About Chinese Cuisine
The Chinese have traditionally believed that all the laws governing mankind and human society are an expression of the Tao. Lao Zi, the founder of Taoist philosophy revealed, “Man follows the earth. The earth follows the heavens. The heavens follow the Tao. The Tao follows nature.” The Tao literally means “(right) way.” It can be understood as the absolute principle underlying the universe signifying the way, or code of behavior, that is in harmony with the natural order.
Throughout our lives, we exchange matter with nature through what we eat. Ancient Chinese people long held a profound appreciation for the Tao of dietary intake, emphasizing, “Tao follows nature,” and incorporating the principles of proper human conduct into their diet. Lao Zi once said, “Governing a big country is like cooking a small dish,” illustrating that the highest principles of every action or thought corresponds to the Tao. The dietary and culinary principles, once exercised to the optimum, also encompass paramount principles governing heaven and earth.
“It is hard to know oneself, but harder yet to know true taste,” said Wang Xiaoyu, resident chef for the renowned food connoisseur Yuan Mei of the Qing Dynasty. The concept of Harmony is an important standard in Chinese traditional culinary arts. This balancing and apportioning principle can be subdivided into complementary meats and vegetables, appropriate collocation of cold and hot dishes, and different combinations of foods from different seasons. The ability to blend various flavors is called “sweetness,” as in “sweetness is amenable to blending” found in The Book of Propriety, one of the Confucian classics. This means sweet flavors are relatively easy to work with. The Tao of culinary arts is expressly reflected through how the flavors are handled, requiring one to “know the flavors well.”
China has enjoyed a rather long history of development in culinary arts, and has formed several distinct regional styles, which have been passed down through generations of master chefs. The most influential cuisines come from Sichuan, Shandong, Huaiyang, Canton and the Northeast, and they represent the best of traditional Chinese culinary artistry complete with color, aroma, flavor, and cut.
Sichuan cuisine carries very strong local characteristics and is mainly comprised of local food from Chongqing, Chengdu, northern and southern Chuan region. Sichuan cuisine employs close to 40 different techniques in its preparation including: braising, basting, dry-steaming, oil dripping, and different kinds of frying—stir fry, pan fry, deep fry, quick fry, dry stir-fry, soft fry and so on.
Sichuan cuisine pays particular attention to “balancing the flavors” and regards flavor as its foundation. The six basic flavors concerned are tingly spicy, hot spicy, sweet, salty, tangy, and bitter, and more flavors are produced through the combination of two or more of the basic flavors. The secret of the famous “hot” Sichuan cuisine lies in the skillful use of hot chili peppers for its vibrant red color and subtle spicy fragrance. Sichuan cuisine has 24 basic flavors, the most among all the Chinese cuisines. They can be categorized into 3 types:
1) Spicy category: tingly spicy, chilly oil spicy, sour-spicy, tingly pepper spicy, home-cooking flavor, Lychee spicy, Yushiang flavor (fish flavor spicy), orange flavor, strange flavor, and so on.
2) Savory category: garlic flavor, ginger flavor, mustard flavor, sesame flavor, smoke flavor, soy flavor, five-spice flavor, wine flavor and so on.
3) Fresh sweet sour category: salty savory, tomato flavor, sweet wine flavor, lychee flavor, sweet-sour flavor, fermented bean flavor and so on.
The Shandong cuisine, also called Lu cuisine, is the earliest and most influential Chinese cuisine and originated in today’s Shandong province. Of all the Chinese cuisines, Shandong cuisine is the largest cuisine of the original 4 Chinese cuisine: Cantonese, Szechuan, Huaiyang, and Shandong. It has the most variety of types of food and cooking methods and its food is known for its salty, savory flavor as well as tender andcrispy texture.
Shandong is situated on the Shandong Peninsula. It has long coastline along the Yellow sea and the Bo sea as well as rich inland plains. It has four very distinctive seasons. Seafood, freshwater produce, grains, poultry, fruits and vegetables, and wild birds and animals are abundant. This provides an excellent material foundation for the variety of food and cooking techniques in this region. Shandong chefs are well-rounded in their skills and are famous for their Bao and Ta methods of cooking.
