Cuisine Spotlight: China
In my past two Gastronomics blogs, I had a pretty clear idea of what my topic would before I even sat down to write it. Inspiration struck me and that was that. This time though, for my first cuisine spotlight, I’ll admit I was little torn. Do I do cover the popular or the underground? The established or the up-and-coming? I vacillated between a few, each interesting in their own right, but finally decided to take my first stab at a cuisine that is at once well known and deeply misunderstood. I decided to go to China.
As a cultured adult interested in food, I am of course now aware that the Chinese food I grew up loving as a child – egg rolls with sweet and sour, General Tso’s Chicken, and deep-fried crab rangoons – are all about as Chinese as apple pie. In fact, much of the food in US Chinese restaurants is so disparate from a traditional Chinese diet it’s actually been designated in its own subset of cuisine – American Chinese – and while Chinese people may enjoy it, they enjoy it as a foreign treat next to McDonald’s, inside Panda Express. (And yes, China now has Panda Express.)
So, given that much of my experience with Chinese food has consisted of lies, what’s the truth? What does Chinese food actually look like? What flavors define it and where did those flavors originate?
With the Chinese New Year just past ( February 10), I thought it was a perfect time to get the real story.
Culinary Regions of China
To start, just as southern American faire varies greatly from northern; when we talk about Chinese cuisine, we’re actually talking about a wide variety of culinary traditions and preferences.
With long, extreme winter and summer seasons, the crops of northern China need to be hearty. As a result, wheat, as opposed to rice, is the predominant grain eaten here and its northern China that is known for the Chinese lo mein noodles, moo shu pancakes, steamed buns, and dumplings loved the world over. Perhaps northern China’s best known dish, Peking Duck, served with spicy-sweet Hoisin sauce and carefully roasted for the moistest, most tender meat and crispest skin, is a Beijing (imperial) style dish. On the other hand, Henan style cooking, also popular in northern China, is known best for the very healthy, Shaolin vegetarian dishes eaten by many Chinese Buddhists.
Wheat * Dark Soy Paste * Sesame Paste * Scallions *Fermented Tofu * Corn * Peanuts * Sweet Cabbage *Vinegar
Here the predominant style of cooking is Cantonese and with warm, rainy, sub-tropical climates throughout much of region, the cuisine boasts a wider range of tropical fruits and vegetables than you’ll find elsewhere in China. Marks of southern style Chinese cuisine are a tendency toward light flavors and the use of cooking techniques which support light flavors such as steaming and stir-frying. The region is known for having some the strangest, most adventurous dishes in China – things like chicken’s feet, century eggs, and bird’s nest soup – however, it’s not all so palate-challenging. Probably the most popular culinary idea we owe to southern China and the Cantonese tradition is the “dim sum” style dining - a meal actually consist of many small bite-sized appetizers enjoyed alongside tea and rice.
Rice * Spring Onion *Rice Wine *Scallion Oil * Garlic * Large Varieties of Tropical Fruits and Vegetables
Known as “The land of fish and rice,” the cuisine of eastern China has been shaped by the Yangtze River and fertile farming land around it. Experts point out that the Jiangsu style of cooking in this region is similar to the Cantonese in flavor delicacy and attention to detail, though unique in its emphasis on fish and crustacean dishes. However, the dish most Americans would recognize from the region is actually a pork dish - Wuxi style Braised Spare Ribs known for their sweet taste and melt-in-mouth texture.
Rice * Fish* Crustaceans * Alcohol * Sugar * Soy
The Sichuan basin in western China makes the region one the most agriculturally productive areas in China. Rice, vegetables, and fruit grow in abundant varieties here, though Sichuan is probably best known for their bamboo, mushrooms, tangerines and their regionally named Sichuan chilli peppers – known to be one of the hottest varieties of pepper in the world. As a result of this pepper, the main culinary traditions of western China – Hunan and Szechuan – are both known for their spicy flavor profile. However, while Hunan cuisine is known for its soups and pungent, flavorful dishes favoring sweet peppers and shallots, Szechuan cuisine tends toward brighter flavors, sautéing, dry-braising, and dishes like their famous hot pot.
Rice * Bamboo * Mushrooms * Hot Peppers
Culinary Traditions of China
Typical Family Meals
A typical Chinese dinner consists of either rice or noodles, soup, and three or four small hot dishes to be shared. Family togetherness is extremely important in Chinese culture and while each person has their own plate, dishes are set in the middle of the table never served to just one person. Chopsticks are the only utensils used at the table so drinking soup directly from the bowl is expected and it is considered polite to eat your rice using one hand to hold the bowl up by your face in case any rice should fall. And then there are some less obvious social niceties to be observed. For instance, because it is offered to the dead this way, it is considered very rude to leave your chopsticks sticking up in your rice.
Yin and Yang
The philosophy of yin and yang balance runs deep throughout every facet of life in China and that includes their food. Each ingredient and cooking method is assigned either yin (feminine) or yang (masculine) qualities which traditionalists try to balance in the diet. When illness occurs, depending on whether it’s considered a yin or yang type dis-ease, Chinese medicine dictates a diet of the opposing force to regain equilibrium and health.
Yin: Boiling, Poaching, Steaming, Bean Sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Crab, Cucumber, Duck, Tofu, Watercress, Water
Yang: Deep-frying, Roasting, Stir-frying, Bamboo, Beef, Chicken, Eggs, Ginger, Glutinous Rice, Mushrooms, Sesame Oil, Wine
Chinese New Year
Considered the most important Chinese holiday, celebrations have traditionally runs from Chinese New Year’s day to the Lantern Festival 15 days later. Large dinners shared with your extended family the day before feature a selection of deserts (which are only rarely seen outside of major holidays) and a variety of good luck foods are enjoyed.
Fish are eaten in hope for prosperity.
Oranges and tangerines are offered as gifts and are eaten with hopes for sweet life.
Noodles are eaten without being cut or broken as long noodles symbolize a long life.
Melons are enjoyed with the belief they will keep the family large and whole.
Red, orange, and yellow foods are eaten for happiness and luck, while white foods are often avoided as they symbolize death and mourning.
Celebrated on the 15th day of the 8 month on the Chinese calendar (sometime between September and October), the Mid-Autumn Festival is a celebration honoring the moon. Mooncakes, the traditional food eaten at this time, vary from region to region, but in general feature a thin, tender pastry skin and a sweet dense filling containing one or more salted egg yolks meant to resemble the moon and symbolize fertility.
After a child’s first birthday, birthdays are only celebrated every 10 years in China. As on New Year’s, noodles eaten long, not cut or broken, are enjoyed to ensure many more years. Steamed buns shaped to look like peaches are another traditional Chinese birthday food meant to bring longevity.
A Taste of China