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Authentic Chinese Food Menus
How do you recognize "real" Chinese food
Go to any typical Chinese takeout restaurant in the US and you will see an abundance of unhealthy, grease laden, deep fried and sweet dishes. We'll have the General Tso's chicken, Chop Suey, egg rolls, fried rice and maybe that American abomination Crab Rangoon. (That's right, cream cheese is not a Chinese food) Don't forget the fortune cookies. In China, they call fortune cookies "American Fortune Cookies." Poor General Tso must have had to shop for clothes in the "Big and Tall" because his chicken is coated with batter and deep-fried to absorb lots of grease. Does this all sound familiar? Batter crusted meats, dripping in grease and coated with a sweet sauce. Wow, those Chinese really know how to eat. Or do they? Chinese food and cooking has about 5 thousand years of tradition and practice to guide them and is one of the major cuisines of the world. The other major cuisines have a mere few hundred years of history. The food we see in a Chinese takeout has been adapted to American tastes and foods.
Yin, Yang and Qi
The Chinese recognized the connection between food and health and they eat not just to satisfy appetite but also to improve and maintain health. "The average Chinese derives anywhere from six to 24 percent of their daily calories from fat, compared to 39 percent for the average American, and a shocking 45 percent for the average Briton". "The Chinese eat more calories daily than Americans per pound of body weight, but suffer less obesity" The basic idea is to balance the qi, Yin and Yang, and the body fluids. ("Qi is frequently translated as "life energy", "life force", or "energy flow". Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of "qi" is "breath", "air", or "gas"). This is the basic idea of Chinese traditional medicine. It is thought that a healthy body or organ has a proper balance of these things. When they are out of balance, there is disease or sickness. It remains to be seen whether with increasing wealth, the Chinese will begin to suffer the same maladies of heart disease and diabetes as we do in the west. However, a traditionalist would recommend against eating the things like Kung Pao Chicken in a Chinese takeout because of the excessive fat content. If we were eating authentic Chinese food in this country, we would be eating far more vegetables, far less meat and less battered, fried, grease laden foods.
Eight Chinese Culinary Regions
Cuisines develop based on the climate, geography and sometimes religion. Some observers characterize those regional cuisines as sweet in south, salty in north, hot in east, and sour in west. The north of China is comprised of grasslands, mountains and deserts that suffer from sporadic rainfall, cold winters, hot summers and frequent droughts. In the north, the staple starches are grains like wheat, barley, sorghum and millet. Unleavened bread, noodles and dumplings are more common than rice, which needs a wetter and warmer climate. Pork and mutton are the common meats with mutton staple in the Muslim areas. Further south mutton is uncommon but pork is the most common meat throughout China. Beef is uncommon in traditional Chinese diets where Oxen have been kept for draft animals with very little dairy being consumed. Fish and seafood are available from local waters but across China, freshness is valued far more than we do in the west. A Chinese chef may expect to have a live fish, still quivering while he cuts it to serve right away. Chicken and duck are the most common poultry with duckling far more popular than in the west. Emphasis is placed on preserving the original flavor of foods across all cuisines in China. Southern China produces prolific amounts of rice, soy products, longans, litchis, mangoes, bananas, and coconuts. China quickly embraced food staples from the West with sweet potatoes, tomatoes and other Western foods now used across China. Distinct from other northern cuisines is the Shaolin vegetarian cuisine. Chinese Buddhists prohibit the eating of animal flesh, and the monks here have spent centuries perfecting the cooking of vegetarian food.
Chinese cuisine is born out of poverty and wealth, famine and abundance. One icon of Chinese cooking is chopsticks; when eating with a pair of sticks the food has to be cut into bite sized pieces before the diner ever sees the dish. Chopsticks also mean that a roast has to be meltingly tender so the diner can pick edible bits off at the table. Fuel has always been at a premium in China and this led to the extensive use of cooking quickly in woks over high fires. As with other cuisines local ingredients are critically important in cooking, this leads to many variations according to location. As a result, while Chinese American foods may not be quite the same as in Mainland China, a good Chinese chef will still follow the underlying principal of using local ingredients and adapting recipes to the local area. In 1986, Prince Philip commented on Chinese eating habits at the World Wildlife Fund conference, "The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies except airplanes"
What makes a good Chinese dish
Dr. and Mrs. Lee Su Jan, in the book "The Fine Art of Chinese Cooking" list the attributes of a good Chinese dish.
