The A, B, C of Chinese Cuisine

by Ranjini Rao

It’s hard to pare Chinese food down to a single morsel of deliciousness – not even the lumpia (a savory delicacy of Fujian origin, made of cooked vegetables wrapped in a papery rice outer skin, topped with crushed peanuts, usually served cold), possibly the most ubiquitous Chinese food item that’s also a celebratory one to boot – will do justice to the vastness and diversity of the cuisine. While the first thing to summon to mind at the very mention of Chinese food would likely be a localized variety in some nook and corner of the world – the cultural history of Chinese food is rich and has its foundation built on historical trends, among other factors. That said, the Chinese people have always eaten well and continue to do so.

[box] The most common Eight Delicacies of Chinese cuisine, as referenced in The Book of Songs (a book of songs and poetry depicting life during the Western Zhou dynasty and the mid Spring and Autumn periods) are: phoenix’s marrow, leopard’s foetus, dragon’s liver, carp’s tail, roasted osprey meat, yellow weasel’s lip, crispy cicada and bear’s paw? Now if you aren’t so much of a freakish foods fanatic, try saying these again without feeling squeamish!

The name given to gluttons in Chinese is ‘Tao Tie,’ which is also a mythical creature with a fierce appetite.[/box]

A Peking Duck being roasted by a hung oven circa 1933.
A Peking Duck being roasted by a hung oven circa 1933.

In the Lun Yu, or edited conversations of Confucius, this little excerpt outlines Confucius’ idea of ‘proper eating’:

“His rice is not excessively refined, and his sliced meat is not cut excessively fine. Rice that has become putrid and sour, fish that has spoiled, and meat that has gone bad, he does not eat. Food that is discolored he does not eat, and food with a bad odor he does not eat. Undercooked foods he does not eat, and foods with a bad odor he does not eat. Meat that is improperly carved he does not eat, and if he does not obtain the proper sauce, he will not eat. Though there is plenty of meat, he will not allow it to overcome the vitalizing power of the rice. Only in the case of wine does he not set a limit. But he never drinks to the point of becoming disorderly. Purchased wine or dried meat from the market he does not eat. He never dispenses with ginger when he eats. He does not eat to excess.1

[box] The amount of grain (staple food) or ‘fan’ an average Chinese person consumes makes about 90% of their diet. ‘Fan’ also means meal. It is part of the greeting, ‘chifan,’ to say hello, even though a literal translation would be, “Have you eaten?”

Food and cooking were at the core of early Chinese culture. The most critical task for the rulers was ‘shih’ or providing food to the people. ‘Shih’ meant a variety of things, like to feed, to eat and to drink. It also meant good grains, which exemplifies that grain was always an important part of the Chinese diet. So important, in fact, that rulers had custom made bronze canisters to store grains and alcoholic beverages made from the grains. Also, the rulers were buried with them. [/box]

Zongzi both ready to eat (left) and still wrapped in a bamboo leaf (right)
Zongzi both ready to eat (left) and still wrapped in a bamboo leaf (right)

For an insight into what defines and delineates Chinese food, it would serve one well to go with the compartmentalisation that’s fairly well accepted. It is with good reason too that this eight piece breakdown leads one not only to the provincial flavours and tastes, but also to the long-standing culinary traditions of each. They are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan, and Zhejiang cuisines.

Anhui: Anhui cuisine pertains to the culinary tradition of the Huangshan Mountains region in China, and includes the delicacies of South Anhui, Yanjiang and Huai Bei. Anhui food leans towards salty and spicy, and is mainly stewed or braised. It uses mushrooms, bamboo and bayberries quite a bit, as also wild herbs grown in the region. Also characteristic of Anhui cuisine is its use of wild chickens and wild rabbits.

The key focus in Anhui cooking is on the taste, color of dishes and the temperature to cook them. Ham is often added to certain dishes as an enhancer as also sugar candy, for a wallop of freshness.

Cantonese: While Cantonese cuisine is recognised today as one of the most popular regional cuisines of China, it took until the dawn of the Republican era. Volumes have been written about the Cantonese ‘pot,’ which, in Chinese, broadly refers to a boiler. But to the Cantonese, the pot is much more than just a cooking utensil, it is a reflection of how they eat. Dishes are meant to be served directly from the pot, like soups, porridges and gingery broths housing seafood.

Chicken, beef, pork, snake, and snails are common meats in Cantonese cuisine, mostly steamed or stir fried. Shallow and deep frying is also favored in Cantonese cooking. Herbs, while not entirely taboo, are not at the core of Cantonese cooking, with the exception, possibly, of chives and coriander as garnishes.

