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Chinese cuisine includes styles originating from the diverse regions of China, as well as from Chinese people in other parts of the world. The history of Chinese cuisine in China stretches back for thousands of years and has changed from period to period and in each region according to climate, imperial fashions, and local preferences. Over time, techniques and ingredients from the cuisines of other cultures were integrated into the cuisine of the Chinese people due both to imperial expansion and from the trade with nearby regions in pre-modern times, and from Europe and the New World in the modern period.
Styles and tastes also varied by class, region, and ethnic background. This led to an unparalleled range of ingredients, techniques, dishes and eating styles in what could be called Chinese food, leading Chinese to pride themselves on eating a wide variety of foods while remaining true to the spirit and traditions of Chinese food culture.
Prominent styles of Chinese cuisine outside China include Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Indian and American, but there is Chinese cuisine wherever Chinese people are found. The staple foods of Chinese cooking include rice, noodles, vegetables, and sauces and seasonings.
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Chinese society greatly valued gastronomy and developed an extensive study of the subject based on its traditional medical beliefs. Chinese culture initially centered around the North China Plain. The first domesticated crops seem to have been the foxtail and broomcorn varieties of millet, while rice was cultivated in the south. By 2000 BC, wheat had arrived from western Asia. However, these grains were typically served as warm noodle soups instead of baked into bread as in Europe. Nobles hunted various wild game and consumed mutton, pork, and beef as these animals were domesticated. Grain was stored against famine and flood and meat was preserved with salt, vinegar, curing, and fermenting. The flavor of the meat was enhanced by cooking it in the fat of a different animal.
By the time of Confucius in the late Zhou, gastronomy was becoming a high art. He was recorded discussing one such picky eater: "For him, the rice could never be white enough. When it was not cooked right, he would not eat. When it was out of season, he would not eat. When the meat was not cut properly, he would not eat. When the food was not prepared with the right sauce, he would not eat." During Shi Huangdi's Qin dynasty, the empire expanded into the south. By the time of the Han Dynasty, the different climes and cuisines of China's peoples were linked by major canals and begun developing greater complexity. The philosophy behind it was rooted in the I Ching and Chinese traditional medicine: food was judged for color, aroma, taste, and texture and a good meal was expected to balance the Four Natures ('hot', warm, cool, and 'cold') and the Five Tastes (pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). The predominance of chopsticks and spoons as eating utensils also necessitated that most food be prepared in bite-sized pieces or (as with fish) be so tender that it could be easily picked apart.
By the Later Han period (2nd century), writers[who?] frequently complained of lazy aristocrats who did nothing but sit around all day eating smoked meats and roasts.
The great migration of Chinese people south during the invasions preceding and during the Song dynasty increased the relative importance of southern Chinese staples such as rice and congee. The Yuan and Qing dynasties introduced Mongolian and Manchurian cuisine, warm northern dishes which popularized hot pot cooking. They also introduced greater Muslim communities into China, who practiced a porkless cuisine now preserved by Uyghur street vendors and restaurants throughout the country.
As part of the last leg of the Columbian Exchange, Spanish and Portuguese traders began introducing American foods to China through the port cities of Canton and Macao. Mexican chili peppers became essential ingredients in Sichuan cuisine and calorically-dense potatoes and corn became staple foods across the northern plains.
During the Qing Dynasty, Chinese gastronomes such as Yuan Mei focused upon a primary goal of extracting the maximum flavor of each ingredient. However as noted in his culinary work the Suiyuan shidan, the fashions of cuisine at the time were quite varied and in some cases were flamboyantly ostentatious.
The People's Republic of China, amid numerous false starts, has largely industrialized food production. A side effect of this process was the introduction of American poultry-rearing techniques, which has greatly increased the relative consumption of eggs and chicken in various Chinese cuisines.
A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine but perhaps the best known and most influential are Cantonese cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Jiangsu cuisine (specifically Huaiyang cuisine) and Szechuan cuisine. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as availability of resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyle. One style may favour the use of lots of garlic and shallots over lots of chilli and spices, while another may favour preparing seafood over other meats and fowl.
