In general, the Chinese people eat a lot more vegetables than meat. Tofu, a curd made from soy beans is an important source of protein in the Chinese diet besides pork and chicken. The Chinese people are also known for eating many foods that are unfamiliar to most. Shark fins, frogs, snakes even cats and dog meat. There is a Chinese saying that literally translates to mean “anything with their backs facing the sky can be eaten”.
Geographically diverse, the Chinese cuisine exhibits regional differences as a result of varying climate and availability of foodstuffs in different parts of China. The difference between northern and southern cuisines was one of the earliest distinctions noted. Northern Chinese generally eat wheat-based foods and Southerners eat more rice-based foods. The culinary map of China can be divided into 4 main regions – North, South, East and West.
• Northern Cuisine – also known as Peking or Beijing cuisine includes cuisine from Beijing (the capital city of the People’s Republic of China and the provinces of Hunan, Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, Shenxi and Inner Mongolia.
• Eastern Cuisine – also known as Shanghainese cuisine includes cuisine from the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and Fujian.
• Western Cuisine – also known as Szechuan or Chuan cuisine includes cuisine from the provinces of Szechuan, Hunan and Yunan.
• Southern Cuisine – also known as Cantonese or Yue Cuisine includes cuisine from the provinces of Guangdong and Jiangxi.
My dad is Cantonese and my mum is Teochew. So I grew up with home-cooked meals that has a stronger Cantonese cuisine influence. Cantonese cuisine is probably the most popular Chinese cuisine outside of China due to the large number of Hong Kong Chinese migrants in other parts of the world. Cantonese cuisine emphasizes the use of fresh ingredients and consists of a lot of subtle uses of sauces and condiments that aims to preserve the individual taste of each ingredient used while creating a harmonious blend of flavors; diverse cooking methods such as stir-frying, steaming, roasting; and dishes such as soups, steamed fish and noodles.
Steaming is an extremely popular cooking method in Chinese cuisine. The steamer in a Chinese household is like the oven in an American home. Every family has either a dedicated steamer or steamer stand for use in a traditional Chinese wok. Steaming not only preserves the nutritional value of the dish but also preserves the fresh flavors of the ingredients. For instance, I grew up eating steamed fish. We almost never grill our fish.
The northern region of China reaches into the hostile climate of Mongolia – the land of the Gobi Desert and Arctic winter winds. Summers are hot and dry and winters are freezing cold. The cuisine therefore tends to be more hearty and nourishing. Steamed dumplings and pancakes are popular. Lamb is the more common choice of meat as a result of Mongolian influence and dishes are usually stronger in flavors with the use of leeks, onions and garlic. The harsh weather conditions of this region are not conducive for rice cultivation. As such, wheat, barley, millet and soybeans are staples and bread and noodles anchor a typical meal.
Szechuan cuisine also prefers pungent vegetables such as garlic and onions. Because the region also grows a lot of chilies, Szechuan dishes are known for its spiciness including the liberal use of the Szechuan pepper that has a numbing effect on your tongue. Popular ingredients include citrus fruits, bamboo, mushrooms, garlic, onions and ginger. The spicy Ma Po Tofu is a Szechuan specialty. My mum makes it all the time – vegetarian style.
Eastern cuisine uses soy sauce and also more sugar to sweeten dishes than other regions in China. Stewing, braising and frying are common cooking methods. Eastern cuisine is also famous for what is called “red-cooking” – a process where meat and/or hearty vegetables are braised in a dark soy sauce for hours, imparting a reddish tinge to the final product.
The Chinese Food/Nutrition Therapy
The Chinese follow the spiritual teaching of balance signified by yin and yang; encouraging the Chinese to find a balance in their lives including the foods they eat. This is also the basis of what is known as the Chinese Food/Nutrition Therapy. It is an important element of traditional Chinese medicine and healing and dates back as early as 2,000 BC. Foods are classified as either heaty (Yang) or cooling (Yin). It does not refer to the state of the food but its effect on our bodies. For example, tea is considered yin (cooling) and therefore when we drink hot tea, it “cools” our body. The energy state of a person’s body is also classified as such and food can be used to balance or re-balance the energy state of the body. For example, when a person is sick, the body is deemed to be in a Yang (heaty) state. Cooling foods such as barley, most vegetables, fruits and tofu are therefore recommended to re-balance the body back to a neutral state.
The Chinese Dinner Table
A typical Chinese dinner does not have multiple courses such as appetizer, salad, main course, dessert, so to speak. The Chinese dinner table usually consists of at least 2 to 3 dishes (a meat dish is optional) including a soup. A starch is always served as the anchor of the meal. In the south and also many parts of Southeast Asia, rice is the staple; noodles are also popular; bread not as much or not at all. All dishes are served and consumed at the same time together with rice. Desserts are not common except on special occasions and most Chinese families do not consume wine with typical meal on a regular basis. Wine and food pairing is much less prevalent in Chinese cuisine.
The Chinese Wok
This round-bottomed cooking vessel is a staple in every Chinese kitchen. The shape of the wok makes for an excellent distribution of heat during cooking and ensures that all ingredients are evenly tossed during the cooking process, thereby enhancing the flavor of stir-fry dishes. The same recipe made in a flat-bottom sauté pan and a wok can taste quite different.
Traditional woks were all round-bottomed and made of iron, designed to be used with the traditional Chinese stove top. Today, there are aluminum, copper and stainless steel woks that come in both round and flat-bottomed, for use with an electric stove top. In my humble opinion, however, a flat-bottomed wok is as good as a regular sauté pan. So in my humble opinion, if you want to get a Chinese wok, get one with a round bottom and experience what the Chinese wok can do!