Chinese Cooking Techniques and Schools

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chinese-cookery_cNowadays Chinese food is very popular in different countries, especially in US. But not all of us know much about Chinese cooking and Chinese culture in general. For example, do you know that Chinese greeting 'Chi fan le mei you?' is translated as 'Have you eaten yet?' For Chinese people food is more than a passion, it is an obsession, and good eating is believed to be essential to good living.

Many people think that all Chinese cooking is similar, which is understandable since all Chinese cooks share a common technique, and since so many restaurants outside China blur the distinctions between the various regional styles. But China is a vast country with great variations in climate, agricultural tradition and available foodstuffs. It is no wonder then, that there are actually many variations in culinary style within China. They can be separated into 4 key regional categories: the Southern School, the Northern School, the Eastern School, and the Western School.

The Southern School

This is the region of Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine which is probably the best known in the West because in the nineteenth century many Chinese families emigrated from this area to Europe and America. Cantonese cooking is regarded by many as the haute cuisine of China. Some people attribute this to the influence of the brilliant chefs of the Imperial Court who fled to Guangzhou (Canton) when the Ming dynasty was overthrown in 1644. The Cantonese are especially interested in exotic delicacies such as dog, snake, frog's legs and turtle. The area is famous for its sweet and sour dishes, such as Sweet and Sour Pork, for its dim sum-a range of delicious snacks which are served as a light lunchor afternoon tea, and for its widespread use of soy, hoisin and oyster sauces.

The Cantonese prefer their food slightly undercooked so that the natural flavours and colours are preserved, and for this reason stir-frying and steaming are two ot the most popular methods of cooking. They also avoid the heavy use of garlic, spices and oils, and concentrate instead on achieving a subtle, yet harmonious blend of colours, textures, aromas and flavours. Rice is the staple of the Cantonese diet and the area is known as one of the rice-bowls' of China.

The Northern School

This area stretches from the Yangzi (Yangtze) River to the Great Wall of China and embraces the culinary styles of Shandong (Shantung), Henan and Beijing (Peking). A distinguishing feature of its cuisine is the use of grains, rather than rice, as the staple food, particularly wheat, corn and millet, which the northerners eat in the form of bread, noodles, dumplings and pancakes. Because of the harshness of the climate, fresh vegetables are only available at certain times of the year. To compensate for this, northerners have learned how to preserve foods to see them through their long winters. Vegetables like sweet potatoes, turnips, onions and cabbages which store well are widely used, and the region specialises in a range of preserved ingredients such as dried mushrooms, dried and smoked meats, and pickled fruits and vegetables. Unlike all the other regions of China, meat is in much shorter supply, although beef, mutton and goat are available as well as pork. This area contains many of China's four million Moslems who shun pork, and their presence has greatly affected its cuisine. The Imperial Court of China was based in Beijing (Peking) and its influence on the culinary style of the area is still reflected in some of its more complicated and spectacular dishes such as the celebrated Peking Duck. Of all the elaborate banquet dishes in Chinese cuisine, this is the most glorious. Its subtlety and sophistication are a distinct contrast to other more strongly flavoured dishes which characterise northern cooking, depending heavily as it does on garlic, spring onions, leeks, sesame seeds and oil, and sweet bean sauce.

The Eastern School

This region stretches from the eastern coast to central China. It contains the cooking styles of Fujian (Fukien), Jiangxi, Zhejiang and, most important of all, Shanghai, which is the biggest city in China and its greatest port. The region contains some of the most fertile land in all China which provides a rich variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the area is noted for its vegetarian cuisine. The countryside is dominated by the magnificent Yangzi (Yangtze) River and the coastline is very long. Consequently fresh fish and shellfish are also plentiful.

Eastern cooks prefer light and delicate seasonings to maximise the natural flavours of their fresh ingredients. The preferred cooking techniques are stir-frying, steaming, red-cooking (slow simmering in a dark soy sauce) and blanching. Soy sauce from this area is reputed to be the best in China. The region is also famous for some special ingredients, notably black vinegar, which is used both for cooking and as a dipping sauce; Zhejiang ham, which is rather like raw English smoked bacon; and rice wine. Sugar is widely used in the cooking of meat and vegetables, as is a great deal of oil, earning this area a reputation for rich food.

The Western School

This area is entirely inland and includes the provinces of Sichuan (Szechuan) and Hunan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao. This 'land of abundance', as it is sometimes called, is virtually surrounded by mountains and was almost cut off from the rest of China until this century. Nowadays Sichuan cuisine in particular is fast gaining popularity in the West. In this area summers are hot and sultry and the winters mild. Fruit and vegetables are plentiful as are pork, poultry and fish. The distinguishing aspect of the culinary style is its reliance on very strong flavourings and hot spices, particularly red chillis, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, onions and garlic. Outsiders used to suggest that such ingredients were used to mask the taste of the food which had deteriorated in the area's muggy heat. However, regional chefs stand by their cuisine and their command of the art of seasoning. Dishes from this area are usually artful combinations of many flavours and can be hot, sour, sweet and salty all at once.