Jiangsu cuisine favours cooking techniques such as braising and stewing, while Sichuan cuisine employs baking, just to name a few. Hairy crab is a highly sought after local delicacy in Shanghai, as it can be found in lakes within the region. Peking Duck and dim-sum are other popular dishes well known outside of China.
Based on the raw materials and ingredients used, the method of preparation and cultural differences, a variety of foods with different flavors and textures are prepared in different regions of the country. Many traditional regional cuisines rely on basic methods of preservation such as drying, salting, pickling and fermentation.
Dim sum, literally "touch your heart", is a Cantonese term for small hearty dishes. These bite-sized portions are prepared using traditional cooking methods such as frying, steaming, stewing and baking. It is designed so that one person may taste a variety of different dishes. Some of these may include rice rolls, lotus leaf rice, turnip cakes, buns, shui jiao-style dumplings, stir-fried green vegetables, congee porridge, soups, etc. The Cantonese style of dining, yum cha, combines the variety of dim sum dishes with the drinking of tea. Yum cha literally means 'drink tea'.
Sichuan (spelled Szechuan in the once-common Postal Romanization), is a style of Chinese cuisine originating from the Sichuan Province of southwestern China famed for bold flavors, particularly the pungency and spiciness resulting from liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the unique flavor of the Sichuan peppercorn (花椒, huājiāo) and Facing heaven pepper (朝天椒, cháotiānjiāo). Peanuts, sesame paste and ginger are also prominent ingredients in this style.
Anhui cuisine (Chinese: 徽菜 or 徽州菜, huīzhoucài) is derived from the native cooking styles of the Huangshan Mountains region in China and is similar to Jiangsu cuisine, but with less emphasis on seafood and more on a wide variety of local herbs and vegetables. Anhui province is particularly endowed with fresh bamboo and mushroom crops.
Shandong Cuisine (魯菜) is commonly and simply known as Lu cuisine. With a long history, Shandong Cuisine once formed an important part of the imperial cuisine and was widely promoted in North China. However, it isn't so popular in South China (including the more embracing Shanghai).
Shandong Cuisine features a variety of cooking techniques and seafood ingredients. The typical dishes on local menu are braised abalone, braised trepang, sweet and sour carp, Jiuzhuan Dachang and Dezhou Chicken.
Fujian cuisine is influenced by Fujian's coastal position and mountainous terrain. Woodland delicacies such as edible mushrooms and bamboo shoots are also utilized. Slicing techniques are valued in the cuisine and utilized to enhance the flavor, aroma and texture of seafood and other foods. Fujian cuisine is often served in a broth or soup, with cooking techniques including braising, stewing, steaming and boiling.
Jiangsu cuisine, also known as Su (Cai) Cuisine for short, is one of the major components of Chinese cuisine, which consists of the styles of Yangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou and Zhenjiang dishes. It is very famous all over the world for its distinctive style and taste. It is especially popular in the lower reach of the Yangtze River.
Typical courses of Jiangsu cuisine are Jinling salted dried duck (Nanjing's most famous dish), crystal meat (pork heels in a bright, brown sauce), clear crab shell meatballs (pork meatballs in crab shell powder, fatty, yet fresh), Yangzhou steamed Jerky strips (dried tofu, chicken, ham and pea leaves), triple combo duck, dried duck, and Farewell My Concubine (soft-shelled turtle stewed with many other ingredients such as chicken, mushrooms and wine), sweet and sour mandarin fish(Suzhou cuisine).
Hunan cuisine is well known for its hot spicy flavor, fresh aroma and deep color. Common cooking techniques include stewing, frying, pot-roasting, braising, and smoking. Due to the high agricultural output of the region, there are many varied ingredients for Hunan dishes.
Zhejiang cuisine (Chinese: 浙菜 or 浙江菜, Zhèjiāngcài) derives from the native cooking styles of the Zhejiang region. The dishes are not greasy, having but instead a fresh, soft flavor with a mellow fragrance.
The cuisine consists of at least four styles, each of which originated from different cities in the province:
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The cuisine of Xinjiang reflects the region's many ethnic groups, and refers particularly to Uyghur cuisine. Signature ingredients include roasted mutton, kebabs, roasted fish and rice. Because of the distinctive Muslim population, the food is predominantly halal.
