China's Culinary Diversity in One Map

"Chinese Food" isn't what you think it is. Inside one of the world's most wonderfully diverse cuisines.

Here's a fact: Nearly everyone in America loves Chinese food. Who among us doesn't have childhood memories of takeout dinners served in the distinctive white boxes, followed by a humorous reading of fortune cookies? And Chinese restaurants, with their lengthy menus and Lazy Susans, have been a ubiquitous part of the American landscape for decades.

Yet what most Americans think of as "Chinese food" is actually a hodgepodge of distinct cuisines, some as different from each other as, say, Russian food is from Spanish food. Fiery kung pao chicken comes from Sichuan province, while wonton soup is purely Cantonese. In major Chinese cities, it isn't difficult to find Northeastern, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Xinjiang restaurants -- all on the same block. It's no wonder then that foreign aficionados often lament, after returning to their home country, that the Chinese fare is limited -- and sometimes (most famously in the case of "General Tso's Chicken") not Chinese at all.

In order to get into the finer distinctions of Chinese cuisine, researchers at the Beijing Computational Science Research Center put together this great culinary map of China. 
chinafoodmap.jpgMIT Technology Review

MIT Technology Review tells us a bit more about how they did it:

They began by downloading all the recipes from a Chinese recipe website called Meishijie. This contained almost 8500 recipes based on nearly 3000 ingredients. They grouped the recipes according to their origin in one of 20 regions. Finally they created a food web consisting of the set of all recipes on the set of all ingredients. Where recipe contains an ingredient they draw a link between them. Since each recipe belongs to anyone regional cuisines these links can then also be categorised into cuisines. Counting these links shows how prevalent each ingredient is in each cuisine.

Cuisine, of course, isn't the only aspect of China in which there's a lot of regional variation. Here's a map showing the country's languages and dialects:

chinalanguages.jpg Wikimedia Commons

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.

So the next time your friend invites you out for Chinese food, be sure to ask him to specify whether it's Chuan or YunGui, northwestern or northeastern. And if you really want to impress him, try ordering in Wu, Cantonese, or Tajik. It'll work. Trust me.
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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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