When thinking of Chinese food, dishes like orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls, and fortune cookies probably cross your mind. While this may be Chinese inspired cuisine don't expect to find the same kind of stuff you're used to here. So if you are planning to come to China you should probably consider what kind of food you like. China is a big country and different places have very different food, these are the 8 major regional cuisines.
Sichuan has some of the most famous food in China, and the name is probably recognizable from quite a few dishes on your local Chinese restaurant's menu. Food here is hot, spicy, and numbing from the use of the unique Sichuan pepper. Flavors are strong from the frequent use of garlic, ginger, peppers, peanuts, sesame seeds, and green onions. Sichuan is inland in southern China so meat, rice, and vegetables are very common, while seafood is less common. Some examples are hot pot, chuan chuan, mapo tofu, and dan dan noodles. You will probably recognize kung pao chicken as being similar to its' western version.
Another one of the more famous styles of Chinese cooking is Cantonese cuisine. It's said in China that the Cantonese will eat "anything on four legs that isn't a table, anything that flies that's not a plane, and anything under the sea that's not a submarine" and the wide variety of dishes and ingredients certainly reflect that saying. Many cooking techniques are used but steaming and frying are the most common. Flavors are usually light, clean, mild, and sweet. Some examples are preserved eggs, sweet sausages, stewed beef, oyster sauce vegetables, and dim sum which consists of various small snacks including dumplings, steamed buns, rolls, cakes, meats, and more. You will probably recognize sweet and sour pork, fried rice, chow mein, and dim sum.
Jiangsu cuisine is known for it soups, stews, roasting, slow cooking, and other precise cooking and cutting techniques. This results in a lot of soft textures and nice appearances of dishes. Jiangsu is in eastern China along the coast and is full of lakes and rivers so there is a lot of seafood and freshwater fish. Soy sauce is frequently used as well as caramelized sugar, common tastes can be described as sweet, salty, and fresh. Some examples of Jiangsu dishes are braised spare ribs, steamed herring, sweet and sour mandarin fish, and various meatballs. You might recognize crab dumplings or the sweet and salty tasting sauces reminiscent of many Asian style sauces in the west.
Zhejiang food is hard to summarize because it is really at least 3 different styles of cooking from different cities in the province, but in general it's said to be light, fresh, mellow, and sometimes pretty salty. Some popular ingredients throughout Zhejiang are freshwater fish, poultry and bamboo shoots that add a tender crispness to many dishes. Some examples of Zhejiang dishes are West Lake fish, dongpo pork, beggar's chicken, and fried eel. You might recognize fish balls or some stir fried dishes.
Food from Hunan is hot, spicy, and bold, but lacks the numbing flavors associated with Sichuan food. Chili peppers, garlic, shallots, and oil are used liberally in many dishes here. Common cooking techniques are stir frying, roasting, braising, and smoking. Hunan province has a lot of agriculture so there is a wide variety of meat, vegetables, and rice used in it's cooking. Something interesting about Hunan cooking is that food is often colder during the summer because of the hot climate, and hotter during the cold winter months. Some examples of Hunan dishes are dong'an chicken, red braised pork, kouwei shrimp, and soup with dumplings. Orange chicken and orange beef originated here but you probably won't recognize it as what you are used to in western Chinese restaurants.
Anhui cuisine is most known for it's use of fresh and local wild vegetables and herbs. Soups, stewing, and braising are the most common methods of food preparation. Although oil is frequently used stir frying and deep frying are very uncommon. Spices and flavors aren't overpowering and many dishes are mildly spicy, salty, or sweet. Some examples of traditional Anhui dishes are Li Hongzhang hotchpotch, hairy tofu, Luzhou roast duck, and stewed ham and turtle. You have probably never had anything quite like Anhui food outside of China.
Fujian food is best described as light, soft, and colorful. One of the main emphases of cooking here is to bring out the flavors of the ingredients used rather than mask or overpower them. Many dishes have sour or pickled flavors and use fermented sauces to bring out flavors, wine is also frequently used. Fujian is along the coast of south eastern China and full of mountains so seafood is common along with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other woodland ingredients. Soups, stewing, boiling, steaming, braising, and stir frying are all popular methods of cooking here. Some examples of Fujian food are oyster omelettes, Fujian thick soup, meat stuffed longan fruit, and a rather complex dish called "Buddha jumps over the wall". Fujian's stir frying style has definitely influenced western stir fries.
Shandong cuisine is the most prevalent cuisine in north eastern China. It is considered one of the most influential cooking styles in China with many other regional cuisines having roots in it. The main ingredients in most Shandong food are seafood, vegetables, grains like wheat and corn, and peanuts. Vinegar is popular, contributing a sour taste to many dishes. Countless cooking techniques are used but some of the most used are braising, grilling, deep frying, pan frying and stir frying. Many different soups are also common. Some famous dishes are sweet and sour yellow river carp, dezhou stewed chicken, bird's nest soup, and Jiaodong steamed buns. Shandong cuisine isn't well known outside of China, but traveling around within China you will see it's influences everywhere.
While these are officially recognized as the 8 culinary cuisines of China there are still many other cooking styles. Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Yunnan, Beijing, Shanghai and the many ethnic minorities of China each have their own unique styles and dishes. You can find find regional cuisine restaurants in most bigger cities in China, but where you are will determine the vast majority of food to be had, so your palate is definitely something to consider before choosing a destination.