Cooking hasn’t been codified into an art or a noble activity in China, the way it became in France. Restaurants might become well-known known, but there is still no equivalent of a “Michelin Star” system in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, and there hasn’t been a system of “celebrity chefs.” In fact, a respect for the way things have always been done in a kitchen is perhaps emphasized more than creativity and new things, except perhaps in Taiwan and in a few newly-prosperous cities in China.
There are no religious prohibitions on any foods in China. The approach is basically that you can eat anything that isn’t going to make you sick or kill you. The Chinese, though, particularly joke about the Cantonese as being the ones who will eat anything: the joke is that the Cantonese would make terrible zookeepers (because they would eat everything in the zoo.) The one exception to this is the area of Xian. Because many Muslims settled in the area that was later conquered by China, beef is generally used instead of pork.
Cooking methods used predominantly in Chinese cooking include stir-frying, deep-frying, braising and grilling. Most homes do not have ovens, so baking and roasting are not common cooking methods.
In Chinese cooking, food was cut in small pieces to allow for quicker cooking so that less cooking fuel would be needed, and to help stretch small bits of food such as meat further. With the food already cut up in the kitchen, the need for knives at the table was negated. (In fact, the Chinese still consider it somewhat odd to cut up food at a table.) Chopsticks will work with food prepared like this, whereas they won’t work with a slab of steak.
One of the few recipes where the meat is cooked whole is Peking Duck.
Soups may be thickened either with cornstarch, or from having a gelatinous item simmered in them.
Chinese restaurants are an integral part of North American and British life now. “Going for Chinese” was a well-used phrase already by the 1950s in North America. Chinese restaurants are even found in very small towns in the middle of nowhere.
The menus are usually very large with an incredible range of selection. The menus are divided into sections by main ingredient, not by course. The headings for the sections often contain a final character which means KIND (in the sense of “type” or “category”.) If a Chinese menu does have a starter section, then it means it gets a lot of Western customers who look for this. “Starters” or “appetizers”, in particular, have no Chinese equivalent. Some people say they only trust Chinese restaurants where the menu items are also listed in Chinese.
The price of dishes on the menus tends to be based on how expensive the ingredient is, rather than on the chef, the decor or the preparation method.
Westernized restaurants in North America and the UK may offer dishes from many different regions. If most dishes are spicy, then the specialty of the restaurant may be Szechuan or Hunan. If most of the dishes are not spicy, then there’s a good chance it’s Cantonese. By the 1980s, new Chinese immigrants to North America began opening “genuine” Chinese restaurants that specialized in regional cuisines, rather than attempting to be pan-Chinese. These were welcomed by the burgeoning classes of foodies in North America. But by the 2000s, feelings of nostalgia for the “good old-fashioned”, local, older North American-style Chinese restaurants had begun — and they were still there for the customers flocking back to them.
Chinese restaurants often like to call themselves “something Garden”, because in their minds that implies a better class of restaurant.
Dairy in China
It’s not true that there was no history of dairy product consumption in China. Dairy products were consumed in northern and western China where there were pastures for cattle farming, and in cities on the coast where foreigners were permitted to live in the late 1800s. Elsewhere, though, dairy products were traditionally prohibitively expensive because there was no transportation to distribute the products, let alone transporation that was refrigerated.
Dairy product consumption is now increasing both at home, and at Western-style restaurant chains that have opened in cities. UHT pasteurization techniques introduced in the early 1980s helped increase storage life which allowed distribution further away from the production source, at the same time as transportation was improving as well. And, there was a boom in the number of city-dwellers who had refrigerators at home. More than 90% of urban households with refrigerators are purchasing milk. Liquid milk is purchased in small packages about 3 times a week.
In the mid 1980s, dairy product consumption was approximately 10 ½ pounds (4.8 kg) per person in cities, and 1 ⅓ pounds (0.6 kg) per person in rural areas [Ed. estimates vary by source.] By 2002, the per capita per year consumption of dairy products was 34 ½ pounds (15.7 kg) per person in cities, and 16 pounds (7.2 kg) averaged out for the entire for the country, compared to the world average of around 220 pounds (100 kg) per year. Still, milk purchases are double in northern cities of what they are in southern cities.