Bao is a quick stir-fry in high heat. Like the scholar Yuan Mu from Qing Dynasty said, “Quick stir-fry the food in boiling oil, add in the spices and it’s done. If it’s extremely crispy then its done right.” Bao is usually done instantaneously; the nutrients are well preserved; and the food is light and not greasy. Ta is a unique cooking method in Shandong. The main ingredients are spiced and starched and then Ta-fried and simmered in soup or sauce. Wok-Ta-ed tofu is a very traditional and popular Shandong dish.
Soup is a well-known part of the Shandong cuisine, and features a clear “consommÈ,” and a thick, creamy variety. Soup is a very important flavor enhancer for Chinese chefs. It has been touted as, “A chef’s soup is like an opera singer’s singing style.”
Cantonese cuisine originates from Guangdong Province and is made up of cuisines from three principal areas: Guangzhou, Chaozhou, and Dongjiang. Cantonese cuisine is known for its wide use of ingredients and creativity.
Since the Han and Wei Dynasty (206 BC – 265 AD), Guangzhou (also called Canton) has been a major port city in South China. It is situated in the subtropics, bordering on the South China Sea. The rainfall is abundant; the area is rich in produce; fresh seafood and delicacies abound year round; and different fruits and vegetables are always in season.
Cantonese chefs are known for their creativity while imitating other cuisine styles. Cantonese cuisine has absorbed the features of other Chinese cuisines including that of Shanghai, Yangzhou, and Peking. It chefs are great at customizing food based on the patron’s likes and dislikes and making adjustments according to seasonal and climatic changes. Its summer and fall dishes are lighter while its winter and spring dishes are rich and more flavorful. Cantonese cuisine pays a lot of attention to texture and flavor. Its basic flavors are sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, salty, and fresh taste. Cantonese cuisine has a lighter taste compared with other Chinese cuisines.
Huaiyang cuisine is derived from the native cooking styles of the region surrounding the lower reaches of the Huai and Yangtze Rivers (hence the name) and centers around the cities of Yangzhou and Huai’an in Jiangsu province. It originated in the early Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) and gained national fame during the Sui Dynasty (581-617 A.D.) and Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D). Huaiyang cuisine has had a profound impact on the culinary culture in Suzhou, Zhejiang, Anhui and Shanghai, all of which quickly took on their own characteristics. After the Ming and Qing Dynasty, Shandong cuisine has had a great influence on Huaiyang cuisine.
Huaiyang cuisine originated from the old Yangzhou. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Yangzhou was the second largest city in China, after Changan. It is known for its year-round fresh produce. Therefore, materials used in Huaiyang cuisine are primarily seasonal fresh produce. The Huaiyang style of cooking places a great deal of emphasis on material selection and uses more sugar than other Chinese cuisines. It is known for its meticulous preparation process and fine balance between rich flavor and pure taste. Huaiyang cuisine emphasizes preserving the original flavors of the produce and specializes in braising, stewing, roasting and boiling, as these methods are best at bringing out the original flavor of the ingredients. It combines southern cuisine’s fresh, crispy, and tender quality and at the same time incorporates northern cuisines’ savor, color, and richness and is well-liked by both northerners and southerners.
The cuisine of Northeastern China refers to the cuisines of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces, and it has been well known since ancient times. It originated from the Jin Dynasty during the early 12th century. Due to the cold weather in the region, people accustomed to eating very hot food, and so cooking techniques such as casserole, hot-pot, and roasting were developed.
In the 1930’s, the last emperor Fuyi established his Manchurian Imperial court in Changchun and Changchun became a political center of the time. Other than the Imperial chefs from the Forbidden City in Peking, many famous chefs from Shandong went to work in the imperial kitchen. They combined the Shandong and imperial cuisines with the local Jilin folk cuisine and developed today’s Northeastern Chinese cuisine.
The main body of Northeastern cuisine is the local folk cuisine using casserole, stir-fry, qiang, and marinating techniques. It also includes traditional techniques used in the imperial court.
Northeastern cuisine utilizes the native crops of its mountainous land to its advantage, and is famed for its wild game dishes. Knife skills, shovel skills, command of fire and fire temperature are important in its Chefs’ training. Cooking techniques make use of quick stir-fry over high heat, stir-fry over low heat, stewing, barbecuing, glazing and so on. Its dishes are tender but not rare, well-done but not tough. It is rich in flavors and its dishes are sumptuous and substantial.