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All about Chinese Cuisine


Chinese Cuisine & Chinese Cooking Culture

Chinese Cuisine No one can understand the culture of a country without first experiencing its food and drink. Chinese culinary traditions have adapted freely and changed fluidly with time. Over the course of 5000 years, these culinary traditions have been devised and perfected and have withstood the test of time. For example, steaming, the basic kitchen technique, was used extensively long before the foundation of the first dynasty. Through trade, foreign ingredients made their way to the kitchens of the court mingling with the homegrown bounty to produce exceptional, unusual and marvelous dishes. Under the last truly Chinese Imperial Dynasty, (Ming 1368-1644 A.D.), the modern cuisine developed. Next, came the Manchus, who brought with them well earned peace and prosperity. They are said to have become more Chinese than the natives and enjoyed a life of luxury and leisure. Since the Manchus became decadent and feasted on three day imperial banquets, the food consumed everyday by gourmets was developing into what is now considered authentic Chinese cuisine. A combination of many centuries of love of good food, a tradition of open hospitality and endless experimentation with nature's bounty has gone into making the rich and vibrant feast that is the colorful culinary heritage of China.
Throughout the years, the Chinese learned the importance of creatively treating food with respect. Also, they learned how to make anything edible taste good (even the most meager offerings were worthy of both careful seasoning and saucing). The chefs were constantly challenged to create dishes with harmonious exciting combinations of flavors, textures and colors that centered on a love and respect for food.

A well prepared Chinese dish is expected to appeal to more senses than just 0the one of taste. Its colors should be pleasing to the eye, the ingredients should be of uniform size and it should be fragrant. There should be contrasting tastes and textures within the meal; if one dish is crisp, it should be offset by another one that is smooth. A bland dish is paired with a spiced one, thereby always trying to create a balance. It is important to have this balance of yin and yang. 

To the Chinese, food is life but it is also health and a symbol of other good things such as luck and prosperity. They say that "heaven loves the man who eats well" (so does the woman). The Chinese developed their genius for cooking due to the antiquity of their civilization and harsh living conditions which forced them to pay close attention to everything regarding food. Because of the difficulties of life, Chinese cooking is superlative as the cook was compelled to develop his art. The result has been a triumphant blending of inventiveness, flavor and economy. The eloquence of this art has survived time, wars, famine and floods.

Due to antiquity, the Chinese cuisine is generally considered, along with French, as one of the two greatest cuisines in the world. There are similarities in French and Chinese cooking philosophies as well as methods. Certain ingredients are even similar in taste, if not in texture. For example, a fresh black truffle is reminiscent of fermented black beans.

A noted fundamental difference between the European and Chinese style of cooking is found in sauce making. Whereas the preparation of a hollandaise or a beurre blanc may require several painstaking steps (and an advanced degree in chemistry), Chinese sauce making consists of combining prepared sauces and spices and then splashing them into the wok. While the resulting flavors may be complex, the cooking technique is simple. What is important to the Chinese is the usage of quality ingredients, hence bringing out the natural flavor of the foods that marry well with the flavors of the sauce while completing the dish.

Often a gravy is confused with a sauce. The essential difference between the two is that a gravy overpowers or dominates the flavor of whatever it is poured on (or over) while a sauce is more subtle and does not tend to overwhelm the dish. Sauces are designed to enhance, to compliment, to offer contrast and to highlight other flavors. Fine quality Chinese cuisine always relies on the subtleness of a sauce verses the heaviness of a gravy. This is evidenced by the plethora of dishes that are found at Uncle Tai's - A Chinese Bistro that feature any one of a number of sublime sauces.

The cooking style of China is characterized by a wide diversity of ingredients and cooking methods unequaled to any other culture. This uniqueness can be attributed in great part to the Chinese way of eating. Typically with the cuisines of the West, starchy foods such as potatoes and breads are side dishes, whereas with traditional Chinese meals, rice is always present in the South and wheat products are present in the North. Vegetables, including soybeans and soybean products, are major secondary foods. Meat, poultry and fish are generally regarded as supplementary foods in daily meals. Thus the Chinese diet is basically a rice diet, or to be more exact, a rice and vegetable diet. This is evidenced by typical Chinese sayings such as Ch'in Fan (meaning "to have a meal" or literally "eat rice") and Sha Fan (meaning "to induce one to eat more rice" or literally "rice sending"). It seems that without rice, the Chinese would not have a cuisine.

Here in the United States, people generally equate Oriental cuisine (more specifically Chinese) with MSG. While MSG is considered (and publicized) as a flavor enhancer, in reality it is frequently used to cover poor cooking techniques and to mask foods that are not very fresh. This can be done deliberately or quite innocently by inexperienced chefs. If the ingredients are truly fresh and prepared properly, MSG is not only unnecessary, it can actually spoil the dish for the diner.

Tea (the world's most popular beverage) was originally prescribed as medicinal and interestingly enough, modern research validates a number of these claims. Throughout its history (and all through the land), the national drink of China has been tea, and in almost every dialect, it is called cha. Tea has also played a vital role in Chinese history as it has been used as a national treasure, a state currency and (in the form of pressed bricks) as cash. There are a thousand varieties of tea with the three main types being red, green and black. The red teas include the Keemun type which is the favorite of the British breakfast table and is grown all over East China. The astringent Dragon Well tea from Hangzhou is the most famous of the green varieties while the Oolong tea is the most famous of the black type. Connoisseurs understand that (with all types) the three leaves on the tip of the bud are the highest quality and are the most desirable. Tea is to the Chinese what fine wine is to the French, a beloved beverage savored for its fine aroma, distinctive flavor and pleasing aftertaste.

Hunan is a landlocked province of China that has a hot humid summer and an extremely cold winter. This region is home to some of the spiciest (and tastiest) dishes in the Chinese diet. Two reasons that the Hunan people give for flavoring so many dishes with chilies is to open the pores and keep cool in the summer, and to heat the blood in the cold months. There is an awesome variety of chilies and peppers that range from the familiar harmless green bell pepper to the tiny red pepper known as the "delayed action bomb." Now, while most people associate spicy seasonings with Hunan cooking, few are aware that there are also a large number of delicately seasoned recipes. Remember: spicy does not necessarily mean "hot," it can also mean "just flavorful."

This savory and complex cuisine is full of exquisite flavors as well as fiery and subtle seasonings that have been perfected over thousands of years. From China's earliest days, food has been an integral part of the culture. Hence, there is truth in the saying "for people, food is heaven!"

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