If a trip to China is on your must-do-soon bucket list, you are in for a great treat when it comes to mealtimes. As the world’s oldest civilization, the Chinese were among the first to create a distinctive cuisine. In addition to being early discoverers of fire and planting staples, China’s early farmers cultivated spices such as anise and ginger before anyone else. And, they took the time needed to experiment with ingredients and evolve a great cuisine.
Sharing the pleasure of good food is part of the Chinese social tradition. Food must appeal to all senses, not just taste. It should be pleasing to the eye; the ingredients should be of uniform size and the aroma fragrant. There should also be contrasting tastes and textures within the meal, balancing spicy and bland.
Good manners are very important when dining in China. That means no watching television, using your phone, or any other distracting activity. Knives are not allowed at the table. The Chinese use chop sticks but forks and spoons will be provided when requested. If you are dining with elderly people, do not begin to eat until they do. Meals should be eaten leisurely and it is bad manners to gulp everything down.
While you will find the above attributes all over the country, keep in mind food varies from region to region – and sometimes even from city to city. There are eight main areas where the food has its own traditions and can vary greatly from one region to another. For our purposes we are going to discuss the four regions where the food has Chinese roots.
Northern cuisine incorporates Beijing, Shantung and Honan; Coastal includes Fukien and Shanghai; Inland encompasses Szechuan and Yunnan. Southern takes in the region of Canton.
Northern cuisine’s staple is wheat flour so you will find lots of noodle dishes, steamed bread and dumplings. (Marco Polo introduced noodles to Italy when he returned from China.) The dishes tend to be lighter than in other areas. In Beijing, pungent sweet and sour dishes are popular. Garlic and scallions are used quite a bit. Probably the most famous dish of China is Peking duck, which originated in this area.
Coastal cuisine is noted for having rice as a staple and chefs use more soy sauce and sugar. As the land in the Yangtze River Delta is a fertile region with rich farming land, you will discover a lot of veggie dishes here and soups are usually clear and light. The Fukienese excel at soft spring rolls and Shanghai offers a lot of seafood. Steaming, stir-frying, braising and simmering are popular cooking methods and the foods, as a rule, are not high in calories. A favorite dessert here is Rice Cakes.
Inland cuisine includes that of Szechwan and Yunnan. The climate is generally hot and the food found in Szechwan is highly spiced with the use of chilies. Cooks also use earthy fermented broad bean and chili paste, black fermented soybeans and dried tangerine peel. Often, dishes are peppery and oily. The Sichuan Hot Pot, a favorite, can be numbingly spicy.
Cantonese cuisine is probably the most familiar with Americans When Chinese restaurants began opening in this country, the chefs were most likely from this area. This cuisine is original and versatile with many chefs specializing in stir-fry and using few seasonings. The Cantonese use all edible meats and work to create well-balanced flavors.
A few of the top restaurants to consider in China:
- Beijing Haidilao Hot Pot in Beijing
- Din Ti Fung in Beijing
- Lung King Heen in Hong Kong
- Panxi Restaurant in Guangzhou
- Chen Mapo Restaurant in Chengdu
- Shuyou Seafood Grand Restaurant in Xiamen
If you’re into Chinese cooking – or would like to be – consider some books that open up a whole world of this fascinating and delicious cuisine. You’ll find it ain’t just chop suey! Which by the way, was invented by Chinese immigrants here in the United States.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title for more information.
Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook
by Katie Chin
Easy Chinese Recipes: Family Favorites from Din Sun to Kung Pao
by Bee Yinn Low
Best Egg Roll, Spring Roll and Dumpling Recipes From Mama Li’s Kitchen
by Sarah Spencer
The Ultimate Chinese Cookbook: The best Chinese recipes book ever!
by Thomas Kelley
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