Chinese cooking outside China

The Revolution in China in 1949 and its aftermath had consequences for cooking as well as profound political and social effects. Within China, the great cookery tradition became for quite some time almost moribund. Revolutionaries deemed the art of cooking an elitist and reactionary enterprise, a reminder of Imperial days and therefore best repressed. Only recently has an effort been made to revive the tradition, to train young chefs and to allow small private restaurants to start up or re-open.

Countries outside China benefited from the demise in Chinese cuisine brought about by this revolutionary zeal. Relaxed immigration rules, particularly in North America, allowed the entry into Western countries of Chinese people from all parts of Mainland China. Cantonese restaurants which had been predominant were now joined by Sichuan (Szechuan), Hunanese and Shanghai restaurants, to the great enrichment of Western palates! Increasing familiarity with and availability of Chinese ingredients, coupled with the rapid rise in the popularity of the wok, has encouraged many non-Chinese people to experiment with Chinese cooking.

The grand tradition of Chinese cookery has not only survived but has been developed to a high degree of excellence in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many food critics and gourmets now consider Hong Kong to be the greatest centre of Chinese cookery in the world. The best and most traditional ingredients of Chinese cooking flow over the Chinese border into Hong Kong and China is Hong Kong's chief food supplier. In its eagerness to earn foreign currency, China has fostered a trade which has ensured the maintenance of traditional Chinese cooking in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong's economic prosperity has supported the preservation of the best of this cuisine. In this bustling, energetic place there are over 40,000 restaurants and food stalls, all competing for the custom of the inhabitants, many of whom eat most of their meals out. Perhaps no other people in the world are so food-conscious. Even the smallest food stall sells delicious dishes of excellent quality and the top restaurants are regarded as being among the best in the world.

When you prepare your first entirely Chinese meal, select just two or three dishes and serve them with some plain steamed rice. Never select dishes which are all stir-fried or you will have a traumatic time in the kitchen trying to get everything ready at the same time and will arrive at the table hot and flustered. Choose instead to do one braised dish, a cold dish, or something which can be prepared ahead of time then warmed through, and limit your stir-frying to just one dish. This way not only will you gain the confidence needed to try more ambitious recipes, but your meal will be all the more authentic for embracing a harmonious blend of cooking techniques.

The Chinese diet is a very healthy one since it depends upon cooking methods which preserve vitamins and use small quantities of meat and no dairy produce. Underlying all Chinese cooking is the ancient yin yang theory of food science which is closely related to Chinese beliefs about health. In China, all foods are divided into one of three groups: yin, for cooling foods; yang, for heating foods; and yin yang for neutral foods. To the foreigner there is little obvious logic in the way foodstuffs are assigned to these categories. Yin foods include items as diverse as beer, crab, duck and soda water. Yang foods include brandy, beef, coffee and smoked fish. Neutral foods include bread, steamed rice, carrots, pigeon and peaches. Not only are all foods sub-divided in this way, but people are too. A yin person is quiet and introverted, while a yang person is a more active, outgoing type. The effect of different foods on an individual will depend upon the way they conflict with or complement his personality type. The idea is to construct a meal and one's whole diet to achieve the right balance or harmony. Most Chinese have some knowledge of the yin yang food science as the idea is instilled into them from a very young age.

Apart from a sensible mixture of yin and yang foods, the art of Chinese cookery also lies in achieving a harmonious blend of colour, texture, aroma and flavour. A typical Chinese meal consists of two parts - the fan which is the staple grain, be it rice, noodles or dumplings, and the cai which covers the rest of the dishes: meat, poultry, fish and vegetables. The average meal comprises three to four cai dishes, one fan dish and a soup. The cai dishes should each have a different main ingredient; for example, one meat, one fish and one vegetable. A variety of techniques will be used to cook these dishes. A fish may be steamed, a meat braised, while the vegetables may be stir-fried. The meal will also be designed so that each dish varies and yet complements the others in terms of appearance, texture and flavour. One dish will be spicy and another mild; one may be chewy and another crisp. The total effect should appeal to all the senses. All these dishes will be placed in the centre of the table and shared between the diners who help themselves and each other to a little of this, and then a little of that. Eating for the Chinese is a communal experience, and a shared meal is regarded as the visible manifestation of the harmony which should exist between family and friends.

The subtle and distinctive taste of Chinese food depends in part on the use of some special Chinese ingredients. Fortunately it is becoming easier to find some of these in supermarkets, and Chinese grocers are proliferating, many of whom offer a mail-order service.

Your Chinese grocer may also be a good place to buy a wok. Although it is perfectly possible to cook Chinese food successfully using ordinary Western kitchen utensils, you will probably want to invest in a wok eventually to use for stir-frying at least. The beauty of the wok is that its shape ensures that heat is evenly distributed all over the pan, making for fast cooking, and its depth allows you to stir and toss foods rapidly when they need to be fried quickly. Equally important, you need use far less oil for deep-frying than you would with a deep-fat fryer. Woks usually work better on gas, although it is possible to get a flat-bottomed variety which is more suitable for electric cookers.

There is an old Chinese proverb which says 'To the ruler, people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven'. Once you have embarked on the exciting road to discovering the mysteries and pleasures of Chinese cooking you will soon find how sublime Chinese food can be.

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