Chinese cuisine is one of the basis of the culture of China. Highly valued around the world , today is the first reason why foreigners visit China.
As night falls each evening, Dong Hua Men Night Market, beside Wang Fu Jing Pedestrian Street, lined with food stalls, is crowded with visitors; the cries of the vendors and the aroma of delicious food fills the air. Steaming Lu Zhu Huo Shao (Wheat cake boiled in meat broth), traditional Beijing noodles with bean paste, and various other snacks are abundant here. “老(lǎo) 板(bǎn) (the way to greet a food stall owner), give me another portion of fermented tofu.” Feng Weixin a Dutchman, stopped at almost every stall to taste the different snacks, just like Shen Nong, the famous herbalist of ancient times, testing a hundred kinds of herbs. Feng Weixin who attributes his love for China to his fascination with Chinese food said: “There are not so many snacks in the Netherlands. I like Chinese food so much! The snacks are so delicious! ” It was ten years ago that at his classmate’s home that he tasted Chinese dishes for the first time, then he started learning cooking Chinese dishes for himself and studying Chinese language and culture.
According to a survey made by an American magazine about “what country’s food is the best”, more than 90 percent of people think Chinese food is the most delicious. As one of three world-class cuisines, Chinese cuisine enjoys a great reputation.
As the old Chinese saying goes, “Food is the first necessity for people.” Chinese cuisine is the foundation of Chinese culture. Chinese cuisine, ceramics and silk together are vehicles for spreading Chinese culture. Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous all over the world. According to a survey made by an American magazine about “what country’s food is the best”, more than 90 percent of people think Chinese food is the most delicious. As one of three world-class cuisines, Chinese cuisine enjoys a great reputation; Chinese food is the first thing that foreign people become familiar with about China.
As Brian said, the reasons foreigners like China are very complicated. And when he was asked to explain the reasons in very simple words, he said, “It is because of Chinese kung fu and Chinese cuisine.”
Eating in China, the greatest feast for the palate
Through the glass walls of the kitchen of 全聚德 (quán) (jù) (dé) —the famous roast duck restaurant in —, diners can see rows of fat ducks hanging on iron racks, each one shining with oil and golden brown. Walking among the racks, Chef Chen changes the positions of ducks from time to time. After a while with the wonderful aroma reaching our nostrils first, a well roasted duck is ready, fleshy and amber colored. Chef Chen said: “The roast duck tastes best when piping hot.” While he spoke, Chef Chen started his “performance” like a magician. A thin knife in his hand began to perform a dance on the duck and, in a flash, thin slices of meat were piled on the white plate like snowflakes falling on the ground. The duck skin is so crisp it is as if it would break into pieces when it fell, and, in mouth, it melts immediately. The tasty duck meat is fat but not oily, lean but not dry. Hold a pancake in your hand; place a few slices of thin duck meat, chopped scallion and cucumber strips dipped in sweet bean sauce in the center of the pancake; fold it. With one bite, you can feel different sensations of crispness, softness, and tenderness. How delicious it is! Diners at 全聚德 (quán) (jù) (dé) have to take a number and wait for their meals almost every day; many visiting foreign officials usually find time to come over and taste the delicious roast duck.
It is said that people can find the most fashionable clothing in France, the most fun in the U.S., the most comfortable homes in the U.K., and the best food in China. In China, food, much more than just satisfying hunger, is a joy for the senses of sight, smell and taste. From the aspects of color, nutrition, and taste, Chinese cuisine has always exemplified exquisite beauty and endeavors to give diners the best taste experience and enjoyment.
Good taste is the most important element of food and, of course, is typical of the Chinese cuisine. The Chinese dish 糖 (táng) 醋 (cù) 里 (lǐ) 脊(ji) (Fried Pork Mixed with Sweet and Sour Sauce) is very popular among foreign friends. They call it “Sweet and Sour Pork” because it blends both sweet and sour flavors, neither too sweet nor sour, a taste not usually found in Western cuisine. Compared with Western food, Chinese cuisine has more ingredients. With a variety of food put together in one dish, the original tastes of each blends very well and develops a unique taste. As an old Chinese saying goes, “A good cook puts different complementary ingredients together in appropriate proportions so that the dish has a unique taste.” Chinese cuisine strives for good taste and harmony. “Harmony” of tastes is the goal and the beauty of Chinese cuisine and is also a major feature of Chinese culture. Western gourmets often compare Chinese cuisine to a “silent symphony” because they think the harmonious tastes blended in Chinese cuisine embody a variety of changes.
