ChinaOnYourMind: Chinese Cuisine

History and Introduction of Chinese Cuisine

Chinese people value their way of dining very much. There is an old saying still being quoted today ---"Food is the first neccessity of the people." Delicious and nutritious food has been regarded as the basics of ordinary life.

The Chinese culinary culture has a distant source and has been developed for many centuries. The legend has it that the Chinese cooking culture originated with Yi Yin, a virtuous and capable minister of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 15th to 11th century B.C.). It can be seen that China initiated the culinary art as early as the Shang and Zhou (ca. 11th century to 221 B.C.) times. With the economic growth through various periods, people have been always exploring new cooking techniques ----from brevity to variety, from rudimentary to advanced stage, from day-to-day snacks to feasts, even to palatial dishes and delicacies. During the period from the Spring and Autumn Period(ca. 770-476 B.C.) and the Warring States Period(ca. 475-221 B.C.), to the Sui-Tang period, the Chinese dishes began to be separated by Southern and Northern tastes. In general, the southern dishes emphasize freshness and tenderness. Due to the cold weather, northern dishes are relatively oily, and the use of vinegar and garlic tends to be quite popular. As far as staple food is concerned, people in North China favor noodles, dumplings and other staple food made from flour while the majority in the South almost consume rice daily.

During the period of the Tang (618-907 A.D.) and the Song (960-1279 A.D.) dynasties, people started to shift their attention to the nutritional and medical values of different plants such as fungus, herbs and vegetables. Many varieties of "medicinal food" have been cooked for the prevention and cure of diseases, or for health and recovery.

As time went by, distinct local flavors were added to the Chinese dishes, such as the Northern food("Lu" or the Shandong dishes), the Southern food ("Yue" or the Cantonese dishes), the Chuan food (Sichuan dishes), Huai Yang (Yangzhou) and the vegetarian foods and recipes of each kind of dishes have been handed down. There are four oldest types of Chinese food: the Sichuan, Cantonese, Northern(Beijing and Shandong) and Huaiyang. Later on, eight types gradually evolved after the Tang and Song Dynasties (the Beijing, Sichuan, Cantonese, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hunan and Fujian groups). Each of these groups has its own history and unique techniques.

Shandong Cuisine

Some people also call Shandong Cuisine Beijing Cuisine. Beijing was the capital city for the Liao, Kin, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Except for the Ming Dynasty, all the rulers of these dynasties were from northern nomadic tribes. For those 500-plus years, the dishes available from Beijing 's catering trade were dominated by meat dishes, which corresponded to the eating habits of the ruling class. The Mongolian rulers of the Yuan Dynasty were especially fond of mutton, and 80% of the dishes in their palace were made of mutton. These mutton dishes are still made today, such as stewed mutton, instant-boiled mutton, quick-fried mutton tripe, and fried dumplings with minced mutton. The most popular way to enjoy mutton is Mongolian hot spot, as showed by the photo.

The Qing Dynasty rulers ate pork before moving to Beijing from Shenyang in northeastern China . Their cooking methods were stewing, roasting, and boiling. Pork and mutton have been equally represented in Beijing cuisine since the Qing Dynasty as a result of the dietetic influence of the people in the northeastern part of China . Roast and stewed pig, pork dishes, and pig's offal stewed in ceramic pots offered by the Shaguoju Restaurant (ceramic pots restaurant) were the first to be offered to suit the eating preferences of the people from the northeast. Gradually these dishes were accepted by the resident of Beijing .

Beijing was the gathering place of the literati and officials, and many skilled chefs followed these people to Beijing . These chefs brought the different cuisines to the capital and greatly enriched the flavors of Beijing cuisine. The Shandong , Huai-Yang, and Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisines all strongly influenced Beijing cuisine. Because Shandong was near Beijing , people migrated from there to Beijing to earn their living, and many worked in the catering trade. Shandong cuisine was similar to Beijing cuisine, so its dishes were quickly accepted. The Shandong people almost had a monopoly on the Beijing catering trade during the Qing Dynasty.

People from Shandong opened many famous Beijing restaurants, including the Tongfengtang, Fushoutang, Huifengtang, Guangheju and Tongheju. The quick-frying techniques of the Shandong cuisine and its use of onions greatly influenced Beijing cuisine. For example, quick-fried mutton, a popular, common dish, is a typical Beijing dish that uses the cooking skills and flavoring methods of the Shandong cuisine. Now, people in Beijing quickly fry onions in hot oil before stir-frying the dish because of the influence of the Shandong cuisine.