At the same time, milk production per cow doubled from 1996 to 2002 owing to new feeding and handling practices, as well as to new dairy cattle breeds imported from North America and Europe. Output per cow, though, remains lower than in the rest of the world (in 2002, 3,500 kg of milk per year per cow, compared to 5,500 kg in the same year in the rest of the world.) But as of 2002, China became the second largest milk producer in Asia, after Japan.
To meet the burgeoning domestic demand, dairy product imports increased 40% in 2003 over the previous year, 2002. By 2002, Nestlé and Parmalat could resist no longer and had built production plants in China.
It appears that as incomes increase, the food item that increases the most rapidly in consumption is dairy. The government is recommending daily consumption of milk and subsidizing milk in schools for children. Middle class people in China are actually drinking milk as well now, because it is seen as being very “healthy.” In fact, many health claims are being attached to dairy products that wouldn’t be allowed in the West. In 2002, one restaurateur in Hunan, named Yang Jun, attempted to create a niche for himself in China’s increasingly competitive dairy market by promoting dishes made with human breast milk. Authorities moved in and banned the sale.
Milk is also being sold in flavours such as chocolate, malted milk, peach-mango and aloe. Dairy companies are sub-contracting newspaper delivery people and postmen to deliver milk along with newspapers and mail. The largest dairy company is the Shanghai Bright Dairy & Food Company (as of 2003); it sells 2 million bottles of milk a day.
Many Chinese are, however, lactose intolerant, so yogurt-based drinks are also being marketed, which they can consume more easily. A popular yoghurt brand is “Miaoshi,” a slightly sweet drink that is thicker than milk, packaged in green and white cartons.
Not many people are buying cheese yet, though people are eating cheeseburgers in Western-style restaurants.
The closer a household lives to a McDonald’s, the more likely they are to eat ice cream.
While dairy is not used in Chinese cooking, some Chinese chefs abroad are now introducing it into their cooking to make fusion food.
The generic name for a dumpling in Chinese is “Jiao Zhi.” The name changes, however, based on how they are cooked
- Steamed: the name becomes “shu mai” (aka “shumai”);
- Boiled: the name becomes “shui jiao” (meaning “Water Dumpling”);
- Steam fried: the name becomes “kuo teh” or “guo tie” (meaning “Pot Stickers”.)
Meals in China
Rice (“fan”) is the staple starch. Rice dishes with some toppings on them are called “fan loi.”
In fact, whereas in the West, we see rice as a side dish, in China, rice is the central dish, and all other dishes are side dishes.
At a Chinese meal, all dishes served all at once, in what the West would call “family style”, both at home and in restaurants.
The Chinese have no concept of courses. Rather than seeing a meal as a progression of courses, a meal is seen as a combination of tastes and textures: sweet, sour, salty, meat, veg, starch, crispy, chewy. There are no starters, no afters. A banquet is an series of dishes, but not courses.
Water is not drunk straight up, because it is not trusted. It is always boiled and made into a beverage. Tea is drunk during meals; milk, sugar and lemon are never put in tea.
At New Year, the following foods are popular: Black Fungus (for luck), Bamboo shoots (for health), Chicken (for prosperity), Noodles (for long life), and Lotus Seeds (for male children.)
Meat in China
Pork remains the most common meat throughout China, though duck is considered a favourite by many (along with carp.)
Prior to 1985, cattle were largely used as work animals to pull things, rather than being raised for meat. But in 1985, trade in livestock was liberalized.
In the following 17 years (to 2002), number of cattle being farmed almost doubled, and beef output per capita increased from (.27 kg to 4.55 kg.) By 2002, China had even become the third largest beef producer in the world. After liberalization, exports rose at first to over 200,000 tonnes of beef per year in the mid-1990s, but then as internal demand for beef grew, by 2002 only 45,000 tonnes were being exported.
About 95% of beef produced in China is now consumed in China. China also imports higher-quality beef to satisfy consumer demand for those who can afford it.
Beef consumption increased faster than that for all other meats in the years 1985 to 2005. During the same period, pork consumption decreased from 94% of meat production in 1980 to 65% in 2002.
