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Chinese Cuisine

Chinese CuisineChinese culture, rooted deeply in tradition, pride, and a mystical history, has always been fascinating to the Western world. Even more fascinating seems to be the native cuisine of the land, a style of cookery that is completely foreign to the Western chef in almost every way. Utilizing very different tools, ingredients, accents, and techniques, Eastern food is a school of cooking entirely to itself, one that has garnered the respect and admiration of food lovers and professionals alike.

The Chinese approach to food blends esteem for necessity with a respect for the art of cooking. Dishes of necessity, the items eaten to maintain life (rice, noodles), are eaten daily to fuel work. The delicate preparations of meat and vegetables are expressions of the art of food, and considered dishes eaten for pleasure.

The Food

The staples of Chinese cuisine are starch based (rice, noodles, wheat, etc.), supplemented by protein in the form of pork, chicken, duck, fish, tofu (doufu), or peanuts. Vegetables like Chinese cabbage, kale, spinach, snow peas, watercress, onions, and peppers are most common, and essential in combinations with nuts and tofu to the vegetarian cuisine of the Buddhist communities.

Food in a land with many mouths to feed has always been a precious commodity, and Chinese cooks developed appropriately frugal recipes. Chinese cooking frequently uses every ounce of edible material an ingredient has to offer, developing practical preparations for cuts of meat that many cuisines would define as unusable (chicken skin in simple salads, for example). Chinese cuisine is unparalleled in its ability to prepare these items with such artful skill that no diner would ever suspect they supped on scraps.

The sporadic scarcity of food also helped to develop a level of respect for meals still exercised today. Food is often honored with ceremony and reverence; it is not eaten hurriedly, but savored. This reverence is seen in the delicate cutting of meat and intricate presentations of vegetables, which are characteristic of the cuisine; few recipes will ever call for "chunks" of meat, or "roughly chopped" vegetables. This, in part, is why chopsticks are used for eatingĀ , the Chinese feel that the use of a fork and knife is disrespectful; they would rather not "butcher" at the table.

Regional Cooking

Chinese cooks are known to be both flexible and innovative, and as a result many "regional" delicacies have been assimilated into a broad and balanced national cuisine. As a result, it is less easy to list the dishes of Northern China than it is to list those of Northern Italy. However, there are some defining characteristics:

Northern China relies on wheat rather than rice, and therefore has some of the best dumplings and noodles in the entire country. It is one of the few areas to produce bread products like steamed buns or simple pancakes. It also notably uses garlic and dark soy sauce to create boldly flavored dishes. The great city of Peking (now Beijing) lies in the North, and has spawned the fare of its namesake (most notably Peking duck), one of the signature dishes of Chinese cuisine.

The region at the West of the Yangtze River gives us the notable culinary phenomenon of Szechwan cooking. Richly flavored with ginger, garlic, chilies, and Szechwan peppercorns, the food can be mercilessly spicy, and delicious. Additionally, as with most societies close to water, the food from this area utilizes a diverse offering of fresh fish and seafood.

As the first mass migration from China to America was made by the Cantonese, Southern Chinese cooking is perhaps the best known in the United States. Stir frying is one of the most utilized techniques, along with steaming. Because the Cantonese believe in food being consumed as close as possible to its natural state, overcooking is frowned upon, and even MSG (monosodium glutamate, a chemical flavor enhancer that is very popular in other schools of Chinese cuisine) is avoided when possible. Stir frying, a technique similar to sauteing, utilizes the wok, one of the defining tools of Chinese cookery. Round pans with high, sloped sides, woks are extremely versatile items, and often one of the only pans used to cook a meal. They are particularly useful in the light cooking of the Cantonese style, allowing the chef to apply direct or indirect heat to ingredients as needed. In addition, stackable bamboo steamers, chambers for cooking food with steam, can be placed over a wok full of boiling water to prepare several items at once over a single flame.

Meals in China

Food in China is generally served "family style", with main items placed at the center of the table and taken from communally; bowls of rice are given to each individual. At special meals rice is usually omitted, as it is considered too common to enjoy with foods from the "pleasure" school of cooking.

Dishes from the national cuisine that have grown popular world wide are now almost countless: stir-fried chicken, pork, or beef dishes made with garlic, ginger, scallion, and/or soy sauce are common, as are more elaborate items like Kung Pao chicken (meat with bean sauce, garlic and chili paste, and hot peppers), or Peking Duck (in a sauce of peanut oil, sugar or honey, and ground bean sauce with red wine vinegar); delicacies include Shark Fin Soup. Noodle dishes like Lo Mein are also common, as are soups (Hot and Sour soup, Won Ton, Egg Drop, etc.). Fortune cookies, lightly fried "cookies" containing a paper fortune, are associated with dessert but are actually an American invention; in China, fruit, tea, and sweet soups are traditionally served.
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