As a capital city, Beijing had many cultural and trade exchanges with other parts of the country. Many people came from Huai'an, Yangzhou , southern Jiangsu , and western Zhejiang for business or to seek official posts in Beijing . Literati and officials placed high expectations on restaurant food, and many even created dishes. The chefs in Beijing all boasted of being able to create the dishes of the southern cuisines. Some Beijing residents and businessmen from other areas wanted to eat the dishes of their native cuisines without leaving the city, which stimulated the development of the Huai'an-Yangzhou cuisine in Beijing .

When southern food was introduced in the north, its flavor was changed. For example, Huai'an-Yngzhou cuisine has a sweet and less salty taste, while northern cuisine has salty, rich flavors. Before southern cuisine were accepted in Beijing , they had to adjust their flavors, and dishes had to be created that combined the southern and northern cuisines. For example, Mr. Pan's Fish, a famous dish of quick-fried fish and mutton, was introduced by Panzuyin (1830¡ª1890), a member of the Qing Dynasty Imperial Academy . Wu's Sliced Fish, invented by Wu Yansheng of Suzhou , was a Beijing dish that had the flavor of Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisine.

Manchu and Han banquets, which gradually became popular during Emperor Qianlong's reign, included nearly 200 cold dishes and dozens of refreshments and pastries. The main courses were Manchu style roast dishes, shark fin, edible bird's nest, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, and abalone served in southern style. These were supplemented by traditional Manchu pastries and Huai'an-Yangzhou or Jiangsu-Zhejiang style dishes that precisely reflected the cooking skills and flavors of Beijing cuisine. Peking duck, which has become a favorite of people outside Beijing and even with for eigners, is prepared using the color and taste, then seasoned with fermented flour sauce, and eaten with onions and pancakes baked in Shandong style. This typical dish reflects the origin of Beijing cuisine.

Beijing cuisine is famous for its hundreds of dishes with special flavors that are unmatched by any other cuisine. Beijing cuisine does not emphasize strangeness or uniqueness, only delicious food made from common ingredients with tastes that are very agreeable. It is China 's most typical cuisine.

Guangdong cuisine

Guangdong cuisine is unique among the Chinese cuisine. Its raw materials, cooking methods, and flavorings all differ from the other cuisines. Guangdong is located in southern China , bordered by the mountain ranges to the north and the South China Sea to the south, and it has long been separated from the hinterland. Guangdong cuisine is, perhaps, the most famous of the food areas. Long, warm, wet days throughout the year create the perfect environment for cultivating almost everything. The coast provides ample seafood, and the groves are filled with fruits. Cooking methods and recipes here are sophisticated and varied. Since the local produce is so gorgeous, the cooking highlights its freshness, tenderness and light color, relying less on loud sauces and deep-frying.

In ancient times the Baiyue people lived there, but may immigrants from the hinterland moved in during the Qin and Han Dynasty. The dietetic culture of Guangdong has retained many eating habits and customs of the ancient people, and eating snakes is a n example. In short, to the people of Guangdong , everything that walks, crawls, flies, or swims is edible. Many of these strange foods no longer appeal to today's refined tastes, and some have been eliminated out of respect for the eating habits of people in some places, but some strange foods still remain in Guangdong .

The most famous dish, Dragon and Tiger Fight, is dish of braised snake and cat. It has even been served as the main course at important banquets. Other famous dishes are ¡°dragon, tiger, and phoenix¡± with chrysanthemum (snake, cat, and chicken), braised ¡° Phoenix ¡± liver and snake slices (chicken liver and snake), and stir-fried shredded snake meat in five colors.

Since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Guangdong has become more prosperous, and it has developed closer contacts with the hinterland. As Western culture has been introduced, Guangdong cuisine has absorbed the cooking skills of the West as well as the cooking skills of other Chinese regions to develop its own unique methods. The most characteristic cooking methods include cooking in salt, cooking in wine, baking in pan, and soft-frying.

Cooking in salt means that the preserved ingredient ( a whole chicken, for example) is buried in heated salt until it is well done. The most famous of these dishes is Salt-Cooked Chicken from Dongjiang.

Cooking in wine means the main ingredient is steamed in alcoholic vapor. The most typical dish is twin pigeons cooked in rose wine. Two cleaned pigeons on two chopsticks are placed in an earthen bowl so as to keep them away from the bottom of the pot. Place a cup of rose wine between the pigeons, then put the bowl inside an iron pot and heat the pot until the pigeons are well done. Half a cup of wine will remain without the slightest smell of wine, but the pigeons will have acquired and appealing fragrance of rose wine.

Baking in a span means the ingredients are put in an iron pan with a cast iron lid. The pan is covered with a red-hot cast-iron lid and heated until the dish is done. A typical dish of this type is baked egg.

Soft-frying is another unique cooking method of the Guangdong cuisine. The main ingredients are liquid or semi-liquid, such as fresh milk and minced chicken. The technique is to heat the pan over a hot fire, then pour some oil in the pan to coat the bottom. Then add a little more oil and stir in the ingredients over a medium fire to low fire. Typical dishes are stir-fired fresh milk and stir-fried eggs.

Guangdong cuisine emphasizes seafood, and unique, mixed flavorings. For example, one flavoring liquid is a mixture prepared from onion, garlic, sugar, salt, and spices. The gravy is prepared from a mixture of peanut oil, ginger, onion, Shaoxing rice wine, crystallized sugar, anise, cassia bark, licorice root, clove, ginger powder, dried tangerine peel, and Momordica grosuvenori. Spiced salt is prepared from refined salt, sugar, powdered spices, and anise. These flavorings, along with other favorite condiments such as oyster sauce, fish sauce, clam oil, and curry, give Guangdong cuisine a unique taste.

Guangdong cuisine is divided into three branches: Guangdong food is traditional Guangdong cuisine; Chaozhou food is similar to Fujian cuisine because Chaozhou neighbors Fujian Province . It stresses seafood and many dishes are served in soup. Its flavors are deep, delicious, and sweet. Cooks like to use fish sauce, hot sauce and red vinegar. Dongjiang food, which is represented by Huizhou food, emphasizes domestic animals and poultry. Its dishes are slightly salty with simple sauces. Guangdong cuisine has been heavily influenced by foreign cooking style.

Jiangsu-Zhejiang Cuisine

Jiangsu refers to the part of Jiangsu south of the Yangtze River, namely Suzhou and Wuxi ; while Zhejiang refers to the western part of the province, namely Hangzhou . The economy in the two provinces began growing after the middle of the Tang Dynasty. Following the Five Dynasties (907--960), the economic and cultural centers moved south, and literati gathered in these places. If the catering trade in Huai'an and Yangzhou chiefly met the needs of important, rich traders, the cooking skills and features in this area reflected the interests and tastes of the literati.

Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisine stresses the use of vegetables, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and water shield, which gives the food a light, fresh taste. Vegetable dishes make up the bulk of the common people's daily meals, but are also popular dishes on the menus of famous restaurants. These dishes include heart cabbage cooked in chicken fat, braised fish slivers, spring bamboo shoots braised in oil, spinach flavored with shrimp sauce, West Lake live fish steamed with vinegar, and water shield soup. Fish or meat dishes are often cooked together with vegetables; and fish, shrimp, crab, and mussels from the rivers and lakes are also served as delicacies. In this area the fish and shrimp are often kept alive until they are cooked, so the foods served in restaurants are very fresh.

The Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisine has many famous fish and shrimp dishes. For example, Mandarin Fish Shaped like a Squirrel topped with sweet and sour tomato sauce was praised by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty as the ¡°the Number One Dish in the World¡±. West Lake fish steamed in vinegar has been famous for centuries; minced perch in Songjiang has been praised for a millennium; and braised shrimp served with Longjing tea in Hangzhou and braised shrimp served with Biluo Spring tea are both popular.

Jiangsu-Zhejiang dishes are slightly sweet and less salty, but some dishes are cooked with sweet and sour flavors. The use of fermented glutinous rice is a special feature of the Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisine. The grains are used to remove unpleasant smells and improve the aroma. According to historical data, crabs and geese pickled with grain were among the foods available in Hangzhou during the Southern Song Dynasty. Afterward, fermented glutinous rice was used for flavor in almost all dishes; for example, eggplants were cooked with grain and pork steamed with grain.

