Chinese Food - Chinese Culture Introduction

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Chinese Food

Grain

It includes the seeds of a wide range of plants. The earliest known grain appears to be millet, which was boiled or steamed. This was the staple of the early civilization in the north of China, probably as early as Neolithic times (7,000-5,000 B.C), while by the Zhou dynasty, rice was the leading crop of the south. Wheat was also eaten in Neolithic China, but played a less prominent role than millet.

 

Archaeology provides little clear evidence about the vegetables Neolithic Chinese cooked with their pork and dog meat, the earliest domesticated sources of animal protein. Beef, mutton and goat came later, although wild deer and rabbit most likely appeared often on early menus. Fish and a variety of fowl were also used.

It can be said that the basic Chinese diet and means of preparation were in place about 6,000 years ago, although many imported ingredients-some transported over the Silk Road- entered the Chinese larder and new cooking methods were adopted.

 

A balanced mixture of grain and cooked dishes has been the ideal of a meal in China since time immemorial. The balance lies between bland, boiled or steamed grain on the one hand, and more flavorful and rich cooked dishes on the other. Further balances were sought between the yin (cooling) and yang (heating) qualities of the foods served. The notion of food as both preventive and curative medicine is deeply imbedded in the Chinese mind.

 

The specific proportion of grain and cocked dishes on a menu depends as much on the economic status of the diners as on the bulk of the calories, with cooked dishes serving as supplementary ornamentation and nutrition. The grander the occasion is the more cooked dishes and less grain. Even today, this tradition is maintained at banquets, where a small symbolic bowl of plain steamed rice is served after an extensive selection of other dishes.

 

Chinese rice

Rice

It is perceived as something essential and almost magical. This is particularly true in South China, while wheat showers its blessings over the North, although this division is not hard and fast. One reason the Grand Canal was built in the 6th century was to transport rice from the fertile Yangtze delta region to the imperial granaries in the relatively dry North. And since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), an annual crop of short-grain rice has been grown in the suburbs of Beijing, originally for the palace and today for the military leadership.

 

Numerous varieties of rice are produced in china today, supplemented by more expensive Thai rice which is available at urban markets throughout the country. Southerners seem to prefer long-grained rice, which is less sticky then other varieties and has strong “wood” overtones when steaming hot.

 

Rice is served steamed, fried (after boiling) or made into noodles by grinding raw rice into rice flour. It is also cooked with a lot of water to produce congee or zhou (rice gruel), a popular breakfast food and late-night snack eaten with a number of savoury side dishes.

 

In early times, wheat was boiled like rice, but by the Han dynasty (220 B.C.-A.D. 200) the grain was ground into flour and made into noodles, pancakes and various forms of dumplings, some of the recipes having possibly been imported from Central Asia. It is unlikely the Marco Polo brought spaghetti, linguine and pizza to Italy from China. Although their prototypes existed in China century’s before he was born, there is written evidence of the existence of pasta in Italy before Polo’s left home for the East.

 

Regional Cuisines of China

A diversity of regional food that was originally quite distinctive can be found in many large Chinese cities. In all regions soups with herbs, seeds, and roots are made, and sometimes several soups are served during a large meal. Appetizers or small dishes called ping poon start most formal meals. Bat dai, bat siu are meals of eight small cold dishes and eight large hot ones. Congee -rice porridge- is served like polenta with various flavoursome or sometimes sweet side dishes. Fan, virtually any carbohydrate, rice, grain, bread, or noodles, and tsai, fish, poultry, meat, or vegetables, are served in as many combinations as there are cooks, although certain dishes have been handed down in accurate, unaltered, and ceremonial fashion for literally thousands of years.

Guangzhou (Canton), the capital of the southern province, Guangdong, is known for its rich agriculture and its pure, fresh cooking. Over the centuries, a great range of natural products have been produced here. Guangzhou has more restaurants than any city in China because of the abundance of fresh ingredients. Rice is plentiful here, along with a colorful variety of vegetables and tropical fruits, from leeches and melon to citrus. Fresh- and salt-water fish, shell-fish, duck, squab, quail and chicken are widely used in dishes of spectacular simplicity-often steamed or stir-fried and served with light, clean sauces that show off the natural flavors and colors of the ingredients.

          

 

Beijing in the north, once the seat of the imperial court and famous in the West for Peking duck, is not a rice region.

 

Ruthless winters and cold northern winds make this area unsuitable for growing rice, so the staple crops are wheat, soybeans, and other grains, which find their way to the table in an assortment of breads, dumplings and noodles. Aromatic roots and vegetables, such as garlic, leeks, ginger, onions, peppers and cabbage are used frequently, and this is the part of China where you are most likely to find beef, lamb and pork.

 

 

 

Shandong and Henan are included in what Westerners generally refer to as the “Mandarin” cuisine of the north. These regions were greatly influenced by Manchurian and Moslem cuisines and are famous for their aromatic lamb dishes. Some feast delicacies such as shark’s fin soup and bird’s nest soup originated elsewhere, but have long been elaborated on and served here.

 

Shanghai, the country’s largest port, is in the northeast. Shanghai is the culinary capital of eastern China, a region known for its mild weather, and abundant freshwater fish and shellfish, seafood, produce, rice and tea. Exquisite presentations and complex sauces, often sweetened with dark soy sauce, are the characteristic of Shangainese cooking, as well as slow-simmered soups and stews of pork and poultry. Rice wine from Shao Hsing, China’s wine capital is a prominent ingredient here, along with vinegar from Zhejiang and ham from Jinhua. In the fall, the local crabs and their roe are so popular that visitors travel long distances to taste them.

 

Sichaun (Szechuan), modern China’s largest province, is the northwest and its eastern plains are among the most fertile in China. Barley, corn, fruit, potatoes, rice, sugar cane, vegetables, wheat, and tea are harvested here in abundance. Piquant and spicy dishes using onions, garlic, anise, ginger, chillies, and peppercorns are copious. The chilli peppers are an addition imported from the Mediterranean and are only a few hundred years old. Some local dishes are cooked with fresh flowers. Chicken and pork are used a great deal, as are sautéed vegetables. Sometimes the meat is smocked or barbecued. Wrapped dishes are popular as well; bean flour paste noodles, pancakes, and lotus leaves may all be used as wrappers. It is an overall complex flavour that Sichuan chefs strive for. Sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts and cashews are popular here, and pickled, cured and smoked foods are a year-round mainstay.

 

Adjacent Hunan province produces more fiery dishes than Sichuan and uses more game, such as venison and boar. This may explain why the people who live here use chopsticks half again as long as any found in Asia.

Sawaddi cuisine is vegetarian and designed for certain Buddhists and others who abstain from animal, fish, or egg protein.

 

Keeping a well-stocked food store of Chinese dry goods, refrigerated and frozen ingredients enable to whip up an authentic Chinese meal on short notice. Stock up on the items below, and all is need to buy are a few fresh ingredients to make most of the Chinese recipes.

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