Meat consumption in China from 1980 to 2002 (percentage of totals):
|Beef||9 %||2 %|
|Mutton||5 %||4 %|
|Pork||65 %||94 %|
|Poultry||19 %||0 %|
|Other||2 %||0 %|
The Chinese call all pasta noodles, whether it has egg in it or not. Chinese pasta is mostly made from hard wheat flour (10 ½ – 12 % protein), but it may also be made from rice flour. Pasta made from rice flour is called “bijon” noodles or “ho fan”, meaning “wide rice” (“fan” means “rice”.) Egg noodles are “mien.”
Noodles (either wheat or rice) may be served in a sauce; egg noodles may also be served with a sauce on them; rice noodles may be served if no sauce is being added.
Egg noodles aren’t really fried — they are just barely tossed in a wok.
Long noodles are symbolic of long life.
It’s a myth that Marco Polo brought pasta to Europe from China. Europe had had pasta since at least the Romans.
Vegetables in China
Vegetables used will depend upon the area of the country. For instance, in the cooler climate of northern China, root vegetables and cabbage are more prevalent.
In rural China, raw vegetables are not eaten because human manure is used as a fertilizer, and has been for centuries, it wasn’t just Chairman Mao who started the “nightsoil up the mountain” thing. Consequently, no fresh salads are served, and lettuce is used in soups, not salads.
Food at Chinese New Year
Food served for the Chinese New Year is based on a lot on either food names which sound lucky, or food item which have had desirable symbolism attached to them.
|Fish||The word for “fish” in Chinese sounds similar to “surpluses”|
|Shrimp||The word for “shrimp” in Chinese sounds similar to “laugh or smile”|
|Sticky rice cakes||Their name, “Nian Gao”, means both “sticky cake” and “prosperous year”|
|Oranges||The Chinese words for “orange” and “gold” are similar|
|Tangerines||The Chinese words for “tangerine” and “luck” are similar|
|Pomelo||Its name in Chinese sounds like the words for “prosperity” and “status”|
|Chang sou mien noodles||Noodles symbolize long life|
|Jiaozi dumplings made into crescent shapes||Resemble the money that was used during the Ming dynasty|
|Vegetarian dish called “Jai” or “Buddha’s Delight”||Contains lotus seeds (many male children), black seaweed (wealth and abundance ), peanuts (long life), gingko nuts (wealth)|
CHINESE REGIONAL COOKING
- Hunan and Sichuan are often referred to as “northern”, though they are northern only in the sense of not being in the absolute south, as Canton is: they are actually western. Hunan cooking is spicy;
- “Mandarin” is sometimes used in North America to mean a style of cooking other than Canton, even though there actually is no Mandarin region or cuisine.
Cantonese cooking is designed so that the flavour of each individual ingredient always comes through. There is a reserved use of spices; hotter ingredients such as chile often only appear as a sauce at the table. Sugar is used to sweeten savoury dishes.
Chop suey and chow mein style dishes are Cantonese food, as in Hong Kong cooking.
Seafood is used a great deal in Cantonese dishes.
Northern China Food
In Northern China, more meat is eaten as there was more grazing land available for livestock.
Wheat is more important than rice in Northern China, as rice doesn’t grow well there; consequently, you have dumplings, pancakes and steamed breads. Many people in Northern China don’t even like rice.
Vegetables grown tend to be those that do well in cooler climates, such as cabbage, daikon radish, potatoes, squashes and sweet potatoes.
Dishes tend to be saltier than in other regions.
For breakfast, standard items are soybean milk served warm — in either regular (“sweet”) or salted versions, shao bing breads, You Tiao crullers, Chin you bang, and Luo bo si bing.
Shanghai is on the East China sea. Shanghai cooking takes in foods made in the adjacent coast provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
The cooking uses salted meats and preserved vegetables. Seafood and freshwater fish are popular; items such as chicken, crab, eel and fish may be served raw.
Sugar and soy sauce are often used together. Vinegar is used to sour foods. Alcohol may be added to some dishes.
The food is served in small portions.
Szechuan (aka Sichuan) Cooking
The Szechuan region is blessed with very fertile soil and a damp, muggy climate, in which farmers can grow year round.
The food tends be spicy by Chinese standards (though not to any extent that a Mexican would be impressed.) Hot chiles are used with abandon in dishes. In Chinese folk medicine, eating food with zing in it — such as chile and ginger — is believed to help counteract a damp, muggy climate.