Dongpo Pork
Dongpo Pork

Fujian: Commonly known as the Eastern cuisine (south of Shanghai, for the geographically inclined), Fujian cooking is heavy on seafood, and a perfect melange of sweet, sour, salty and savoury, pretty much in every dish. Fujian food is light and less greasy.

Popular Fujian foods are soups like fish ball and Wangko crab, ribs with sweet and sour sauce, and popular ingredients are pressed curd of bean, leeks, pears, crystal fruit, tea, soy sauce, red wine lees (dregs of rice used at the bottom of wine barrels) and soy milk.

Hunan: Hunan foods are strongly flavored, with spicy fish pastes and spicy peppercorns, sour and salty (with the use of cured meat and pickled vegetables) and rather oily. The cooking process is fairly elaborate and complicated even, with certain recipes calling for ingredients to be double fried or triple cooked.

Typical Hunan delicacies include steamed pigeon eggs, fried eel, spiced beef, stuffed spareribs, and pickle with minced pork.

Jiangsu: In Jiangsu cuisine, one can often see local freshwater catches cooked in roasted, stir-fried, deep-fried or simply braised form. Cooking techniques concentrate on keeping the texture, especially that of meats, soft, but not to the point of falling apart, and on bringing out the sweetness and freshness of ingredients. The focus is also on seasonal produce.

Common ingredients include mushrooms, fish, crab, tofu, tea leaves and pea leaves, bamboo shoots, pears and dates. Some popular eats in Jiangsu cooking are crab shell meatballs – essentially pork meatballs in crab shells, salted dried duck, and Farewell My Concubine (soft-shelled turtle stewed with many other ingredients such as chicken, mushrooms and wine).

Century Egg
Century Egg

Shandong: Characterized by the use of ginger and garlic, Shandong food is pungent, fresh and tender. Soups are a major part of Shandong cuisine and other foods are non greasy.

Main ingredients in Shandong cuisine are clams, squid, scallops, cabbage, eggplant, corn, mushroom and vinegar. Some popular dishes include braised abalone, calamus in milk soup, stewed chicken and sweet and sour carp.

Szechuan: Possibly the main highlight of Szechuan cooking is the almost merciless use of chili peppers, particularly brown Sichuan peppers. Also, Szechuan food is salty and sour particularly because of the liberal use of vinegar. Fish sauce is also a common ingredient.

Some regular Szechuan dishes include hot and sour soup, diced chicken with chili sauce, dan dan noodles (spicy, greasy noodles with minced pork and a dusting of chili bits), kung pao chicken with lots of chili peppers, ribs wrapped in lotus leaves.

Beef Noodle Soup
Beef Noodle Soup

Zhejiang: With roots in the cities of Hangzhou, Shaoxing and Ningpo, Zhejiang cuisine primarily consists of seafood, bamboo shoots and tea, including tea-soaked dishes. Zhejiang food is fragrant and flavourful, with emphasis on freshness and subtle tastes.

Some prominent Zhejiang dishes include shrimp with Longjing tea, oyster soup, and Westlake soup with watershield (a slimy vegetable grown in Westlake).

Now that the eight styles of cooking have been, if briefly, laid on the table, one might wonder what to take away from them. Especially since the world is inundated with all kinds of doctored and fusion-stylised Chinese food, like American, Singaporean, and of course, Indian.

[box] The most critical elements in Chinese cuisine are color, taste and smell, which in turn are divided into five main types.

The five main colors are red, yellow, blue, white and black.

The five smells, represented by five spices, are: fennel, chilli, aniseed, clove and Chinese cinnamon – and they are meant to remove repulsive odors, including fishy, meaty or pungent ones, and pique the diner’s senses.

The five tastes are sweet, bitter, salty, hot and sour. [/box]

Still, one cannot turn away from the basic forms and ways of Chinese cooking, starting with staples like rice (one of the earliest domesticated crops of the Southern China province) and conjee, right up to the more universally acclaimed stir-fried noodles with vegetables and the tangy, spicy, hot, sweet sauce-doused meats. Of course, it is a well-known fact that the sauces could be anything ranging from soy, vinegar or fish-based mixtures. Nor can we forget the beer and rice wine, with which the Chinese wash their food down.

[box] Tea took its place of prominence in Chinese culture sometime around 316 B.C.E., in the Sichuan province. Later, in the Tang Dynasty down south, Lu Yu wrote about tea in his famous book, Chajing, and catapulted its status to very important social beverage. [/box]
Mapo Doufu
Mapo Doufu

Furthermore, the general dining etiquette that the Chinese follow streams effortlessly into those pockets that serve Chinese food, across the world: knives, to begin with, have no business on the table, and the silverware is mainly comprised of bowls, chopsticks and soup spoons.

