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Ethnic Cuisine: China

by Rachel Timmons

introduction  |  regions  |  recipes  |  glossary

Chinese food, having been served to generations of Americans, has a strong hold on our culinary imagination. For many, the delightfully salty, flavorsome dishes served in the spartan restaurants with names like “ Dragon Garden” and “Five Happiness” are their first taste of a foreign cuisine. Most American towns have a Chinese restaurant. When we were children and bored with Mom’s cooking, the arrival of the little white cartons of takeout Chinese promised a taste of the exotic and uncommon. Dishes such as chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, and mu shu pork are deeply familiar to most of us. And the inevitable fortune cookie, it might be argued, is something of a cultural icon.

And yet, true Chinese cuisine, as it is found in China, is worlds away from these tastydishes. As the hamburger seems to represent American cooking for foreigners, so do these restaurant dishes signify Chinese food for many Americans. Happily, travelers to China (and food enthusiasts at home, thanks to the surge of well researched Chinese cookbooks) are discovering that China is nothing less than a universe of food. This country, with a culinary history of thousands of years, employs a staggering variety of ingredients and methods of preparation in its cuisine, none of which make it to U.S. restaurant tables. This article will discuss the components of true Chinese cuisine, and give a breakdown of the four major regional styles.

Climate and Agriculture

In order to feed its 1.3 billion people, China must produce a tremendous amount of food. It is one of the most densely cultivated countries on earth. Agriculture varies from region to region given climate and landscape factors, although today there is plenty of trade between north and south. China’s enormous northern half, stretching from Beijing to Xinjiang in Chinese Central Asia, is comprised of grasslands, mountains, and deserts. The climate is harsh; cold and dry in winter and hot and dusty in summer. Mostly hardy crops are grown and eaten in these areas—corn, sorghum, wheat, cabbages and root vegetables. Traditionally wheat and corn are the staple grains, yet today some rice is consumed in the North as well. The bottom half of the country, basically the provinces surrounding and south of the Yangtze River, is green and lush, with rivers, lakes, and a higher rainfall. Rice is the staple crop of these areas, with some wheat and mixed grains grown as well. China, particularly south China, is a produce-rich country—among other things, north China grows peaches, apples, and melons, while south China produces enormous amounts of produce such as taro root, eggplants, tomatoes, and leafy greens, and tropical fruits—longans, litchis, mangoes, bananas, and coconuts.

A typical meal: ‘Fan’ and ‘cai’

Anyone who’s eaten Chinese food knows that steamed white rice always accompanies the meal. But what is perhaps less well known is just how integral rice and grain based foods are in Chinese culture. The Mandarin word fan means both ‘rice’ and ‘food.’ In China, a good deal of casual talk centers around the expression, “ni chi fan le ma?” literally meaning, “Have you eaten rice (food) yet?” Regardless of region, a typical Chinese meal consists of a grain base—the fan—such as rice, noodles, or buns, with meat and vegetable dishes, referred to as cai, adding flavor and variety to, but not overriding the integrity of, the fan.

The possibilities for cai are enormous. China’s abundant variety of meats and vegetables are stir-fried, stewed, steamed, baked, roasted, oil and water-blanched, deep-fried…every kind of cooking method is well represented. Throughout China, pork is the most widespread and best-loved meat. In the north and west, pork and mutton are eaten in abundance, while south and east China have a profusion of fish and shellfish, as well as poultry, pork, and soy products.

Seasonings in Chinese cooking are too numerous to count. A few commonly used seasonings are soy sauce, fermented bean paste, black rice vinegar, rice wine, sesame oil, chili oil, ginger, red chili pastes, and garlic.

Regardless of region, the food of China’s poorest is similar everywhere. These meals will usually consist of simple grain foods eaten with salty pickles to add flavor. Meat is used relatively sparingly, as it is expensive. However, Chinese peasant food is often quite tasty, and a trip to a country village is well worth the simpler fare.

Drinks and Desserts

In China, mealtime drinks range from delicate teas to blinding moonshine-style liquors. By far the most well known Chinese drink is tea, of which there are numerous types. These teas range in flavor, from sweet to bitter, earthy to smoky. Highly favored are green teas, the choicest being “Dragon Well” tea from Hangzhou province. Oolong teas, in which the leaves are allowed to partially ferment, are slightly bitter and metallic tasting. There are also black teas (the Chinese call them red teas.) These teas are dark and strong tasting, the leaves often double fermented. Tea is drunk with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with snacks or whenever one feels like it.

As with tea, alcoholic drinks have a longstanding tradition in China. Chinese women generally do not drink, leaving the country’s alcohol consumption to the men. In China, wine (jiu) is made from fermented rice and other grains, with varying degrees of alcoholic strength. Grape wine is not commonly drunk, although today there are vineyards in China producing western style Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and the like. Many Chinese rice wines, such as wines from Shaoxing in southeastern China, have a nutty, sherry-like quality. Spirits are grain-based, often made with sorghum and herbs. Many of them are extremely strong and have an unforgettably strange, sweet fragrance. Extremely popular (especially in the north) is a strong smelling sorghum liquor called bai jiu. This is close to moonshine in strength and appearance. Many Chinese men drink bai jiu in copious quantities, and will usually offer it to interested foreigners. Be warned—the cheaper kinds are little better than bathtub liquor!

Traditionally, the Chinese have not had much of a taste for western-style desserts. Chinese versions of western desserts such as cookies, cakes, and ice cream tend to be much less sugary tasting than their western counterparts. Pastries are made with rice flour and a number of fillings, such as bean paste, candied egg yolk, lotus seed, or mashed pumpkin. The Moon Festival in early autumn brings yue bing, moon cakes, round pastries with various sweet fillings which are given as gifts. Often Chinese meals simply end with fresh fruit.

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introduction  |  regions  |  recipes  |  glossary

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