Chinese cooks believe that color and aroma of the food is almost as important as the taste. They also say that medicinal and nutritional value of the food is tied to its origin. Chinese apply their spiritual teaching of balance and yin ("cool") and yang ("hot") to food. As they strive to find a balance in their lives, they aim to do the same with their food, aiming for balance the color, texture and food types. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Chinese food is based around five different core tastes — sweet, sour, salty, hot and bitter. Cooking styles range from fast and hot searing in a wok to the slow melding of flavours of a simmering hot pot. Ingredients used provide delightful, delicate flavouring that melds to create a unique experience with each bite of food taken. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”, published in 1899: ““If the Chinese know how to eat, they also know how to prepare their food. We do not of course mean, kind reader, that you are fond of Chinese cookery. Neither are we. At the same time we cannot be blind to the fact, that regarded as the utilisation of the means at their disposal, the Chinese are in advance of most Western peoples. The details given in the Confucian Analects show that " The Master, " albeit he was a " Superior Man, " was by no means above good cookery. He would not eat what was not in a fit state to eat, and this of itself would tend to show that had Confucius survived to the present time, and taken a trip to certain lands that we could name (but will not), he would have been hard put to it![Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]
Chinese food found in China often has more bones, shells and body parts than Chinese food found in the United States. It also tends to have more vegetables, less meat and often times less oil.
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Eating China Blog eatingchina.com/blog ; Imperial Food, Chinese Government site china.org.cn; Wikipedia article on History of Chinese Food Wikipedia ; Chopstix chopstix.com ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; Chinese Food Recipes chinesefood-recipes.com : Food Tours in China, China Highlights China Highlights
History of Chinese Cooking
street food Chinese often cook in a wok, a metal pan with a curved bottom. Woks were first used more than 2,000 years ago. Their curved shape distributes heat evenly and causes liquid to evaporate quickly. The ancient Chinese began eating ice cream-like deserts around 2000 B.C. Ancient noblemen were particularly fond of a soft paste made with soft rice and milk, packed with snow. By the 13th century a variety of iced deserts could be purchased from vendors on the streets of Beijing. Marco Polo reportedly brought recipes from ice-cream-like chilled milk deserts from China.
During the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.), a ruler appointed his favorite cook to prime minister. Yi Ya was a legendary chef from the ancient Zhou Dynasty. Noodles that were 2,500 year old were found in 2005 During the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) the Chinese developed the first true restaurants. By the Sung dynasty these had become multipurpose private rooms where men went for food, sex and drink. In the 10th century, the Chinese enjoyed dumplings, broad noodles with meat and vegetable toppings that often varied from region to region. On the streets of large cities you could get takeaway food like candied fruit and stuffed baked buns.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”: “Throughout its history, China's growing population has been difficult to feed. By A.D. 1000, China's population reached 100 million. The Chinese constantly had to adapt new eating habits because of the scarcity of food. Meat was scarce, so dishes were created using small amounts of meat mixed with rice or noodles, both of which were more plentiful. Vegetables were added, and stir-frying, the most common method of cooking, became a way to conserve fuel by cooking food quickly. Regional differences in cuisine became noticeable in the 1200s when invaders from neighboring Mongolia swept into China. Cooking styles and customs began to be exchanged between the two countries. As people traveled further from their homes, cooking methods and foods were shared among the different regions within China. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Chillies arrived from the New World in the Ming dynasty of the 15th and 16th centuries. Verity Wilson, an expert on Chinese culture, told the BBC: "But now they've been absolutely incorporated into the Chinese way of life, and we can't really think about Chinese cooking without chillies. And the other thing we think about is teapots. Teapots have very much become an item associated with China. But pre-Ming dynasty, there were no teapots in China. So I think all those things which we take to be quintessentially Chinese have actually been absorbed by the Chinese from other cultures." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]
The Chinese love to make good food as much as eat it. The famous Hong Kong film director John Woo, for example, likes to stir fry dishes like Cantonese crispy chicken and bean sauce for the crew. "Cooking is the only way I can relax," he told Newsweek. "You make food beautiful. You watch people eat. It's like making a movie." American-Taiwanese journalist Shirley Fung wrote in Newsweek: “There’s the ingenuity of Chinese cooks. They may not be able to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but they can certainly make it into a sumptuous dish. The Chinese joyously eat everything. A pig, for instance, is literally eaten from head to toe: roasted pig’s ears and stewed pig’s feet are both delicacies.”