And coming back to where we started, Confuciusianism had its impact on how Chinese food was prepared and presented, served and shared, while Daoism dealt with how it affected the body, kept diseases at bay, and contributed to longevity.

[box] The one food that the Chinese have been consuming for ages, primarily for longevity, is porridge, or conjee. A thin, light porridge made from the starch of grain is typically had in the morning. Carrot porridge, they say, prevents high blood pressure. Vegetable and wild herbs porridge is good for those accustomed to excess meat intake, to amp up essential vitamins and protect kidneys. Mushroom and bean-based porridges are good for digestion and rich in nutrients.[/box]

As all good things should come to an end, here’s a sweet note to tie together our sojourn through one of the most popular and favored cuisines. Little fuss is made over desserts in Chinese cuisine, but when it is, it is generally less sweet than Western desserts. That being said, both the steamed and sticky, rice-based Gao as well as the deep fried Mantou buns have their takers, and so do the various bean-paste sweets.

As the Chinese say, “Eat the whole thing,” whether or not it’s Peking Duck – where the skin is relished wrapped in pancakes with plum sauce; the meat diced, fried and eaten in lettuce-wraps; and the bones used in a soup broth to end the meal with.

[box] The one food that the Chinese have been consuming for ages, primarily for longevity, is porridge, or conjee. A thin, light porridge made from the starch of grain is typically had in the morning. Carrot porridge, they say, prevents high blood pressure. Vegetable and wild herbs porridge is good for those accustomed to excess meat intake, to amp up essential vitamins and protect kidneys. Mushroom and bean-based porridges are good for digestion and rich in nutrients.[/box] [box] The wok is quite possibly the most important utensil used in Chinese cooking. Right from the Han dynasty to the present day, iron woks have been used extensively for stir-frying, deep-frying, roasting, sautéing.
Woks come in two varieties: flat-bottomed and round-bottomed.

Some other important tools that are used in Chinese cooking are: a wok spatula, a cleaver, wooden chopping board, sieved ladle to strain out oils or moisture, claypot to prepare stews, and a bamboo steamer, and last but certainly not the least, long chopsticks that could be used as ladles or to eat with.

Speaking of chopsticks, or ‘kuaizi,’ according to the Liji (The Book of Rites) chopsticks were used as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1100 BC). Going by experts, wood or bamboo chopsticks can be dated to about 1,000 years earlier than ivory chopsticks, which manifested in 1100 BC, during the reign of Zhou, the last Shang Dynasty king. Bronze chopsticks came about during the rule of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC – 771 BC), and lacquer chopsticks in the Western Han (206 BC – 24 AD) were discovered in Mawangdui, China. Gold and silver chopsticks became popular in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), and legend has it that silver chopsticks could detect poisons in food.[/box] [box] The most significant and commonly employed cooking techniques in Chinese cuisine are:

  • Steaming (zheng) – Typically done by placing the prepared ingredients in a steamer, to tap into the steam coming off the boiling water to cook efficiently and in a way that preserves nutrients in the ingredients.
  • Stewing in soy sauce (lu) – Raw ingredients added to a pot of water along with soy sauce, wine, salt and sugar, and a muslin bag filled with select spices dunked into this pot. Once the sauce is fragrant, meats are steeped in the gravy and cooked on a low flame.
  • Double-boiling (dun) – Ingredients placed in a stewing container, which is in turn placed in a steamer, with its cover closed at all times.
  • Baking + Stewing (wei) – Ingredients immersed in a broth and baked in a ceramic vessel.
  • Decocting (ao) – A slow cooking process that enables extraction of nutrients into the base liquid. Used especially in medicine and herbology with the intention of using only the decocted brew.
  • Smoking (xun) – Cook directly over smoke – typically sugar or tea-based.
  • Baking or roasting (kao) – Convection cooking with hot air or broiling in a closed space.
  • Deep frying (zha) – The process of immersion cooking in hot oil or other fats.
  • Pan frying (jian) – Cook in a pan with very little oil and allow the food to brown up.
  • Stir frying (bao) – Cook with lots of hot oil in a big wok and toss the ingredients on high heat until tender.
  • Dressing (ban) – Toss raw or unflavored cooked ingredients with select seasonings and serve soon after.
  • Marinating (yan) – Steep ingredients in soy sauce or soy paste and salt prior to cooking.
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[learn_more caption=”References”]

1. Food Culture in China, Jacqueline M. Newman

2. A Literary Feast: Food in Early Chinese Literature, David R. Knechtges

3. China, Japan, Korea: Culture And Customs, Ju Brown

4. Wikipedia

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