eastern countries you are talking about. For the Near East, I prefer the name term Southwest Asia. Firstly, because I'm really contrary, and, secondly, because it locates these countries in a particular continent.

                    1. re: Kalivs

                      The Maghreb is west of Egypt. The term means 'Setting Sun'. In France they would refer to the countries east of Egypt as the Machreq (Rising Sun).

                      Getting back to food, I don't think you'll find Moroccan b'stiya, tagine, or couscous in Saudi Arabia, so little to do with Middle Eastern cuisine.

                      1. re: Steve

                        I think you are right in terms of its modern usage but at one point in time the term did include the Middle East. And, while I haven't had cous cous in Arab restaurants, I have had versions of b'stiya and braised dishes.

                        I wasn't trying to be preachy. But, geography and history help me think about food.

                        1. re: Kalivs

                          Complicating matters further: in Middle Eastern locales where the Levantine tradition was present, the food is different from what I might call 'straight up' Middle Eastern, so what they eat in Lebanon has a different proflle from Yemen.

                          Though using country-by-country distinctions may not always be the proper culinary dividing line.

                  3. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    How do we know most people think Indian food is homogeneous? Perhaps they do, but I'm not aware of any proof to that effect. In point of fact, I think Indian food is still rather peripheral in the US. Most people here know practically nothing about it. But for those of us who adore it, I think we understand that there is a great deal of variety within Indian cuisine.

                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                      <How do we know most people think Indian food is homogeneous?>

                      Just a guess. At least, I think I hear more people talk about the variations among the different Chinese cuisines than I hear about various Indian foods. Again, just a guess. I could be wrong.

                  4. re: Perilagu Khan

                    I cannot imagine how any educated person would think a nation as vast as China is homogeneous.

                    Try imagining. Again. And harder.


                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      I did not, in that linked post (nor in the reply above it) say that the Chinese cuisines are homogenous.

                      I wrote that UC Riverside anthropologist E.N. Anderson ("The Food of China” (Yale University Press, 1990) says that Chinese food is defined by a flavor principle of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and green onions and cooking methods that include stir-frying and steaming.

                      In his book Anderson also explores the differences among the regional Chinese cuisines.

                    2. re: Perilagu Khan

                      "I cannot imagine how any educated person would think a nation as vast as China is homogeneous."

                      Uh, I went to undergrad with people who thought Asia and Africa were countries. There are a lot of ignorant fucking people walking around.

                      Thanks for the article, OP.

                      1. Thanks, this is very informative.

                        1. I find it helpful to look at the City Weekend listing for Chinese regional cuisines represented in Beijing restaurants.

                          There are well-represented cusines such as Cantonese, Dongbei, Hunan, Sichuan. Shaanxi, Xingjiang, Yunnan, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Guizhou, and Beijing itself.

                          Under the category of Other Regional Chinese Cuisines, restaurants listed represent Jiangxi, Tianjin, Qinghai, Chaozhou, Anhui, Hubei, Macau, Hakka, Mongolian, Fujian, Shanxi and di san Xi'an.

                          1. This is precisely why I love The Gourmet Chinese Regional Cookbook, Calvin B.T. Lee and Audrey Evans Lee

                            1. I wouldn’t say cobbled together. The geographic China we know of today was accomplished by the Qing – who more than doubled China’s size.

                              Unlike Europe, which became separated by its many languages, China united under one written language fairly early on. Also in its long history, China was often ruled by foreigners: the Khitan (Liao Dynasty, 907-1125) Jurchen (Jin Dynasty, 1115-1234), Mongols (Yuan Dynasty, 1271-1368) and Manchus (Qing Dynasty,1644-1912) were all ethnic minority groups who were able to impose their will on a Han majority.

                              British journalist Jasper Becker (“City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China,” 2008) is amazed at how a small group of about two million Manchus could rule over an empire of 250 million Han Chinese.

                              1. I still remembered when my parents hosted 3 guests from China to dinner at our family home in Singapore back in 1994. My mum prepared a Chaozhou (Southern Cantonese) style dinner of steamed fish with tomatoes, ginger, salted plum; braised abalone; oyster omelette; tofu with preserved vegetables; deep-fried meat rolls; steamed crabs with preserved bean-sauce dip; and also threw in a HK-style roast goose catered from a well-known restaurant in town.

                                Our dinner guests were Northern Chinese from Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (one was the local governor, another runs the largest bank there) - I still remembered their (barely disguised) look of horror at the whole steamed fish. Throughout the meal, they hardly ate *anything*, though they politely pretended to enjoy themselves - I guess Chaozhou food was too alien for Manchu tastes. On hindsight, my mum said, she should have just served grilled lamb chops :-D

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: klyeoh

                                  This is a really interesting thread. I came to CA in the early 80's from London as an 11 year old. In the process, I was put in ESL and told I wasn't Asian. My parents had an Indian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley when there was only one grocery store where you could buy Indian products. The food they served had no relation to the food we ate at home. It was your typical tandoori chicken/naan/vindaloo joint. If they strayed from that then customers would complain that the food wasn't "Indian." My parents taught me not to eat at restaurants that had a mishmash of different regional cuisines. Find out where the chef is from and ask them to make food from that area. If he has training or passion for another regional cuisine then that is different. However, there have been so many times when I will take someone out for a meal and they will be looking for the chicken tikka masala!

                                  1. re: Kalivs

                                    India is about the same size as China - geographically and also in terms of population - so one can imagine similarly the diversity of food there.

                                    Once, back in 2004 whilst in Bangalore, I came across an interesting item: dhokla, on the breakfast buffet table. I'd *never* seen that, because Indian food in Singapore tended to be South Indian - mainly Tamil, Keralan and Sri Lankan. I asked my colleagues in the Bangalore office later that day about the dhokla, and was surprised that most of them (local Kannadigas, but also with a sizeable Tamil expat presence) had absolutely *no* idea what I was talking about. That was, until a Gujerati guy from Delhi said, "Yes, I know what you're referring to - dokhla is a common dish back home".

                                    1. re: Kalivs

                                      "Find out where the chef is from"

                                      Great point! And you don't have to be Indian to do that.

                                      Anyone can ask; it's best to strike up a conversation with the 'staff.' Makes life more delicious.

                                      1. re: Steve

                                        Exactly...my parents are vegetarians, so we would have to find that one Indian restaurant where my Dad could eat safe in the knowledge his food wouldn't be contaminated. I found him six Indian restaurants in Prague. Then, we figured out they were speaking punjabi in the kitchen and talked to the chef. We had a wonderful punjabi meal in a restaurant that had a South Indian menu.
                                        Dokhla is awesome. I find most Gujarati snacks great. But, sometimes they put sugar in their daal and qorma. The qormas from my region tend to be fiery hot with no sweetness. Regional differences always fascinate me.

                                        1. re: Steve

                                          The chef at my favorite local Indian restaurant is from Hyderabad, and probably 50% of the dishes on the menu are native to Hyderabad and the surrounding region.

                                    2. More soft power.

                                      The Atlantic could just as easily make it a weekly article about numerous "misunderstood" countries and their respective cuisines.