Chinese cuisine is the food and culinary culture of the people of China. This is the most populous country in the world and the third largest in land area. Because it contains 55 ethnic minorities and borders Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and Korea in the northeast and India in the southwest, as well as having cold, temperate, and tropical climates, China has a cuisine that is both highly diverse and very distinctive.
Traditionally, Chinese cuisine was divided into eight regional cuisines, eight being an auspicious number in China. Modern books on Chinese cuisine tend towards using the modern political boundaries. Over the last century or so, there have been significant migrations of people within China. This mixing of people has brought with it new cuisines and several new regions have come to the fore for culinary excellence. Aside from regional foods, the cuisine of the emperors and their banquets is marked for exquisite taste, creativity and beauty. This imperial cuisine reached its peak during the Qing dynasty.
Imperial Banquet food
Eight traditional cuisines
(Chuan 川) Alternatively spelt Szechuan, this cuisine is best known for its spices. Copious amounts of chili and peppers, especially the unique Sichuan red peppercorn or huajiao with its tingling and numbing effect on the mouth, are used in most dishes from this region. Sichuan is famous for its spicy hotpot. The chili makes diners sweat, thus cooling them in the hot Sichuan summers. Restaurants serving Sichuan food can be found throughout China. Sichuan dishes are also often found in western Chinese restaurants, albeit in a much tamer and less spicy form.
(Yue 粵) Known to English speakers as Cantonese.
(Su 苏 or Yang 揚)
(Xiang 湘) Chairman Mao Zedong was born and brought up in Hunan. This region is known for its spicy dishes. Mao's favourite was 'fat pork'. This dish is made from cubes of very fatty pork meat stir fried with roughly coped fresh chili peppers and a spicy sauce.
Other regional cuisines
Snack and street food
Among the many ubiquitous street snacks that people pick up and eat on their way to work or school in the morning are the "oil stick" (youtiao), a long, thin stick of fried dough often accompanied by a cup of soybean milk for dipping; and steamed pork buns, fluffy bread surrounding a few nuggets of meat in a savory sauce.
A Beijing specialty is the jianbing, irreverently dubbed "Egg McMao" by American students. These are crepes or pancakes, cooked at a street vendor's cart on a round griddle. The cook ladles some batter onto the oiled griddle and quickly spreads it out thinly, then paints it with scrambled egg and the customer's choice of hot sauce, hoisin or oyster sauce, scallions, pickles, and other tidbits. The crepe is then folded in quarters, sometimes with a thin crunchy pastry wrap on the outside to protect the customer's hands from the oil. From time to time a vehicle from a central kitchen comes around to the carts and replenishes their supply of batter.
Ethnic minority cuisines
Methods of preparation and cooking
Much of traditional Chinese cooking, outside the palaces, reflect economic constraints. Fuel was often in short supply, so techniques such as stir-frying in a wok, steaming or red-stewing either need concentrated but short heating, or extended cooking with very low heat. Roasting tended to be done communally, in the baker's large oven, gaining economies of scale.
Methods of consumption
A westerner, watching Chinese people eat, could mistakenly think that they lacked table manners and etiquette; however this is not true; rather they have different rules that may not be apparent to the untrained eye. For example, while a westerner would happily set the table with a knife and fork on the table top, the Chinese would see this as lacking cleanliness. A small porcelain rest is frequently provided for supporting the sticks when not in use. Alternatively they can be set on the side of the diner's plate. When eating, it is considered bad form to rest your sticks by sticking them into your food. Such practice resembles the placing of incense sticks as offerings in temples and so is blasphemous.
In the west, guests display their pleasure in the food by clearing their plates of all the food served. To leave food is to insult the host. In China the converse is often true. The host is obliged to serve more food than could be eaten as a sign of generosity. You are not expected to clear every item from the bowls. The excess food from banquets is rarely wasted. The host will often take uneaten food home in a doggy bag.
Dropping a chopstick on the floor is a bad omen. It is a sign that something bad will soon happen. To pacify this omen, a tradition has formed where the other diners will lightly hit or slap the person who dropped a stick. In so doing, something bad (getting hit) has happened and so nothing else bad will happen later.
While people will frequently begin eating as soon as the first dish arrives at the table, there is a custom to wait for at least four dishes to be served before the dinner commences. Chinese meals do not follow courses. Each dish is brought as soon as the kitchens have prepared it. New dishes will arrive throughout the meal. In the west, people wait for all the diners to be served before starting to eat. This practice is not done in China. The food is general served to bowls in the center of the table, form which each diner serves themselves.
Like in the west, toasts may be made with drink throughout the meal. The glasses are tapped together in friendship. The height you raise your glass shows your status in the group. A host will typically hold his glass lower than his guests so that the top of the hosts glass taps the middle or bottom portion of the guests. Similarly employees will show deference to the manager by lowering their glass in a similar way. People who see each other as equals will tap the glasses rim to rim.
Cuisine and religion
Some Buddhist temples operate vegetarian restaurants, serving dishes such as "mock duck" made from doufu (tofu) or gluten.
Although pork is the default meat in most non-vegetarian Chinese cuisine -- the unqualified word "meat" is understood in China as meaning "pork," as it would be understood in much of the west to mean "beef" -- Chinese Muslims, following their halal dietary laws, have developed a pork-free cuisine featuring lamb and Central Asian spices such as cumin.
The small Chinese Jewish community in the city of Kaifeng also abstained from pork, according to the laws of kashrut (or kosher laws). These are similar to halal, but also include a requirement that sinews be removed from meat before cooking. Because of this feature that distinguished Jews from Muslims, one of the streets in Kaifeng's Jewish quarter was named "Pluck-Sinew Street.".
Foreign influence in Chinese cuisine
Influence of Chinese cuisine on foreign foods
- Di, Xianghua; Translated by Zhang Tingquan (First Edition 2007). A Food-lover's Journey Around China. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing., 156. ISBN ISBN 978-7-119-04175-9.
- Michael Pollak, Mandarins, Jews, and Missionaries: The Jewish Experience in the Chinese Empire (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1980