Mongolian hotpot is very famous in China, and popular with the Han ethnic group too. It has many franchises.
Tibetan cuisine is traditionally served with bamboo chopsticks, in contrast to other Himalayan cuisines, which are eaten by hand. Small soup bowls are used, and the wealthier Tibetans ate from bowls of gold and silver.
Rice is a major staple food for people from rice farming areas in southern China. Steamed rice, usually white rice, is the most commonly eaten form. Rice is also used to produce beers, wines and vinegars. Rice is one of the most popular foods in China and is used in many dishes. Glutinous rice ("sticky rice") is a variety of rice used in many specialty Chinese dishes.
Chinese noodles come dry or fresh in a variety of sizes, shapes and textures and are often served in soups or fried as toppings. Some varieties, such as Shou Mian (寿面, literally noodles of longevity), are symbolic of long life and good health according to Chinese tradition. Noodles can be served hot or cold with different toppings, with broth, and occasionally dry (as is the case with mi-fun). Noodles are commonly made with rice flour or wheat flour, but other flours such as soybean are also used.
Tofu is made of soybeans and is another popular food product that supplies protein. Other products such as soy milk, soy paste, soy oil, and fermented soy sauce are also important in Chinese cooking.
Some common vegetables used in Chinese cuisine include Chinese leaves, bok choy (Chinese cabbage), Chinese spinach (dao-mieu), on choy, yu choy, bitter melon, and Chinese broccoli or gailan (guy-lahn). Other vegetables include bean sprouts, pea vine tips, watercress, celery, carrots, fresh mustard greens, and (Western) broccoli.
A variety of dried or pickled vegetables are also eaten, especially in drier or colder regions where fresh vegetables traditionally were hard to get out of season.
Spices and seasonings such as fresh ginger root, garlic, scallion, white pepper, and sesame oil are widely used in many regional cuisines. Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, fennel, cilantro, parsley, and cloves are also used.
To add extra flavors to dishes, many Chinese cuisines also contain dried Chinese mushrooms, dried baby shrimps, dried tangerine peel, and dried Sichuan chillies.
When it comes to sauces, China is home to soy sauce, which is made from fermented soy beans and wheat. Oyster sauce, clear rice vinegar, chili, Chinkiang black rice vinegar, fish sauce and fermented tofu (furu) are also widely used. A number of sauces are also based on fermented soybeans, including Hoisin sauce, ground bean sauce and yellow bean sauce.
Generally, seasonal fruits serve as the most common form of dessert consumed after dinner.
In larger cities, a wide variety of Chinese bakery products is available, including baked, steamed, boiled, or deep-fried sweet or savory snacks. Bings are baked wheat flour based confections, and include moon cake, red bean paste pancake, and sun cakes. Chinese candies and sweets, called táng are usually made with cane sugar, malt sugar, honey, nuts and fruit. Gao or Guo are rice based snacks that are typically steamed and may be made from glutinous or normal rice.
Ice cream is commonly available throughout China. Another cold dessert is called baobing, which is shaved ice with sweet syrup. Chinese jellies are known collectively in the language as ices. Many jelly desserts are traditionally set with agar and are flavored with fruits, though gelatin based jellies are also common in contemporary desserts.
Chinese dessert soups typically consist of sweet and usually hot soups and custards. Chinese desserts are frequently less sugary and milder in taste than western style desserts. Some restaurants do not serve dessert at all.
Cold dishes can have a very large range of food variation, from jelly to ice cream to crackers to cold soups.
There are different types of Chinese sausages depending upon the region in which it is produced. Chinese sausage is darker and thinner than western sausages. The most common sausage is made of pork and pork fat. Flavor varies depending on the ingredients used, but it generally has a salty-sweet taste. Chinese sausage can be prepared in many different ways, including oven-roasted, stir-fried, and steamed.
Stinky tofu is a type of fermented tofu that has a strong odor. Like blue cheese or durian, it has a very distinct, potent smell, and is somewhat of an acquired taste. Its smell is as expected from the name; like spoiling tofu, and can be smelt from a block away when vendors are frying it or stewing it. It is often paired with soy sauce or something salty and spicy.