Freshwater fish is used in many dishes.
In Szechuan cooking, flavours are combined with the goal of making new compound flavours, called “fu he wei.”
Many dishes are served room temperature.
Taiwan has become a fusion of cooking from various parts of China owing to all the refugees that came there from 1949 onwards. It has been argued that the blending started even earlier, in the 1930s and during the Second World War, when 20 million Chinese refugees flowed into Chungking (aka Chongqing) to escape Japanese occupation, particularly in Manchuria.
For many years after its break with China, yams became a staple food as Taiwan struggled to gain enough prosperity to feed its newly-increased population. People got so heartily sick of yams that it was only in 2004 that Taiwanese chefs dared to try reintroducing them to menus.
Food in Xian
Xian is the capital of Shaanxi province, where the army of terra cotta figures was discovered in the tomb. It was settled by Muslims from Central Asia during the Middle Ages.
The Muslim influence can be seen in pot stickers being made with beef instead of pork, the flat breads that are made, and a preference for grains such as wheat, buckwheat and millet over rice.
Xian is known for its street food, particularly “yang rou pao mo”, yellow osmanthus persimmon cakes, roasted sweet potatoes, lamb kebabs, noodles made from pea flour, and “sao zi mian.”
In 2005, noodles were found by a Dr Houyuan Lu in Lajia, north-western China, that dated back to 2000 BC. The thin, yellow noodles were 20 inches (50 cm) long, inside a bowl that had been turned over. The noodles were made from millet flour.
The state had a monopoly on the salt trade by the 600s BC, and started taxing it. By the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the state earned from ⅓ to ½ of its revenue from salt taxes. The state even set up nearly 180 “salt bureau administrative offices” throughout the country. 80% of salt in China was produced by boiling or evaporating sea water.
Chiles were introduced into China in the 1600s.
Regional and national supermarket chains started to appear in the 1990s.
In 1994, the China Cuisine Association was established by the government to promote food quality, train cooks, publish cookbooks, and do an audit of cooking techniques.
As of 2002, 87% of homes in urban areas had refrigerators.
Literature & Lore
“Chinese Food – You do not sew with a fork and I see no reason why you should eat with knitting needles.” — Henry Beard (Author & humourist).
“Never eat Chinese food in Oklahoma.” — Bryan Miller (New York Times restaurant critic.)
“Have you eaten yet” (“Chi fan le mei you?”) is how the Chinese say “How are you?”
Bailey, Johanna. World of Mouth: Have you eaten yet? Jerusalem Post. 1 February 2011
Chen, Kathy. Dairy Firms Churn Out Milk Products in China To Culture New Market — Demand Picks Up Mostly in Cities As Consumers Develop New Tastes — ‘Miaoshi’ Yogurt Drink Is a Hit. New York : Asian Wall Street Journal. 28 February 2003.
Chiang, Tao-Chang. The Salt Industry of Ming China. In Geographical Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 93-106.
China’s Dairy Market Sees Fierce Competition. Beijing, China: People’s Daily. 19 July 2002.
Devichand, Mukul. Let them eat Cheese. BBC News Magazine. 13 August 2009. Retrieved August 2009 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8199281.stm
Editorial: “Avec des baguettes, s’il vous plaît.” Tapei, Taiwan: Taiwan aujourd’hui. September 2004.
Fuller, Frank H., Jikun Huang, Hengyun Ma, Scott Rozelle. The Rapid Rise of China’s Dairy Sector: Factors Behind the Growth in Demand and Supply. Ames, Iowa: Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. Working Paper 05-WP 394. May 2005.
Fuller, Frank and John C. Beghin. China’s Growing Market for Dairy Products. Ames, Iowa: Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. Iowa Ag Review. Vol. 10, No. 3. Summer 2004.
Gong, Wen and Rodney J. Fox. A Review of China’s Beef Industry and Beef Supply Chain. Presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the Association for Chinese Economics Studies, Australia (ACESA). Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 19 – 20 July 2004.
Highfield, Roger. Neolithic noodles were made in China. London: Daily Telegraph. 13 October 2005.
Shangyao, Cai. Dialects can survive by themselves. Shanghai, China: Shanghai Star. 9 December 2004.