Image courtesy of ruirestaurant.com
The huge land mass and deep history of China ripples through the enormously wide range of cuisine that is called Chinese food. For a foreigner to start to make sense of this is it useful to take the four major Chinese regions into account. There are Beijing and the Northern Plains, the East made fertile by the Yangste River, The southern region well-known for its Guandong Cantonese cooking and the Western region with its Hunan and Szechwan provinces.
Possibly the most famous area in China for food is Canton. The humid year-round climate is the best environment in which to cultivate anything. Seafood is pletiful by the coast and the plantation groves are filled with all kinds of fruits. Both recipes and cooking methods are extremely varied and sophisticated. Canton cuisine relies less on pungent sauces because the cooking highlights the freshness of ingredients, and since the local produce is so plentiful and varied, fresh flavors have become the signature of Canton cooking.
In contrast, the western regions of Hunan and Szechwan are high-altitude and mountainous in which citrus fruits, bamboo, rice and mushrooms can grow in abundance. Spicy aromas and steam pour from the kitchens into the restaurants and the chile flavors speaks to the local produce as well as the regional palate.
The land of fish and rice lies to the east of Hunan. As with the Western region, it benefits from low-lying land for a rich coastal harvest of fish and seafood as well as rice farming.
The region in the North of China spills over into Mongolia which includes the hostile Gobi desert, with its Artic Winters. Mutton and Lamb are commonplace here as Pork is generally forbidden by the observant Muslim population. The Mongolian fire pot, commonly used to cook in gives away its nomadic roots. Because cultivation is virtually impossible in Mongolia and the North, the staples consist of Soybeans, Barley, Wheat and Millet while noodles and bread accompany most meals.
The fruits and veegetables that can be grown are similar to those found in North America i..e. Squash, Cabbage, Grapes, Pears and Apples. The pearl of the North is Beijing. Royal Chinese high cuisine was born inside her city walls and have now filtered down through the centuries to become the accumulated wisdom of China’s finest chefs. This achievement now belongs to all of China.
Cooking Methods in China
Many cooking methods from stir-frying to poaching to braising are used for Chinese recipes, almost all of which can be accomplished in a wok. Steaming is a favorite, especially when cooking the many delicious types of breads and buns. Smoking and roasting are less common but used — grilling, too, in spite of its profligate expenditure of cooking fuel. And, of course, there’s that favorite of health police, deep-frying.
Once the meal is cooked, it is served all at once to the family, who eat with chopsticks and drink soup with a wide spoon. The average dinner includes a starch — rice, noodles, bread, or pancakes — a meat dish, vegetable, and soup, which serves as a beverage. For formal meals and banquets, there are many successive courses which are served in a strict traditional order.
Some Chinese Dishes
Hong Shao Dou Fu (Red Cooked Pork with Tofu)
Red cooked indicates any dish cooked slowly in a soy sauce- based liquid, which gives the food a rich red-brown color. For this classic process one marinates the meat and tofu in a combination of soy sauce, red wine and sesame oil before quick frying it in a wok. After this, the meat is braised slowly with vegetables in broth and a soy sauce-based sauce to which a thickener such as cornstarch has been added.
Ma You Ji Mi Fen (Sesame Chicken with Rice Noodles in Broth)
To make this simple soup, one sautees a chopped up whole chicken in sesame oil, ginger and sake, then simmers it in a light broth with noodles.
Shuan Niu Rou (Mongolian Beef Fire Pot)
This popular dish, introduced by the Mongolians in the north, originally migrated to China via Beijing. It is a form of table-top fondue, where the eater cooks pieces of marinated beef, tofu, vegetables and noodles in a chicken broth. The meats and broths vary from cook to cook, as do the dipping sauces that complete the meal.
Steamed Breads and Buns
A standard yeast dough is the basis of the many variations on the steamed bun in Chinese cooking — some are sweet, others are savory, some are stuffed, others are shaped into delicate blossoms and deep-fried.
Xang Su Ya (Crispy-Skin Duck)
Crispy-skin duck is a popular Szechwanese dish that mixes the textures of a tender, moist duck, the result of steaming, with a crisp and flavorful skin, which is achieved by deep frying.
Yan Su Xia (Crispy Fried Shrimp)
In this dish delicately seasoned shrimp are deep fried with their shells on, then tossed in a salt seasoning. The shrimp are served with the shells on, which adds an unusual light and crunchy texture.
Yue Shi Kao Ya (Cantonese Roasted Duck)
This dish gets its distinct flavor by a three-step process: the duck is covered with a honey and wine coating, hung over steaming water, then, finally, the duck is roasted.