Cooking techniques include braising, mixed boiling, stir-frying, deep-frying and frying. Sauces are often made from soy sauce, chili sauce, bean sauce, oyster sauce, or plum sauce. The ingredients can be fresh, cured, dried, steamed, stewed, smoked or roasted. A lot of dishes have the flavor enhancer MSG. Chinese like to cook with a wok, which varies in size in relationship to the size of a family. A family of nine uses one about the size of an automobile tire. An important tool in any Chinese kitchen is clever able to cut easily through pork and chicken bones. Chinese usually cook with lard or vegetable oil.
Cooking with a wok requires little oil and a short cooking time. Many dishes are stir-fried in a quick, flaming, frenzy. Describing a Chinese cook at work an AP reporter wrote. “Jiang Lan tosses a handful of shrimp — each a fingernail sized, pearl-white morsel ...into a smoking hot wok slick with oil. With a quick pinch of salt, a swirl of egg white and vigorous toss of the pan, the dish is done and set steaming before hungry diners.”
In a classic technique known by the misleading name of “water-cooking,” flames shoot up around blackened wok, igniting a mixture of chili paste, chili oil, ginger, garlic and ground Sichuan pepper The flames in flaming woks are produced the cooking oil. The Chinese sometimes say that men are better at stir-frying and women are better at folding dumplings
Many Westerners tend to think all Chinese cooking in stir-frying but in fact a lot of dishes are prepared slowly through stewing and steaming. Steaming in bamboo baskets lined with cabbage leaves is another cooking method. Stir-frying is suited for restaurants because it is quick. New stoves have traditionally been sanctified by beheading a large cockerel and splashing blood over the site.
Primary Chinese Food Types and Ingredients
Rice is China's staple food. The Chinese word for rice "fan", which also means "meal." Rice may be served with any meal, and is eaten several times a day. Scallions, bean sprouts, cabbage, and gingerroot are common ingredients. Tofu (sobean curd) is an important source of protein for the Chinese. Pork, fish and chicken are the most commonly eaten meats. In the past many Chinese did not eat much meat because it was too expensive. Vegetables play a central role in Chinese cooking and serve as ingredients for dishes and dishes in their own right.[Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The main foods of the Han are rice, flour, vegetables, pork, eggs, and freshwater fish. The Han have always laid much stress on cooking skills, making Chinese cuisine (basically Han) well known throughout the world. Dumplings, wanton, spring rolls, rice, noodles, and roast Beijing duck are just examples of traditional foods. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, ” Cengage Learning, 2009 ]
Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Cooking reflects the country's history of famines caused by factors such as natural disasters and war. The Chinese eat parts and species of animals that many other cultures do not, including fish heads and eyeballs, birds' feet and saliva, and dog and cat meat. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Supermarkets with Chinese foods sell things like frozen dumplings, xiaolong mantou soup-filled buns, black rice vinegar, doubanjiang paste, dried cloud ear mushrooms, Chinese rice wine, silkworm pupae, pig's feet, mutton and cilantro. There are also seasonal foods such as Chinese mitten crabs, fresh lychees. Live food in tanks includes fresh seafood, carp, grass carp and soft-shell turtles. [Source: Akihito Teramura, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 29, 2012]
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) and Chinese Cooking
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common ingredient in Chinese food. First widely used in the 1950s, it is a flavor enhancer and preservative. It was widely by Chinese cooks in the United States before it became popular in China. MSG is known as “wei jing” (“The essence of flavor”) in China. MSG is an ingredient in a number foods and is widely used in packaged food today such as onion soup mix, cheese Goldfish crackers, Pringles potato chips, Accent seasoning, Oscar Meyer bologna, Nacho-cheese-flavored Doritos, Ranch-flavored dressings, and low-fat yoghurt. Overseas it is an essential flavor for Marmite in Britain, Salsa Lazono in Costa Rica, Kewpie mayonnaise in Japan, Goya Sazon in the Caribbean, and Golden Mountain sauce in Thailand. In the United States synthetically produced glutamates — essential the sane thing as MSG — have names like hydrolyzed proteins, yeast extracts, protein concentrates.
