Asian Food Primer: Chinese Food

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
by David Johnson
Chinese Take-Out Box and Chopsticks

The term "Chinese food" can be misleading because there are many Chinese styles of cooking.

Scholars believe that Chinese cooking as we know it today dates to the Shang Dynasty, which lasted from 1500 to 1000 B.C. During this period China emerged as a well-organized agricultural society, which used complex writing, the calendar, and made splendid bronze sculptures.

In later dynasties, China expanded and cuisine began to acquire distinctive northern and southern characteristics. Eventually, various styles of Chinese cooking came to be recognized. Beijing, Sichuan or Szechwan, and Cantonese are among the best known in the United States.


Cooking from throughout China has influenced Beijing cuisine, because emperors of the Ming and Ch'ing (Manchu) dynasties held cooking contests, drawing chefs from across the empire. Many Beijing dishes originated in the imperial kitchens and today some fancy restaurants boast their faithfulness to classical imperial recipes.

Common ingredients:

Garlic Bunch

beef, chicken, vegetables, wheat products, vinegar, garlic

Popular dishes:

Beijing (Peking) duck, hot pots of mutton and sauce; bean curd with ginger; beef, chicken, or shrimp lo mein; butterfly shrimp; tofu; dumplings; noodles; breads


The Western provinces of Sichuan and Hunan are known for their hot spicy food.

Common ingredients:

Wild Herbs

fish, domestic animals, birds, wild herbs, garlic, scallions, chilies

Popular dishes:

stir-fried chicken with dry chili peppers; bean curd with spicy minced pork; double-cooked pork


Most Chinese in North America came from Southern China. Therefore, Cantonese food is often synonymous with Chinese cuisine.

Common ingredients:

Mortar and Snake

everything and anything: seafood, poultry, wild birds, snakes, rats, insects, even dogs and cats, vegetables, herbs, rice, soy and other sauces

Popular dishes:

whole steamed fish; poached chicken; roast pigeon; Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce; barbecued spare ribs; chicken fried rice; Cantonese egg foo yung; stir-fried lobster and chicken

More Information:

Map of China

Asian Foods Guide

Dim sum is a Family Affair

The meal known as dim sum also has a long tradition in southern China. Usually eaten at breakfast or lunch, and frequently as a family meal on Sunday, dim sum consists of many courses of bite-sized portions. Waiters push trays loaded with noodle, dumpling, vegetable, and meat dishes. Diners indicate what they want. Some restaurants may offer as many as 100 different dishes in one day. Tea is consumed throughout the meal, which is often a noisy, cheerful occasion.

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