As an old Chinese saying goes, “A good cook puts different complementary ingredients together in appropriate proportions so that the dish has a unique taste.” Chinese cuisine strives for good taste and harmony. “Harmony” of tastes is the goal and the beauty of Chinese cuisine and is also a major feature of Chinese culture.
With different ingredients and cooking methods, the tastes definitely vary accordingly. China is a large country, with different regions varying in climate, specialties, customs, and cuisine styles. The most famous ones are known as the “Eight Major Cuisines”: Cantonese Cuisine (of Guangdong), Lu Cuisine (of Shandong), Min Cuisine (of Fujian), Chuan Cuisine (of Sichuan), Zhe Cuisine (of Zhejiang), Su Cuisine (of Jiangsu), Hui Cuisine (of Anhui), and Xiang Cuisine (of Hunan). In the Shangahi World Expo 2010, the section of “Eight Major Cuisines of China” has attracted a large number of visitors; the exhibit displays the charm and special flavor of Chinese food, and demonstrates the profoundness and beauty of the Chinese food culture.
“I know there are different styles of cuisine in China and it is hard for me to get used to some of them.” said by Long Teng, a foreign student from Australia. He admitted that he doesn’t like all the Chinese dishes. His favorite is Chuan Cuisine, Spicy Hot Pot in particular. He thinks it great fun for a group of friends to gather around a hot pot eating to their hearts’ content while bathed in perspiration. “It is so spicy and hot, but I enjoy it so much!” The spicy and hot taste is really a great challenge to a person’s palate, but at the same time it is also a great feast for the palate.
Divine taste: Chinese food fragance
Does the dish “Treading on Snow to Look for Plum Flowers” have something to do with plum flowers? When it is served, you find it is actually tomato slices on sugar. White sugar is like snow and red tomato slices are like plum blossoms. When you taste the dish, you are not just tasting the food itself, but also experiencing a kind of image, emotion, culture and regional flavor. Therefore, in China, people are very particular about what food to eat on different festivals and occasions. For example, they usually have 鱼(yú) (fish) for the reunion dinner on Spring Festival Eve in hopes of ( 年(nián) 年(nián) 有(yǒu) 余(yú)) getting more than people wish for in future years (because 鱼(yú) has the same pronunciation as 余(yú) [surplus]). On Mid-Autumn Festival, people eat 月(yuè) 饼(bǐng) (mooncakes) which symbolize family reunion. A person eats eggs on his birthday because eggs represent the extension of life. A couple should eat ( 莲(lián) 子(zǐ)) lotus seeds and ( 百(bǎi) 合(hé)) lilies because the couple is expected to 早(zǎo) 生(shēng) 贵(guì) 子(zǐ) have a lovely baby soon. 子(zǐ) in 莲(lián) 子(zǐ) means a baby, a son, and 百(bǎi) 年(nián) 好(hǎo) 合(hé) means a harmonious union lasting a hundred years; 百(bǎi)in 百(bǎi) 合(hé) means one hundred years, while 合(hé) means harmonious union.
“When I first ate Across-the-Bridge Rice Noodles, I thought Across the Bridge was the name of a place.” said Tulsa, a young Belgian man. He likes trying all sorts of delicious food. One day the restaurant owner told him the story of Across-the-Bridge Rice Noodles. It goes like this: In olden times, there was a man who was busy preparing for the national examination so he lived by himself to study quietly. His wife tried every means to keep the meals warm before she took them to her husband. Then she discovered that a layer of chicken oil floating on the chicken soup helped keep it hot. Thereafter, at home she used fat chicken to make soup covered by thick chicken oil. Then she boiled rice noodles and cut the vegetables ready for use. After she got to where her husband studied, she put the rice noodles and vegetables into the soup. In this way, her husband could have the rice noodles while they were fresh, smooth and steaming hot. Since then, this cooking way has spread widely. Because she had to cross a bridge every time she took a meal to her husband, the dish was called Across-the-Bridge Rice Noodles. Tulsa said, “The soup tasted even more delicious after I heard the story.” And he joked about himself being a person “eating stories”. Therefore, every time he visits a city in China, he definitely tries the local specialties, like ( 叫(jiào) 化(huà) 鸡(jī)) Beggar’s Chicken, ( 东(dōng) 坡(pō) 肉(ròu)) Dongpo Pork, ( 太(tài) 白(bái) 鸭(yā)) Taibai Duck, ( 麻(má) 婆(pó) 豆(dòu) 腐(fu)) Ma Po Tofu, etc. It seems that there is a story behind every dish waiting for him to discover.