The glutamate flavor was discovered in Japan in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo University. The Japanese company Ajinomoto made it into a crystalline powder form (MSG) and patented the idea in 1908. The key to using MSG is using the right amount, One chef told the New York Times, “Too much MSG and you get that harsh acrid taste. But get it just right and that dish will sing.” MSG was introduced to China at a time when food supplies were short and basic ingredients were rationed. It was quickly embraced as an easy way to flavor food and was used as a kind of meat substitute. Later it was used even at pricy restaurant as a short cut for making stocks that used to be made from wild fowl, pork ribs and dried seafood.
Americans became suspicions about MSG after a Chinese-American physician wrote what he meant to be a lighthearted letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, saying he experienced numbness, palpations and weakness after eating in Chinese restaurants and wondered if MSG was the cause. After that MSG was labeled as a toxin and removed from a long list of foods, including baby food, and made a lot of Americans wary and suspicious every time they entered a Chinese restaurant. Chinese restaurants responded by putting up “no MSG” signs. A number of studied have debunked the “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” showing that consuming MSG in normal amounts has no effect on the vast majority of people. Still suspicions about the flavor enhancer remain and but generally it is only unhealthy — but also doesn’t taste very good — if it is consumed in large amounts.
A Chinese-American woman, whose parents ran a number of Chinese restaurants, told the New York Times that even after “no MSG” signs appeared, “Most Chinese restaurant, honestly, kept right on using it. And at home most Chinese cooks will sprinkle a little bit at the end, especially if the ingredients they had to cook with were not that great.” In 1995, the FDA cleared glutamate of all serious charges leveled against it. A review of research by the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States came to the same conclusion. Even so some foot experts assert that MSG is harmful to one’s health, blaming it for range of serious neurological and physiological aliments, and insist it has no effect on the flavor of food. Some studies have identified MSG as a possible ecitotoxin which overstimulates neurotransmitters to the point of cell damage.
Festival Foods in China
Special occasions have traditionally been celebrated with large family gatherings featuring big, elaborate feasts. In the north, dumplings called jiaozi are served at the Spring Festival and other special occasions. Banquets have their roots in imperial traditions and ceremonial meals. Today, they are a fixture of important state gatherings and business occasions. They usually are held at restaurants and have ten or more courses. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”: “Although day-to-day cooking in China is quite simple, elaborate meals are served on holidays and festivals. A typical holiday meal might consist of steamed dumplings, suckling pig (or a spicy chicken dish), and a selection of desserts. Unlike in the United States, desserts are generally reserved for special occasions only. Most ordinary meals end with soup. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
“The most important festival of the year is the Chinese New Year, which is set according the phase of the moon, and falls in January or February. Oysters are believed to bring good fortune and have become a traditional food for dinners celebrating the New Year. Oranges and tangerines (for a sweet life), fish (symbolizing prosperity), and duck are also eaten. Dumplings are commonly eaten in the north. Neen gow, New Year's Cake, is the most common dessert. Each slice of the cake is dipped in egg and pan-fried. A special rice flour makes the cake slightly chewy.
A Peking Duck Holiday Feast includes Peking duck, Mandarin pancakes, fish in wine sauce, seaweed, Chinese celery cabbage in cream sauce and pickled cabbage Peking style Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is a feast dish with as many as 30 main ingredients that takes up to two days to prepare. A Buddha Jumps Over the Wall Feast Menu including snow pea shoots with steamed mushrooms, Choi sum with Yunnan ham, mustard green stems in sweet mustard sauce and lotus root with pickled peach sauce
“Another important holiday is the Mid-Autumn Festival in September. To celebrate this festival, which occurs during the full moon, the Chinese eat heavy, round pastries called mooncakes. They are filled with a sweet paste and sometimes have an egg yolk in their center. Other foods eaten at this time are rice balls and a special cake called yue bing.
