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    Has China Reached Peak Spice?

    Sichuanese cuisine is everywhere, according to a new survey, but there are signs of spice fatigue.
    Dec 22, 2023#food#consumption

    If you were to ask someone to describe Chinese food, they might mention dumplings, congee, or classic dishes like kung pao chicken. One word that would almost surely come up is spice.

    It wasn’t always that way. Historically, outside of a few inland regions, Chinese food was mildly flavored, with more emphasis on highlighting an ingredient’s natural taste than overpowering it with the numbing spice of Sichuanese mala or its fierier Hunanese counterpart. It was only with the vast migration of the 1990s and 2000s that spicy dishes became widespread along the country’s coast.

    But there are signs that the tide is shifting. Two new surveys from the China Catering Industry Research Institute and delivery app Meituan have found that, while spice is still king, the milder flavors of Cantonese cooking are making a comeback. Here are some of the main takeaways from the reports, as selected by Sixth Tone.

    Sichuanese supremacy

    Chinese cuisine is remarkably diverse, with recipes for popular dishes sometimes varying from village to village. But the country’s culinary habits are generally broken down into what’s known as the “eight regional cuisines”: Shandong cuisine, Sichuanese, Hunanese, Cantonese, Fujianese, Jiangsu cuisine, Zhejiang cuisine, and Anhui cuisine. (That traditional classification system leaves out a number of regional culinary traditions, including the sour-spicy flavor profile of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and the lamb-heavy dishes of the northwest).

    Far and away the most popular are Sichuanese and Cantonese. In 2021, Sichuanese and Cantonese food accounted for almost half of orders at restaurants specializing in one of the eight regional cuisines. Hunanese dishes came in third, with roughly 10%.

    Interestingly, Cantonese restaurants remain concentrated along China’s eastern coast, with few options for dim sum lovers inland. Sichuanese, on the other hand, has gone national, accounting for between 6% and 9% of restaurants even in traditionally spice-averse regions like Guangdong and Jiangsu.

    Peak spice?

    That’s a remarkable shift from just a century ago, when chili-heavy dishes like Sichuanese hot pot were confined to China’s remote southwest. Today, thanks to waves of migrants from the inland to the coast, spice is the country’s most popular flavor profile. Over 40% of survey respondents listed spicy food as their top choice.

    Yet there are signs that the wave might be cresting. In 2019, there were twice as many Sichuanese restaurants as Cantonese restaurants. Over the past five years, however, the number of Sichuanese restaurants has decreased steadily, while the number of Cantonese restaurants has risen.

    This trend may reflect unmet demand for milder flavors. Roughly 44% of survey respondents said they preferred “mild” or “umami” flavor profiles the most — both defining characteristics of Cantonese cuisine, which minimizes the use of seasonings in favor of maintaining the original flavor of the ingredients.

    Costly Cantonese

    As with much of the rest of the world, the cost of a meal out is climbing in China — but the hikes have been especially steep for Cantonese cuisine. In 2019, 61% of meals at Cantonese restaurants cost less than 60 yuan ($8.70) per person. By 2021, that calculus had nearly flipped: 58% of Cantonese restaurant meals cost over 60 yuan per person.

    Sichuanese restaurants have also gotten pricier, but more gradually than their Cantonese counterparts. By 2021, 51.6% of bills worked out to over 60 yuan per person, an increase of over 10 percentage points in just three years.

    (Header image: By Luo Yahan, Fu Xiaofan, and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)