Cuisine and Geography

Xiao Long Bao

Image obtained from

In most Chinese restaurants outside of Mainland China, you can acquire anything from Singapore noodles to northern-style meat buns. But in China, cuisine is often determined by locale, with stores and restaurants toting specific ingredients from specific regions. There is actually a phrase used to explain the general principles of Chinese cuisine.

南甜,北咸 ,东酸,西辣

Nan2 tian2, Bei3 xian2, Dong1 suan1, Xi1 la4, 

The South is sweet, the North is salty, the East is sour, and the West is spicy. 

A good way to remember this is by remembering specific provinces. For instance, Sichuan food, known for its extreme spiciness, is located in mid-western China, just east of Tibet. Much of Sichuan food entails an assortment of peppers and peanut sauces meant to bring both joy and tears from their spiciness. In fact, there is a soup known as 麻辣烫 (Ma2 La4 Tang4), that translates to simply “numbing spicy soup,” which uses a significant amount of Sichuan pepper and chili oil. On the other hand, in the southern provinces like Guangdong, fruits including mandarins and tangerines are often used for flavoring dishes, giving is a sweetened flavor.

Another important difference in local cuisine is whether the staple food is rice or noodles. Most outsiders associate rice and tea as traditional Chinese cuisine; however, in northern and parts of western China, noodles are often served as a side instead of rice. These can also be flavored with local condiments, and the style eaten (thick vs. thin noodles, for instance) is up to personal taste.

If you are ever visiting China, be sure to take note of which region a restaurant caters to, for a menu featuring Sichuan cuisine will certainly be different than one featuring specialties from Beijing. And unlike Western Chinese restaurants, they may not have options from other localities to choose from.


Basics of Chinese Language


Traditional of “Hanyu” on top, Simplified on bottom. Image from: Wikipedia

Chinese, or “Hanyu,” looks like a daunting mammoth of a language to anyone who grew up outside the culture. Here are some basics to the absolute beginner who is interested in learning more about the language.

  1. What became known as the Chinese language began developing as early as 1300-1200 BCE on oracle bones, but documents containing the written language date back to 3000-3500 years ago.
  2. Today, over 1.2 billion people speak the language. Dialects based on region and locality are numerous, but the standardized form is known as “Putonghua,” or the Beijing Dialect.
  3. There are two current forms of Mandarin Chinese written: Traditional and Simplified. Traditional was utilized for the majority of Mainland Chinese history and is still in use today, both in government and in Taiwan. Simplified is used primarily in Mainland China, and is often the version taught in overseas programs.
  4. Chinese grammar is perhaps the most basic in the world for a number of reasons:
    1. There are no plurals. Instead, numbers and “measure words” (such as a “cup” of water) are used to denote more than one of an object.
    2. There are no verb conjugations. To change tenses, you simply add one or two extra characters. There is also no difference between “present” and “future” tenses. It’s good to think of it as “it has been done” or “it has yet to be done.”
    3. Grammar runs as follows in almost every scenario: Subject + Verb + Object. Adverbs and adjectives are often placed before verbs.
  5. The most difficult part of learning Mandarin Chinese is the five tones. The way a sound is pronounced ultimately determines the meaning of the sound. For instance, the sound “ma” can mean “mother” or ” to scold,” dependent solely on the sound being made. Note that the characters used are also different, but when speaking it, the tone denotes the character being utilized.
  6. Each character represented an image of itself. A great example of this is 火,which means “fire.” You can easily see a crackling fire in the image, with two sparks flying, one on each side. More complicated characters combine numerous images into one.
  7. Anyone can learn the language! If interested in resources, be sure to check out the Sources of Learning page for more details!

Lapsang Souchong


If you have never tried Lapsang Souchong, imagine the smell of a crackling fire in the woods. Now imagine that smell emanating from a hot cup of water. That is Lapsang Souchong.

Known as one of the most pungent black teas in the world, Lapsang Souchong is a flavor of tea originating from the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province. The flavor is obtained by placing the withered tea leaves over wooden fires, then sealed inside barrels to capture more of the smoky aroma. While the smell is stronger than most teas, the flavor is contained just enough to keep from being overwhelming. Due to the intensity of the scent, however, the tea is known for attracting either loving praise or complete and total distaste. Interesting enough, it was considered to be a favored tea flavor of Winston Churchill (The Story of Tea).

The Cheongsam, or Qipao


Image Found at Modern QiPao

The Cheongsam, or Qipao in Mandarin, is a highly popular Chinese garment consisting of a one-piece, tight-fitting dress that generally comes down to the knees. Worn primarily by women, the dress is believed by most to have developed during the Qing Dynasty. It became popularized during the 1920s and 1930s when elite and upper class women began to wear it, particularly in Shanghai, only for its use to dwindle during the Communist Revolution. The style continued to flourish in Hong Kong, however, where many Shanghainese tailors fled. A recent resurgence has found the dress to be back in style both in Hong Kong and in Mainland China, particularly in Shanghai, for formal occasions or work attire.