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There is a Chinese saying that goes “food is heaven for the people”. With over 5000 named dishes, Chinese cuisine is as varied as the country’s different peoples and geographical areas. Traditionally, Chinese cuisine is meant to be enjoyed for its: appearance and aroma, taste and texture, balance and harmony of yin and yang elements, and its nutritious properties.
In Chinese cuisine, rice is the symbol of life itself. It is added to many dishes and cooked in various ways, be it boiled, steamed, roasted, or stir-fried. Rice numbers among one of the ancient seven basic necessities of life. The others are tea, fuel, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. In the arid climes of northern China, wheat is more prevalent as a staple of the diet than rice.
The consumption of meat has been a symbol of wealth and status throughout Chinese history. Most people could not afford meat, making tofu an important source of protein. Today, China’s rising middle class means that more meat is being eaten on a daily basis. Pork is the most popular meat in Chinese cuisine, except among the Muslim community, where mutton and beef is eaten instead.
Chinese sweets and desserts may take a bit of getting used to for those from other areas of the world due to their sometimes unexpected tastes and textures. Some common ingredients include mung beans, red beans, glutinous rice, lotus seeds, and different types of nuts.
The Classic Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking
Classically, Chinese cuisine is divided into eight distinct styles. These can either be broken down into even smaller geographical areas or combined into broader culinary traditions, depending on how specific one wants to be. For the purposes of this article, we’ll take a look at four culinary schools named after the four cardinal directions.
Mongolian Hot Pot and Mu Shu Pork: The Northern School
The Northern School is heavily influenced by the nomadic Mongols and the arid climate of this part of China. Thus, the staple foods of this type of Chinese cuisine are wheat and millet, grilled meat, milk, and garlic. Two main dishes are Mongolian Hot Pot, with mutton as the main ingredient, and Mu Shu pork, made of pork, leeks, onions, and garlic wrapped in steamed pancakes.
Stir-Frying and Steaming: The Eastern School
The Eastern School of Chinese cuisine is characterized by the prevalent use of fish and rice. Stir-frying and steaming are the two most common methods of cooking. Soy sauce is often used in cooking here. The term “red-cooking” stems from this culinary school. The name comes from meat that is slowly simmered in a dark soy sauce, which lends the meat a reddish tinge. Congee, a porridge-like rice gruel which is now eaten for breakfast throughout China, originated in Fukien in south-eastern China.
Fish Fresh from the Sea: The Southern School
Although the rest of China may find the Southern School of cooking lacking in flavor, they can’t deny that it also stands out for its abundant use of fresh ingredients. This is especially important in Cantonese cooking. As the wet, warm climate of the south results in abundant harvests, a large variety of fresh ingredients are available throughout the year. Rice and seafood are common ingredients for this variety of Chinese cuisine.
The Spices of the Silk Road: The Western School
The Western School of Chinese cuisine reflects the country’s many different ethnic minorities and cultures. These dishes are definitely not lacking in flavor! Sometimes many types of tastes will be combined in one bite — sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy. In Szechuan, the cuisine has been influenced throughout the centuries by travelers journeying along the Silk Road. Most notably, Spanish travelers introduced hot chilies to the region in the 16th century. The cuisine of the minority cultures is set apart by the use of unique ingredients, such as yak meat and other yak products in the Tibetan culinary tradition.
Beyond the Tourist Traps: Eating Out in China
The first time you eat Chinese cuisine in an actual restaurant in China, you may be surprised to find the food tastes quite different than what you have learned to expect from Chinese restaurants in your home country. The style of Chinese cuisine most prevalent in Western countries stems from the Cantonese tradition. As soon as you step away from the tourist restaurants, with their culinary selection geared towards foreign palates, you’ll be introduced to a wider array of Chinese cuisine.
If you’re worried about straying from restaurants which offer English menus, don’t be! Often, you can just point to pictures in a menu or models of the different dishes arranged in display cases. It’s even ok to point to what other people are eating to indicate that you’d like to try that, too!
Restaurants will often have multiple floors. The first floor will serve cheaper, cafeteria-style food. On the second floor, you can enjoy a multiple-course sit-down meal. The top floor is normally reserved for private groups and parties. The atmosphere in Chinese restaurants is usually very lively and loud. For useful tips on proper etiquette while dining, please see our article on Chinese Customs and Etiquette.
You’ll be missing out on the wide variety that Chinese cuisine has to offer if you only eat in restaurants, though. Countless street stalls and night markets offer delicious local specialties. However, you should be careful about hygiene to avoid getting sick. A good rule of thumb is to only buy food from the busiest stalls.
For All the Tea in China
Any article on Chinese cuisine wouldn’t be complete without a section on Chinese tea. The tradition of drinking tea in China dates back to 2737 BC, during the rule of Emperor Shennong. For hygiene purposes, this emperor decreed that all water should be boiled before drinking. According to legend, one day some leaves blew into the emperor’s tea and began to steep, and the emperor liked the taste so much that he started experimenting with the process — and tea was born.
There are many different types of Chinese tea — from black and green, to yellow, white, and oolong. Tea is best enjoyed between meals with some dim sum, a collection of bite-sized dumplings and pastries. If possible, tea should be consumed in a quiet and peaceful place, such as a garden, where one can take a break from the busy and stressful day.
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