The essence of Chinese cuisine lies in the traditional insistence that food must have taste and flavor, however humble and simple the ingredients. It can be infinite in variety and extravagant for formal entertaining, yet timesaving and frugal in daily preparation.
Typical Chinese fare is comprised principally of foods of plant origin, supplemented by small amounts of meat. The use of dairy products is not as widespread. Their substitutes are numerous bean products such as bean sprouts, bean curd, soy-bean milk, and soy sauce.
It is through frugal use of all parts and forms of available foods that Chinese cookery has acquired an exotic reputation. Some of these are shark’s fin, bird’s nest, bear’s paw, duck tongues, fish lips and gills, dehydrated turtle meat, abalone, sea slugs, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, lotus root and seeds, and lily blossoms.
Bird’s nest soup
Chinese dishes almost always consist of a mixture of foodstuffs. Vegetables and meat are prepared together in a small amount of fat. Heated to a high temperature, the oil quickly sears the meat to preserve flavor, juice, and tenderness. This also preserves the characteristic texture and attractive color of vegetables. The oil acts as a flavor extender, giving meat the fragrance of vegetable and vegetable the glamour of meat.
This unique method of cooking is called ch’ao, fast cooking in a small amount of fat with constant stirring. Cutting and preparation of ingredients, quick, intense heat, and accurate timing are its three essential elements.
Schools of cookery
Being a vast country, China has food as varied as her map. There are five major schools of cookery: Shantung, Honan, Szechwan, Fukien, and Canton.
Shantung is noted for dishes prepared with wine stocks, while Honan is famous for sweet and sour sauce and soft-fried dishes. Szechwan, known for its hot, peppery seasonings, produces the best dishes using ham and fungus. Seafood is a Fukien specialty. Its cooking is delicate in taste and light in body. It is fond of using sugar and hung tsao (red wine dregs) as seasonings.
The Cantonese school, offering the most variety and grandeur, uses more expensive ingredients and herbs. Concentrated stock is the base of many of its dishes. First to show foreign influence, Cantonese has played a major role in popularizing Chinese food in foreign lands. Sweet and sour pork, chow mein, wanton, fried rice, and egg rolls have been introduced abroad by the Cantonese, although all of these dishes originated with other schools. Chop suey was first improvised by Cantonese restaurants abroad to meet foreign tastes.
Chinese cookery can be divided into four regions. The south is represented by Canton and Fukien; central, by Shanghai; north, by Mandarin; and inland, by Szechwan. South of the Yangtze River, rice is the food staple, while to the north wheat flour is the mainstay. Different types of steamed bread (man t’ou, pao tzu), noodles (mein), and various pastas (ping, chiao tzu, and wanton) are basic northern foods. To the south, these foods are served less frequently and mainly as refreshments or “in-between” meals.