“After a baby is one year old, the Chinese only celebrate birthdays every ten years, starting with the tenth birthday. The Chinese eat noodles on their birthdays. They believe that eating long noodles will lead to a long life. Another traditional birthday food is steamed buns in the shape of peaches, a fruit that also represents long life.
Foods of Northern and Southern China
The Qinling Mountains just outside of Xian, which run through the heart of China from east to west, separate the cool north with its wheat fields and noodles from the warm and humid south with it rice paddies. Ligaya Mishan wrote in the New York Times: “It’s a division that endures to this day, in both eating habits and character, between the collaborative rice farmers of the south, who had to rely on irrigation systems that bound them to their neighbors’ fates, and the more independence-minded wheat farmers of the north, who tilled their fields alone. [Source: Ligaya Mishan, New York Times, May 11, 2020]
“While rice is native to China — and so essential to Chinese culture that the word for cooked rice also signifies food — wheat was once foreign. It thrives on dry summers and winter rain, the opposite of the climate in northern China, and its migration here in the third millennium B.C. from the Fertile Crescent, a sweep of land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, was an early example of ingredients crossing borders, as the archaeobotanist Robert N. Spengler III notes in “Fruit From the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat” (2019). For centuries, the Chinese ate wheat only out of necessity, and then only simply steamed, like millet, which did little to endear it to them.
Wheat noodles appeared during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), but making them was laborious enough that they were reserved for the rich; milling technology, imported from Central Asia, did not become widely available until the Tang Dynasty (618-906), when Persian merchants sold sesame-seed-studded cakes on the street corners of Chang’an. Today, wheat is unequivocally Chinese: The government devotes more land to its cultivation than any other nation, and the grain is the foundation of entire genres of dishes, from noodles and dumplings to bread steamed, baked or fried.
China’s Four Main Regional Food Types
According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World: “There are four main regional types of Chinese cooking. The cooking of Guangdong province in the south is called Cantonese cooking. It features rice and lightly seasoned stir-fried dishes. Because many Chinese immigrants to America came from this region, it is the type of Chinese cooking that is most widely known in the United States. Typical Cantonese dishes are wonton soup, egg rolls, and sweet and sour pork. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
“The Mandarin cuisine of Mandarin province in northern China features dishes made with wheat flour, such as noodles, dumplings, and thin pancakes. The best known dish from this region is Peking duck, a dish made up of roast duck and strips of crispy duck skin wrapped in thin pancakes. (Peking was the name of Beijing, the capital of China, until after the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. This traditional recipe is still known in the United States as "Peking duck.") Shanghai cooking, from China's east coast, emphasizes seafood and strong-flavored sauces. The cuisine of the Sichuan province in inland China is known for its hot and spicy dishes made with hot peppers, garlic, onions, and leeks. This type of cooking became popular in the United States in the 1990s.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: While Shanghai cooking mainly employs steaming, dishes from north China are usually braised or stir-fried. Ingredients in dishes prepared in north China are typically meat and root vegetables. A legacy from the Mongolian hordes that stormed north China, no northern meal is complete without noodles or dumplings. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Chinese Restaurants in America
In the United States there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. The favorite Chinese restaurant of U.S. President George W. Bush and his father is the Peking Gourmet in Falls Church, which has installed bullet-proof glass in front of table N17 for their occasional visits.
The first Chinese restaurant in the United States opened in San Francisco in 1849. Chinese became cooks and cleaners in the 19th century because these jobs were considered “woman’s work” and thus were not regarded as a threat to white, male American workers. In 1885 there were six Chinese restaurant in New York City. Twenty years later there were more than 100.
“Chinese food” found in the United States includes Sichuan alligator, chow mein sandwiches and soy vinegar crawfish. Kari-Out, the largest Chinese restaurant supplier used no soybeans in its soy sauce. Thanksgiving is the only slow day in the Chinese restaurant business in the United States, which is one reason why so many cooks and waiters chose that day to get married. In New York Chinese not only run Chinese restaurants they also run many sushi bars and lots of Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.
American Chinese Food and Fortune Cookies
Things like chop suey, egg fu young, crispy noodles, chow mein, fortune cookies were all invented by Chinese in the United States for American tastes. Chop suey was invented in the West Coast of the United States. It was made of kitchen scraps for drunken miners. Chop suey may mean "leftovers." Now some restaurants in Canton sell "Genuine American Chop Suey."