The ways of cooking and arranging food also reflect great artistry and have cultural connotations. For instance, to make the original Shanxi Shaved Noodles, the chef stands in front of a big pot of boiling water, with a piece of 1.5 kg noodle dough on a wooden board balanced on his head and a special shaving knife in each hand. The shaving knife is about 15 or 16 centimeters long, its iron handle bent in a curved and ring shape. The chef puts his thumbs into the rings and, alternating hands, quickly shaves off slips of the dough which drop into the boiling water. There is a short poem that describes this procedure: “One noodle in the boiling water, one flying in the air, and one just being cut, as if fish were leaping and diving in the waves, and willow leaves were drifting from the branches with the wind.” It is not so much a noodle-making scene as a Kongfu show. If the making of this bowl of noodles already amazes you, there is no need to mention what great fun you’ll have at the table eating them! This is as much a feast for your eyes as for your mouth. Here is one of the dishes on the table: on the plate, there is a “hill” of piled up fruit surrounded by a pool of “water” joined by slices of light pink preserved pork, beautiful lotus flowers carved from radishes floating on the water. What a beautiful scene! What a poetic world it brings the diners.
Chinese cuisine: blending various cultures and keeping pace with the times
In South Luogu Lane there is a coffee shop named 过(guò) 客(kè) (passers-by). Its specialty ( 羊(yáng) 肉(ròu) 串(chuàn) 比(bǐ) 萨(sà)) (barbecued mutton pizza) combines both Chinese and Western flavor so well that it enjoys great popularity among foreigners and native Chinese. Some Chinese restaurants in foreign countries have two menus; one offering traditional Chinese food to overseas Chinese, the other offering modified Chinese food to the local people. Lin Nuo, the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Norway, said with a laugh: “We usually modify our food to satisfy the tastes of the local people.”
As early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Chinese cuisine began to be spread throughout the world. At the same time, from various cuisines of other cultures, Chinese cuisine adapted elements and was enriched. Japanese scholar Eisuke Sakakibara pointed out in one of his works: “It is the diversity and inclusiveness of Chinese cuisine that makes it easy for people in most countries to accept and makes it possible for Chinese cuisine culture to spread easily.”
Chinese traditional cuisine culture is based on the idea that medicine and food originate from the same source and have the same medicinal functions. For instance, balsam pear has the medicinal function of detoxification, red date replenishes the blood, and white gourd diminishes inflammation and internal heat. Chinese cuisine values the medicinal function of food and seeks ways to make the most of food to nourish the body and strengthen the constitution. In addition, Chinese cuisine seeks to “keep the balance of yin and yang”, that is, balanced nutrition for good health, which coincides with our need for wholesome nutrition and healthy diet. According to a recent article published on the U.S. Forbes business magazine, China ranks third among the countries with the healthiest diet.
Now more restaurants have taken low carbon and environmental protection as new catering standards. Offering first-rate food perfect in color, aroma and taste is still their first aim. But they are also beginning to pay more attention to the choices of ingredients, the cooking environment hygiene, nutrition and balanced diet, and less use of fat, salt, etc.
With the progress of civilization, Chinese cuisine also keeps pace with the times. Wang Lin, a college sophomore, recalled the changes: “When I was a kid, every time there were guests at home, a lot of meat was prepared — chicken, duck, pork, fish and so on. But now things have changed, more vegetables are served on the dinner table.” Now more restaurants have taken low carbon and environmental protection as new catering standards. Offering first-rate food perfect in color, aroma and taste is still their first aim. But they are also beginning to pay more attention to the choices of ingredients, the cooking environment hygiene, nutrition and balanced diet, and less use of fat, salt, etc. “More Vegetables, Less Meat” has become the new diet concept. More fashionable young people choose to live a vegetarian lifestyle.
Chinese people’s pursuit for delicate food never ends and they are really great gastronomes. Chinese cuisine has served as a window for the world to see China and it has also made a great contribution to world culture. Diet, as a life style, represents a nation’s attitude towards life. China, a country with vast geography, rich resources, and “four great seas”, has a long history of cuisine culture. Chinese cuisine, emphasizing detail, aesthetic appeal and feeling, is open to different cultures and close to nature, and clearly displays the Chinese romantic pursuit of perfection, embracing diverse cultures and an aspiration for achieving harmony between humans and nature.
- Chinese dining etiquette
- Enjoy chinese cuisines and appreciate chinese culture
- Delights of Shandong cuisine
Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 10. Volume V. September 2010.
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