The Four Schools of Chinese Cooking

A look at regional cuisine and signature dishes

Modern times have blurred some of the regional lines, and it is now not unusual to find specialties from one area prepared in all parts of the country. But the traditions of each area endure, so that a devotee of Chinese cooking is always aware of a dish's origin-and the flavors, ingredients, and techniques that go with it. Because of that, it helps to understand the four primary regions, or schools, of Chinese cooking: The Northern, Eastern, Western, and Southern schools.

Most classic Chinese cuisine is inherently healthful because of its reliance on vegetables, vegetable oils, stir-frying, and fat-free condiments. But sodium levels can get pretty high because many condiments such as soy, oyster, and hoisin sauces are higher in sodium. Our solution? Low-sodium soy sauce. We also kept the fat down by using less vegetable oil than traditional recipes call for.

Here's more information on the origins of Chinese cuisine, and recipes for some of its signature dishes.

The Northern School includes Beijing, the northern provinces, and Inner Mongolia. Its cuisine is the most eclectic, incorporating the refined cooking of palace kitchens and Shandong province (where classic Chinese cuisine originated), as well as Mongolian and Muslim dishes.

Claim to fame: Noodles, steamed breads, and pancakes are served instead of rice.

Cooking styles: Stir-frying, pan-frying, braising, and barbecuing.

Favorite seasonings: Garlic, chives, leeks, star anise, and sweet bean sauces.

Signature dish:  Moo Shu Pork With Mandarin Pancakes.

The Eastern School encompasses two centers, Shanghai and Fuzhou, along with the eastern provinces. Nicknamed Heaven on Earth and The Land of Fish and Rice, it's renowned for its vegetarian specialties and subtle, refined flavors.

Claim to fame: Source of China's best soy sauces and some of the best rice wines.

Cooking styles: Red-cooking (braising in soy sauce-based mixture), stir-frying, steaming, and quick simmering.

Signature dishes:  Cinnamon-Beef Noodles and Steamed Vegetarian Dumplings.

The Western School, acclaimed for its spicy dishes, includes Sichuan, Hunan, and Yunnan provinces. Its sultry, subtropical climate may be one reason it is also known as The Land of Abundance.

Claim to fame: Known for tongue-tingling heat.

Cooking style: Flavorings and condiments are combined for intricate blends of hot, sour, sweet, and salty in one mouthful.

Favorite seasonings: Chiles (fresh, dried, and in pastes), peppercorns, ginger, garlic, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and nuts.

Signature dish:  Sichuan-Style Stir-fried Chicken With Peanuts.

The Southern School includes Canton-praised by some as the haute-cuisine capital of China-and Hong Kong, known for combining Cantonese cooking with contemporary techniques and ingredients from the West. The Cantonese are considered some of China's most adventurous diners, relishing all sorts of exotica.

Claim to fame: Masters of dim sum (snacks).

Cooking style: Ingenious blending of superb ingredients and refined techniques.

Signature dishes:  Steamed Salmon With Black Bean Sauce, Hoisin Barbecued Chicken, Stir-fried Broccoli With Oyster Sauce, and Shrimp Fried Rice.