Jiangsu-Zhejiang dishes are cooked in a similar manner to Huai-yang cuisine, and importance is attached to simmering, stewing, braising, boiling in covered pot, and steaming. Most dishes are served in delicious soup. The shapes and colors are natural, as contrasted with Huai-yang cuisine. Its cakes and balls, made of glutinous rice stuffed with sweet red-bean paste or with sesame seeds and sugar, are famous throughout the two provinces. Festival delicacies include New Year's cake, ¡°golden (yellow) and silvery (white)¡± balls served during the Spring Festival, sweet dumplings served at the Lantern Festival on the 15 th day of the first lunar month, green and white dumplings served on the Pure Brightness Day, black rice cake served on the Beginning of Summer Day, cold agar Kelly served on July 15, and the sweet cake served on the Double Ninth Festival.

Sichuan cuisine

People immediately think of Sichuan food as hotel, sour, sweet, and salty; using fish sauce; or having a strange taste. Actually, these flavors were introduced only in the last 100 years, and initially were popular only in the lower strata of society. Hot pepper plays an important role in the flavoring in Sichuan cuisine, and was introduced into China only 200 to 300 years ago.

During the period of the Three Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Shu was located in Sichuan . According to historical research, the people in Shu liked sweet food. During the Jin Dynasty, they preferred to eat pungent food; however, pungent food at that time referred to food made with ginger, mustard, chives, or onions. As recent as 200 years ago, there were no hot dishes in Sichuan cuisine, and few were cooked with pungent and hot flavorings. Originally, its flavorings were very mild, unlike the popular dishes of today, such as pockmarked lady's bean curd and other hot dishes. Even today, some Sichuan dishes, like velvet shark fin, braised bear paw, crisp duck roasted with camphor and tea, sea cucumber with pungent flavor, minced chicken with hollyhock, boiled pork with mashed garlic, dry-fried carp, and boiled Chinese cabbage, have kept their traditional flavors.

Sichuan has been known as rich land since ancient times. While it does not have seafood, it produces abundant domestic animals, poultry, and fresh water fish and crayfish. Sichuan cuisine is well known for cooking fish. As a unique style of food, Sichuan cuisine was already famous more than 800 years ago during the Southern Song Dynasty when Sichuan restaurants were opened in lin'an, now called Hangzhou , capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty.

The prevailing Sichuan food consist of popular dishes eaten by common people and characterized by pungent, hot, strange, and salty flavors. Although Sichuan cuisine has only a short history, it has affected and even replaced more sumptuous dishes.

The hot pepper was introduced into China from South American around the end of the 17 th century. Once it came to Sichuan , it became a favored food flavoring. Sichuan has high humidity and many rainy or overcast days. Hot pepper helps reduce internal dampness, so the hot pepper has been used frequently in dish, and hot dishes became the norm in Sichuan cuisine. Sichuan food has become the common food for most people in Sichuan area, especially since the dishes have always been going well with rice. In this respect, Sichuan cuisine differs from Beijing cuisine, which was mainly for officials and nobility; Huai-Yang cuisine, which was mainly for rich, important traders; and Jiangsu-Zhejiang cuisine, which was mainly for literati. Typical, modern Sichuan dishes like twice-cooked pork with chili sauce, shredded pork with chili sauce and fish flavor, Crucian carp with thick broad-bean sauce, and boiled mat slices are common dishes eaten by every family.

Sichuan food is famous for its many flavors, and almost every dish ahs its own unique taste. This is because many flavorings and seasonings are produced in Sichuan Province . These include soy sauce from Zhongba, cooking vinegar from baoning, special vinegar from Sanhui, fermented soy beans from Tongchuan, hot pickled mustard tubers from Fuling, chili sauce from Chongqing, thick, broad-bean sauce from Pixian, and well salt from Zigong.

Sichuan pickles have an appealing smell. They are crisp, tender, salty, sour, hot, and sweet. If pickled elsewhere, even if made the same way using slat, which comes from the wells in Zigong , has a unique flavor. In other places, sea salt is often used, which tastes slightly bitter. This example demonstrates that the flavoring materials are very important, apart from the skill of the cooks. In Sichuan food, a single flavor is rarely used and compound flavors are most common. By blending different seasonings, skilled cooks can make dozens of different sauces each with its own flavor, including creamy, salty, sweet and sour, litchi, sour with chili, hot with chili, spicy and hot, mashed garlic, distiller's grain, fish sauce with chili, ginger juice, and soy sauce. The same sauce may be used differently in different dishes. For example, the flavor of the hot with chili sauce for boiled sliced pork is different from the flavor of the hot with chili sauce for pockmarked lady's bean curd.

