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A Taste of the Orient


Originally featured in About Chinesefood

"Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish."
(Lao Zi, Ancient Chinese Philosopher)

Taste of the OrientCan you imagine anything more cozy than gathering the family around the kitchen table to feast on Chinese takeout while enjoying a rousing game of Monopoly? Or more romantic than lounging before a roaring fire, splitting a couple of cartons of ginger beef and cashew chicken with your loved one?

Perhaps more than any other, Chinese cuisine  symbolizes comfort and tradition. There are few people who haven't celebrated at least one special occasion with Asian cooking. And why not? As K.C. Chang writes in Food in Chinese Culture, "few other cultures are as food-oriented as the Chinese." More than other exotic cuisines, Chinese food seems made for ritual. It's no accident that in the film A Christmas Story, when the family's turkey dinner is carried off by a pack of dogs, they salvage the day by dining out at a Chinese restaurant. Ever respectful of tradition, the restaurant's owner does his best to invoke the Yuletide spirit, having his waiters sing Christmas carols as the family dines on duck - the only fowl available.

Of course, our tastes have become much more sophisticated than those simpler times. Instead of the ubiquitous chop suey and egg rolls, we now enjoy mouthwatering delicacies that reflect regional variations in preparation and cooking methods. Whether your taste runs to the heavily spiced, meat and fish-based cuisine of the northern regions, or to the more delicately seasoned Cantonese cuisine found in the Guangdong province, restaurants, books, and cooking shows abound to aid you in your exploration of Asian cuisine.

The diversity in regional styles brings to light an interesting fact: it is not the specific ingredients that give Chinese cuisine its distinct character. No doubt factors such as scarcity of arable land have influenced the Chinese diet. But throughout the centuries the Chinese have also shown a willingness to adopt foreign foods (the peanut, for example). And Chang writes that a truly skilled gourmand can produce a Chinese meal using only native American ingredients.

What makes Chinese cuisine truly unique is the balancing of ingredients. A proper Chinese meal always contains an equal division of fan, grains and starches, and t'sai, meat and vegetables. The two are never mixed together, allowing each to retain its own unique characteristics. The balance between fan and t'sai fits in with the Chinese belief in the importance of balance and harmony in every aspect of life. Perhaps this is the reason we find Chinese cuisine so comforting.


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