General Tso chicken is one of the most famous Chinese dishes in the West. It is named after General Zuo Zonong, a fierce warrior born in Wenjialong in Hunan in 1812 who was credited with crushing a number of rebellions that threatened the Qing dynasty. It is not clear how the chicken dish became named after him. There is a Hunan dish that bears his name but it is quite different from the sweet and spicy one offered at restaurants in the United States.
Fortune cookies are an American of Japanese invention not a Chinese one. They were invented sometime in the early 20th century, depending on the source, by a Japanese entrepreneur, a Japanese-American gardener in San Francisco, a Chinese-American cook in Los Angeles or a noodle maker who was reportedly inspired by tales of Chinese rebels who passed message to one another in steamed buns and moon cakes in the 14th century.
Fortune cookies remained primarily a West Coast phenomena until 1948 when a San Francisco truck driver named Edward Louise developed a machine that could make fortune cookies and aggressively sold the machines all over the United States. Describing a factory today, Michelle Locke of AP wrote: “Tucked into narrow Ross Alley, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory is the kind of place you smell before you see — the sweet, sugary scent of baking cookies floats out the door. It's a tiny place where workers fold cookies by hand. You can buy a bag of your own for a few dollars.
Many of the fortunes found in today’s cookies were penned by a bookkeeper from San Francisco named Russell Rowland, who was paid 70 cents a piece for the 700 or so "messages" he came up with. Others were taken from other sources such as The Bible, Ben Franklin's “Poor Richard's Almanac” and translated into "Confucius says" sayings.
Book: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food” by Jennifer Lee
Western Chinese Food Versus Chinese Chinese Food
Victor Paul Borg wrote in the China Daily, “Throughout history, coastal provinces, especially Guangdong, have accounted for most of the migrant Chinese population in the West. As a result, Cantonese cuisine continues to dominate the Chinese restaurant scene in the West, although many now also serve dishes from other regions, particularly the ever-popular Peking Duck and some Sichuan fair such as mapo toufu and gongbao jiding. [Source: Victor Paul Borg, China Daily, July 12, 2014 |::|]
“A common feature of Chinese restaurants in the West is that their range of dishes tends to remain unchanged. Some of their perennial sauces and dishes, such as sweet-and-sour sauce and hoisin sauce, do not feature as pervasively in restaurants within China, where the restaurant scene is in rapid evolution. There are several good restaurants that have taken to fusing Cantonese and Sichuan dishes, and some in Chengdu concoct creative dishes that are inventive modernist takes on Sichuan classic techniques and ingredients. Therefore, for someone who eats out regularly in China, most of the Chinese restaurants in the West tend to be rather dull. The same can be said about the culture of tea drinking, something that Westerners hardly know anything about. |::|
“The point is, given the popularity of Chinese restaurants in the West, China can use its cuisine as a key element of its soft power. This endeavor, with the help of Chinese cultural institutes and private businesses, is not at all difficult, especially because awareness about and uptake of Chinese cuisine is growing in the West. For example, doujiang (soya milk) has become a popular food item in the West. Regressively, at least from me, there is also a concurrent expansion in American fast food outlets in China. But I think the popularity of American fast food is a fad; young people take to it out of curiosity and a warped sense of being trendy and global only to return to Chinese fast food - such as noodle soup and dumplings. I would never, for example, eat a mass-produced uniform burger when I can have fresh handmade noodles for the same price. |::|
“Yet another thing that the West can learn from China is how to acquire a taste for different parts of animals, fowls, plants and vegetables. For example, people in Sichuan eat the leaves of the pea plant, and use almost all the organs and parts of animals and fowls to prepare dishes - a commendable practice to prevent waste at a time when food production can hardly keep up with population growth. Perhaps when another eminent Westerner visits China, he or she will try one of my favorite dishes: fried duck's tongue, a premium dish in many upscale Sichuan restaurants, or even duck's brain, which tastes as good as foie gras.” |::|
Image Sources: Beifan.com; Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; Asia Obscura
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021