When flavoring foods, sometimes two or more flavorings are combined, and sometimes a hot fire is used to concentrate the extract from the dish to increase the intensity of the flavor, preserve the primary taste of the dish, remove unpleasant flavors, and increase pleasant flavors. Sichuan cuisine tends to use quick-frying, quick stir-frying, dry-braising, and dry-stewing. In quick-frying and quick stir-frying, the food is fried over a hot fire and stirred quickly without using another pan. For example, it takes about one minutes to stir-fry liver and kidney to keep it tender, soft, delicious, and fresh.

The raw materials for dry-braising are mostly fibrous foods like beef, radish, balsam, and kidney beans. These foods are cut into slivers, heated in an iron pot and stirred continuously. Flavorings are added when there is only oil left and the water has disappeared. When the dish is ready, it is dry, fragrant, crisp, and soft.

Dry-stewing is similar to stewing in the Beijing cuisine, but the primary soup or extract in the dish must be condensed over a low fire before the thick broad-bean sauce or hot red pepper is added. No starch is used. When the dish is ready, it looks faddish, oily, and shiny and tastes delicious, crisp and soft. Typical dishes are dry-stewed fish and dry-stewed bamboo shoots.

Sichuan cuisine also has many delicious snacks and desserts, such as Bangbang chicken, chicken with sesame paste, steamed beef, noodles with chili sauce, and rice dumplings stuffed with sesame paste.

To the mountainous west in Sichuan and Hunan Provinces , steamy heat and spicy foods fill the restaurants. Rice grows abundantly, as do citrus fruits, bamboo, and mushrooms. The spiciness of the food tells of locally grown chiles and the inclinations of the local palate, though some say the spices are used to mask the taste of foods that rot quickly in the heat.

The northern region of China reaches into the hostile climate of Mongolia land of the Gobi Desert and Arctic winter winds. Mongolian influence appears in the prevalence of mutton and lamb---many in the region are Muslims, so pork is forbidden---and in the nomadic simplicity of the Mongolian hot pot. The north is not amenable to rice cultivation, so wheat, barley, millet and soybeans are the staples; bread and noodles anchor the meal. The vegetable and fruits---cabbage, squash, pears, grapes, and apples---are like those grown in North American. Beijing is the pearl of the region; royal haute cuisine was born and bred inside her walls.

However, the centuries and accumulated wisdom of China 's best chefs have seen an incredible achievement that belongs to all of China .

The famous ¡°dim sum¡±, pastries filled with meat, vegetables, seafood or sweet bean pastes, are all well known the world over.

The Cantonese are also noted for their diverse, sometimes controversial, choice in food. You've probably heard those stories about snake and cat dishes. But these are not daily menu items. In fact, most Cantonese wouldn't try to serve such delicacies to foreigners.

As savory Cantonese food makes your mouth filled with water, spicy Sichuan food makes your eyes watering. ¡°Spicy¡± is the dominating taste you will notice with Sichuan food. It is known that spicy food helps one to perspire in hot and humid summer while keeping one warm in winter in Sichuan .

Similar to, but not the same as, Sichuan cuisine are Hunan cuisine and Jiangxi cuisine, both hot and spicy.

Generally, Shanghai cuisine is mellower in taste and slightly sweet over all. Sweet and sour is a typical Shanghai taste. Another characteristic is the use of a great variety of seafood. Rice is dominantly served over noodles or some other wheat product.

Hunan Type

Hunan food takes curing, simmering, steaming and stewing as the main cooking methods. Dishes of this style are usually tinged with sour and spicy flavor and are thoroughly cooked.

Anhui Type

Anhui style food features dishes stewed in brown sauce with stress on heavy oil and sauce. Delicacies are abundant in Anhui dishes.

Fujian Type

Fujian dishes, mostly marinated in wine, are sourly sweet. They stress beautiful colors and fresh tastes. Seafood dishes are Fujian specialties.
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