Doufulu is another type of fermented tofu which has a red skin and salty taste. This is more of a pickled type of tofu and is not as strongly scented as the stinky tofu. Doufulu has the consistency of slightly soft blue cheese, and a taste similar to Japanese miso paste, but less salty. Doufulu is frequently pickled together with soy beans and chili, and paired with rice congee.
Prawn crackers are an often-consumed snack in Southeast China and Vietnam. Many Western countries such as the UK also have these Asian snacks.
In contrast to their popularity in the US, fortune cookies are almost completely absent from Chinese cuisine within China.
As well as with dim sum, many Chinese drink their tea with snacks such as nuts, plums, dried fruit (in particular jujube), small sweets, melon seeds, and waxberry. China was the earliest country to cultivate and drink tea which is enjoyed by people from all social classes. Tea processing began after the Qin and Han Dynasties.
Chinese tea is often classified into several different categories according to the species of plant from which it is sourced, the region in which it is grown, and the method of production used. Some of these types are green tea, oolong tea, black tea, scented tea, white tea, and compressed tea. There are four major tea plantation regions: Jiangbei, Jiangnan, Huanan and the southwestern region. Well known types of green tea include Longjing, Huangshan, Mao Feng, Bilochun, Putuofeng Cha, and Liu'an Guapian. China is the world’s largest exporter of green tea.
One of the most ubiquitous accessories in modern China, after a wallet or purse and an umbrella, is a double-walled insulated glass thermos with tea leaves in the top behind a strainer.
The importance of baijiu (lit. "white liquor") in China (99.5% of its alcoholic market) makes it the most-consumed alcoholic spirit in the world. It dates back to the introduction of distilling during the Song Dynasty; can be made from wheat, corn, or rice; and is usually around 120 proof (60% ABV). The most ubiquitous brand is the cheap Er guo tou, but Mao Tai is the premium baijiu. Other popular brands include Du Kang, Lu Zhou Te Qu, and Wu Liang Ye.
Chinese in earlier dynasties evidently drank milk and ate dairy products, although not necessarily from cows, but perhaps koumiss (fermented mare's milk) or goat's milk. After the Tang dynasty there emerged a line dividing Asia into two groups, those who depend on milk products (India, Tibet, Central Asians) and those who reject those foods. Chinese depend on soy, as more efficient way of supporting density, and to differentiate themselves from border nomads.
Most Chinese until recently have avoided milk, partly because pasturage for milk producers in a monsoon rice ecology is not economic, partly because milk products became negatively associated with horse riding, milk drinking nomadic tribes. There may even be a biological bias. A certain number of people in any ethnic group are lactose intolerant. In addition, human beings, like other mammals, after they are weaned, stop producing lactase enzymes (needed to digest milk) unless they drink milk. Lactose intolerance, then, is partly cultural, partly biological.
But this non-dairy tradition has undergone some changes as a result of changing perceptions and global influences. For example, it has been suggested that, in the early 20th century Shanghai, “Western food, and in particular identifiably nourishing items like milk, became a symbol of a neo-traditional Chinese notion of family.”
In imperial China, the consumption of meat and animal products was strikingly low by comparison with other cultures. Most meals consisted of a starch – rice in the south and dumplings or noodles in the north – and green vegetables, with peanuts and soy products providing additional protein. Fats and sugars were luxuries not available to most of the population on a regular basis.
The initial attempts of the People's Republic of China to modernize Mainland China's productive but labor-intensive agricultural practices led to a series of debacles: the worst, the Great Leap Forward, produced such widespread famines from 1958 to 1961 that the 1963 Chinese census remained a state secret whose very existence was not even acknowledged until the 1980s. Practices and technology were slowly modernized, however, and from the introduction of economic reform by Deng Xiaoping in the late '70s, Chinese diets have steadily become richer over time and include more meats, fats, and sugar than before. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, China's per capita food consumption has increased from less than 1700 kcal in 1960 to 2570 kcal per day in 1995.
Where there are historical immigrant Chinese populations, the style of food has evolved and been adapted to local tastes and ingredients, and modified by the local cuisine, to greater or lesser extents. This has resulted in a number of forms of fusion cuisine, often popular in the country in question; some, such as ramen (Japanese Chinese) have become popular internationally. These include: