Chinese cuisine (中國菜) is incredibly diverse. Over 2,000 years ago, the Chinese were printing cook books, importing ingredients, dining in restaurants and developing sophisticated cooking techniques to highlight the taste of the wide variety of available foodstuffs. There are over 100 terms simply to specify differences in applying heat to foods.
Chinese people are fond of fresh food and prefer to shop almost daily. When both parents work, bought or pre-cooked foods are the norm, especially for breakfast. Lunch is usually eaten in work or school canteens, where cooked food is always available. Dinner is the main family meal, in which people share several dishes at a round table.
In general, the Chinese eat an extremely wide variety of meats and vegetables. The one exception is dairy products, which are not part of the everyday diet. Instead, soybean products provide protein and calcium.
Regional cooking styles can be divided into four main groups. In the north, the delicate foods developed by the imperial court are balanced by the robust local cuisine, which uses strong flavours, such as onions and garlic, and prefers wheat noodles and bread to rice. The popularity of lamb reveals the influence of the Muslim population; pork is preferred elsewhere in China.
Because of the harsh climate and short growing season, many cooking techniques in western China are designed to preserve food. Sichuan, ringed by high mountains, was isolated from outside influences for centuries, and its spicy food with lots of chilies is now popular worldwide.
With its subtropical climate, southern Cantonese China enjoys four seasons of agricultural produce plus fresh seafood. The south is the culinary capital of China, famous for its variety of foods and recipes; most centre around lightly cooked vegetables and meats, with rice as the staple accompaniment. Eastern China also produces a variety of food, and the region's cooking is a blend of regional and foreign influences.