Anyone who has eaten Chinese food knows that steamed white rice always accompanies the meal, but what is perhaps less well known is just how integral rice and grain-based foods are in Chinese culture. The Mandarin word fan means both ‘rice’ and ‘food.’ In China, a good deal of casual talk centers around the expression, “ni chi fan le ma?” literally meaning, “Have you eaten rice (food) yet?” Regardless of region, a typical Chinese meal consists of a grain base-the fan-such as rice, noodles, or buns, with meat and vegetable dishes, referred to as cai, adding flavor and variety to, but not overriding the integrity of, the fan.
The possibilities for cai are enormous. China’s abundant variety of meats and vegetables are stir-fried, stewed, steamed, baked, roasted, oil- and water-blanched, deep-fried…every kind of cooking method is well represented. Throughout China, pork is the most widespread and best-loved meat. In the north and west, pork and mutton are eaten in abundance, while south and east China have a profusion of fish and shellfish, as well as poultry, pork, and soy products.
Seasonings in Chinese cooking are too numerous to count. A few commonly used seasonings are soy sauce, fermented bean paste, black rice vinegar, rice wine, sesame oil, chili oil, ginger, red chili pastes, and garlic.
Divisions between Chinese culinary regions have blurred somewhat in modern times, given trading and migration between regions over the years. But today, as in the past, Chinese food is classified into four schools, based in the north, south, east, and west of the country. Each cuisine boasts of famous dishes as well as lesser-known specialties of the city, town, and countryside.
Northern cuisine favors straightforward tastes, with garlic, scallions, leeks and chilies as primary flavor notes. Mutton and pork are the meats of choice (mutton being particularly used in the Muslim northwest). Poultry is only used by the wealthy or on special occasions, and seafood is rare. Northern cuisine uses salt and oil liberally and doesn’t shy away from animal fat (especially pork fat). These last two seasonings have the advantage of adding calories to the diet in the north’s bitterly cold winters. Often northern Chinese will preserve vegetables for the winter, such as cabbages, carrots and radishes (Korean kim chi-style pickles are common). Cabbage and mustard greens are typical side dishes.
Rice, while common in cities and restaurants, is secondary to wheat products such as pancakes, steamed buns, noodles, and dumplings. The north is famous for these grain-based foods, many of which are eaten as snacks. In Beijing you will find jiaozi, delicious meat- or vegetable-filled dumplings dipped in a black vinegar sauce. For breakfast there are mantou or baozi, steamed buns eaten with zhou, rice porridge. Noodles abound, stir-fried or in soups. A wealth of pasta shapes, thicknesses, and textures are available in markets, freshly made or dried, and in restaurants.
Certainly one of the most elegant and famous Chinese dishes, both in China and abroad, comes from Beijing-Peking duck. Classic Beijing duck meals are three courses, with almost every part of the duck used. First, a meticulously raised duck is glazed and roasted. The first course is crispy duck skin, wrapped in thin pancakes with scallions and dipped in a black bean sauce. In the second course, the duck meat is stir-fried; in the third, the bones are used to make soup.
Eastern Chinese cuisine, found in the cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou as well as the surrounding provinces, is primarily a cuisine of sweetness. This tradition uses sugar, wines, and vinegars to provide sweet tastes and create subtlety of flavor. Like the north, eastern cooks favor oily dishes, although these are more subtle than those in the north. Seafood is abundant, as the Yangtze River drains into the ocean near Shanghai. The lakes and river tributaries provide abundant fish and shellfish to this region. Pork and poultry are used as well. Soups and soupy dishes are very popular. Shanghai is known for its unusual ‘soup inject,’ dishes, which are meatballs, dumplings, or buns filled with a gelatin and stock mixture and cooked until the inside is soup. Because of the French and British presence during the 19th and 20th centuries, Shanghai cooking incorporates some European influence. There are Shanghai-style zakuski (Russian cold appetizers) in fancy restaurants, and French-style cakes and pastries in the sidewalk cafés.
The food of China’s west, including the provinces of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan, is particularly vibrant. It combines a cornucopia of eastern spices with a natural abundance of fresh ingredients. Meats are primarily pork, beef, and poultry, while vegetables and fruits are tenfold. Bean dishes, such as tofu, are also common. This is a sophisticated and highly spiced cuisine, often extremely hot. Red chili appears in many dishes, often to extremes rivaling that of Mexican or Thai preparations.
Of this school, the cooking of Sichuan (Szechwan) is the most famous, although Hunanese food, which is quite similar, is also popular. While many Chinese-American ‘Szechwan’ restaurants serve some version of Sichuan food, it is generally a pale imitation of the real thing. Common Sichuan spices include cassia bark, cumin, cinnamon, various peppercorns, star anise, and dried tangerine peel, among others. As in the region as a whole, red chili peppers are extremely common in Sichuan food. One classic Sichuan dish is ma po dou fu, soft tofu cubes in a ‘numbing-spicy’ ground pork and chili sauce. The unusual ‘numbing’ flavor, called ma la in Chinese, comes from the Sichuan red peppercorn which, when eaten, makes the tongue and mouth numb and tingly. The Chinese believe ma la dishes are good for the health in cold, wet weather.
The food of the south is widely regarded as the country’s best. Southern Chinese cuisine centers on Guangdong province and its capital, Guangzhou (once called Canton), and Hong Kong. Guangdong cuisine incorporates ingredients from all over China and is known for its occasional use of ‘exotic’ animals. The Cantonese are infamously known for “eating everything that has legs except the kitchen table.” To be sure, visitors to this region will notice a perhaps-shocking array of animals for sale in the marketplace-dogs, cats, snakes, and turtles are some of the more commonplace. However, these foods are not eaten that often, and there are plenty of ordinary dishes available. The Cantonese are also known for their world-popular dim sum, or snacks. In typical dim sum restaurants carts are wheeled around for you to choose from their variety of small plates and bamboo steamers filled with pork dumplings, shrimp rolls, custards, and other two-bite delicacies.
Above all else, classical Guangdong cooking emphasizes absolute freshness of ingredients and proper technique. Ingredients are usually prepared with a light touch, just enough cooking and seasoning to bring out the natural flavors of the foods. Guangdong cuisine uses a wide range of cooking techniques, but steaming and stir -frying are especially common. The cuisine is famous for its seafood, especially steamed fish and shellfish prepared in various ways. Pork and duck are glazed with mixtures of sugar, wine, and soy and roasted to a beautiful golden-red. Dishes are almost always served with freshly cooked rice, as Guangdong is part of a rice-growing region.