China covers a land area comparable to that of Western and Southern Europe, and within its boundaries lie nearly every known land form: snow-capped alpine mountains, fertile river valleys, bamboo forests, dune strewn deserts, even tropical rainforests. The country also boasts 56 unique ethnic groups, each with their own unique cultures. Needless to say, all of this makes for some of the world's most diverse cuisine.
Space doesn't permit an explanation of it all. Thankfully, the Chinese have a convenient shorthand already in place. Traditionally, they recognize Four Great Traditions, which roughly correspond to the cardinal directions on a compass.
In the north, there is Shandong or Dongbei cuisine, best known for its variety of seafood and cooking techniques like braising. Rice cultivation is minimal in these parts, so they get most of their carbs from staples like oats and wheat, which comes in the form of steamed buns or noodles. Try Dong Bei Ren (东北人) for experiencing authentic north taste and culture.
In the south, there is Guangdong, or Cantonese, cuisine. This region boasts a subtropical climate with a long growing season and a wide variety of flora and fauna, making it easily the most diverse of the Four Great Cuisines. The Cantonese believe that as long as you've got fresh ingredients, the food will speak for itself. Vegetables are often given a quick stir-fry with little more than garlic and ginger for seasoning. Meats and fish are often seasond the same way and cooked in a steamer. Rice replaces steamed buns as the prefered staple. It's also the Cantonese who gave the world dim sum, those small, snack-sized portions of dumplings, spare ribs etc. that are a Sunday afternoon institution the world over. We recommend Tang Gong (唐宫) for its Dim Sum as well as Cha Canting (查餐厅) for its HK diner-style dishes. For upscale and formal deals, you may find them at Shen Yue Xuan (申粤轩) or some luxury hotel restaurants.
To the west, things start to get spicy with Sichuan cuisine. The Sichuanese have a penchant for chili peppers. They're an essential ingredient to the region's most renowned dishes like gongbao jiding 宫保鸡丁(a.k.a. kungpao chicken) or mapo tofu 麻婆豆腐. But that's hardly what makes the food of Sichuan unique. That honor goes to a lesser-known member of the citrus family that the Chinese call huajiao 花椒, or "flower pepper." Also known as "Sichuan peppercorn," this ingredient gives much of the region's cuisine a unique tongue-numbing quality that balances out the heat of the chilies. It's a taste sensation that the Chinese refer to asma la 麻辣, or numbing spice. The Sichuanese are also known for their pickled and preserved vegetables as well as their smoked meats and sausages. Editor's picks: Sichuan Citizen (龙门阵茶屋), or Pin Chuan(品川).
Finally, there is Jiangsu in the east. Known in China as the "Land of Fish and Rice," Jiangsu was once a cultural capital of China. Cities like Yangzhou benefitted greatly from the commerce of the Grand Canal that joined the Yangtze with the Yellow River to the north. The wealthy merchant class that arose developed a taste for fresh, highly seasonal cuisine with an emphasis on exhaustive preparations like intricate cutting techniques. The diversity of ingredients is comparable to that of Cantonese food, but with greater emphasis on freshwater fish and crustaceans. Cooking techniques include quick-frying, red braising, stewing, as well as pickling and preserving. Editor's pick: Jardin de Jade(苏浙汇).
You'll find examples of all of the above in Shanghai, but there is also vibrant local food culture. Sure, it lacks some of the pedigree of the "Big Four." In fact, some might even argue that it's really just an amalgam of cuisines from the surrounding areas, namely Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces. Shanghai, after all, is historically a city of immigrants internal or otherwise. Nevertheless, much of the local fare it is quite excellent. No visit to Shanghai is complete without a taste of its two signature dumplings: steamed xiaolong bao 小笼包 and pan-friedshengjian bao 生煎包. Red-braised pork, or hongshao rou 红烧肉 is also a must. It's almost mandatory that at least one of these are served in any given Shanghainese restaurant. Being a port city, seafood also plays important role in the diet, particularly in the colder months when Shanghai residents dine on hairy crab, which is prized for its sweet meat and rich, fatty roe. Check out ye Shanghai(夜上海), 1221, or Lao Yang Fang 老洋房 (Victorian Home Garden Restaurant) for these unique delicacies. Of course if your budget was enough, Fu 1039(福1039) or Fu 1088(福1088) may be what you want.
Shanghai is also starting to make a name for itself on the international dining scene. Culinary luminary Jean Georges Vongerichten is well established in the city with two restaurants, an eponymous contemporary French eatery and a swish trattoria named Mercato.
There is also no shortage of foreign talents who have made names for themselves on their exploits in Shanghai alone. For creative French-inspired molecular cuisine, try Mr. & Mrs. Bund by Paul Pairet, or, if you want to drop some serious coin, there is his innovative all-encompassing sensory dining experience Ultraviolet. For something a little more casual, American chef Brad Turley's Goga and Goga Hai are wildly popular.