Types of Chinese cuisine
People in North America tend to generalize the food from another country and tend to label it in terms of what is familiar to them. One has to remember that China is a vast country with many regions and each region has their own culinary specialties and styles of cooking based on taste preferences and the availability of ingredients. In North American restaurants the common styles of food are mainly Cantonese, Shanghai, Sichuan or Hunan. Beijing cuisine commonly referred to as Mandarin finds its roots from various other regions of China, and is closely associated with Huaiyang cuisine which has long been praised since ancient times in China. This cuisine is interesting and unusual as they are very plain and simple and each dish characteristically uses one main ingredient as opposed to the more common North American Chinese styles of stir-fry dishes which combine a number of ingredients such as chicken with vegetables. The way that ingredient is cut is also pivotal to its cooking and its final taste. The unique sweet and sour flavour of the vegetable dishes such as soy beans, cucumber or cabbage is derived by the use of sesame oil and Chinkiang vinegar, which is produced in the Zhenjiang region. The dishes are almost never spicy, in contrast to some cuisines of China (e.g., Sichuan or Hunan). Pork, fresh water fish, and other seafood serve as the meat base to most dishes, which are usually more meticulous and light compared to the more “brash” eating styles of northern China. Beijing Duck is also a popular dish featured in many Beijing restaurants as a specialty. The element of traditional Beijing culinary/gastronomical culture of enjoying artistic performances such as Beijing opera while dining directly developed from the similar practice in the culinary/gastronomical culture of Jiangsu/Huaiyang cuisine.
Chinese Imperial cuisine that originated from “The Emperor’s Kitchen” which was a term referring to the cooking facilities inside of the Forbidden City, Beijing where thousands of cooks from the different parts of China showed their best cooking skills to please royal families and officials. Therefore, it is at times rather difficult to determine the actual origin of a dish as the term “Mandarin” is generalized and refers not only to Beijing, but other provinces as well. However, some generalization of Beijing cuisine can be characterized as follows: Foods that originated in Beijing are often snacks rather than full courses, and they are typically sold by little shops or street vendors. There is emphasis on dark soy paste, sesame paste, sesame oil, and scallions, and fermented tofu is often served as a condiment. In terms of cooking method, methods relating to the different ways of frying are often used.]There is a lesser emphasis on rice as an accompaniment than in many other areas of China, as local rice production is limited by the relatively dry climate. For dishes of Beijing cuisine served as full courses, they are mostly originated from other Chinese cuisines and some of the following in particular have been central to the formation of Beijing (Mandarin) cuisine.
The most significant contribution to the formation of Beijing cuisine came from Shandong cuisine, as most chefs from Shandong came to Beijing en masse in Qing Dynasty. Unlike the earlier two cuisines which were brought by the ruling class such as royalties, aristocrats and bureaucrats, and then spread to the general populace, the introduction of Shandong cuisine begun with serving the general populace, with much wider market segment, from the wealthy merchants to working classes.
Note: An interesting observation I made in Beijing is that the locals are not big on desserts! A plate of water melon or other fruit was offered as dessert along with a pot of green tea.