"Purity: the equivalent of the Western idea of clarity and concentration, as in rich clear chicken stock. Weak, insipid or muddy broths and gravies do not qualify.
Sweetness: not sugar sweetness but the indefinable quality we refer to when we speak of sweet air or sweet water.
Smoothness: the quality that is usually achieved by the proper use of cornstarch. Anything lumpy or bumpy, any pastiness in a sauce will disqualify a dish.
Youth and Tenderness: the qualities of young vegetables. Tough, overgrown or mushy vegetables are to be avoided.
Texture: the dish should have one or more of several textures- crispness, tenderness, smoothness softness. The textures to be avoided are sogginess, stinginess or mushiness. Texture is a matter of integrity. If a dish is supposed to be crisp, let it be crisp; if it is to be tender, let it be tender.
Color: also a matter of integrity. If the vegetables are cooked properly they will be clear green not olive green.A sauce should have some character; it should be a rich brown or light and clear in tone. A rich clear broth has a clear golden hue"
Blander, thicker and sweeter in America
General Tso's chicken is the most famous Hunanese dish in the world yet the Hunanese would not recognize General Tso's chicken in an American takeout shop.. In reality, combining sweet and savory ingredients is not part of the local cuisine. General Tso's chicken is named for Zuo Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t'ang's chicken) so the dish has origins in China. The guilty truth is that much of what we think of as Chinese food was created right here to satisfy American palates. American broccoli, carrot, tomato and onion are not indigenous to China, and therefore are less common in the traditional cuisines of China. The Chinese you ask? They eat rice emphasized with vegetables and maybe a little meat. It is absurd to make any stereotype that applies to a billion people and it's just silly to say that the Chinese eat one way or another. Suffice it to say that much of what we think is Chinese food is "adapted" to American tastes. As Ming Tsai said "Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It’s adapted... to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public
Anhui Cuisine or Hui Cuisine
(Chinese: 徽菜, pinyin:huī cài) is called Hui Cai for short. Anhui province lies in the central region of Eastern China, and its climate is mild with moderate rainfall. The nature of Anhui cuisine lies in the choices of local cooking ingredients and in the strict control of the cooking process, focusing attention on the control of temperature, technique and time. Anhui cuisine is composed of local flavors of Huizhou and other areas along the Yangtze River and the Huai River. Traditional foods include bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fungus, Chinese chestnuts, Chinese yams and mountain delicacies including chukars, (a game bird) stonefish, rock tripe, (a lichen) soft-shelled turtles, big-headed turtles and masked civets. Chefs here excel at braising and stewing, often using ham to improve taste and adding sugar to gain sweetness. Frying and stir-frying are used much less frequently in Anhui cuisine than in other parts of China. This part of China has abundant undeveloped fields and forests so wild herbs and mushrooms appear in the local cuisine. Generally, the food here is slightly spicy and salty. Local dishes include Braised masked civet, ham and stewed soft-shelled turtle, fried bamboo shoots and salted mustard with roast pheasant, Fuliji style red-roasted chicken, honeycomb tofu and Wuwei smoked duck. Many of which you will have to travel to China to taste.
One of the most famous dishes from this region is Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch named after one of Anhui's famous politicians - Li Hongzhang, a top official of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). He paid a visit to the US and hosted a banquet for all his American friends. As the specially prepared dishes continued to flow, the chefs, with limited resources, began to fret. Upon Li Hongzhang's order, the remaining kitchen ingredients were thrown together into an impromptu stew, containing sea cucumber, squid, tofu, ham, mushroom, chicken meat and other available foods! The dish was incredibly delicious and has been passed down as a noted delicacy.
Cantonese cuisine or Yue Cuisine
(Chinese:粤菜; Pinyin: yuè cài ): comes from Guangdong province. Canton is the old Romanized name left over from the colonial period. Situated in the southernmost part of China's mainland, rivers from all over the province discharge into the South China Sea, forming the Pearl River delta. Its capital city, Guangzhou, is located in the north of this river delta Guangdong is home to Hong Kong and Macau both of which have influenced the local cuisine. This is the kind of Chinese food typically found in Chinese restaurants around the world because most of the Chinese who first set up these restaurants were of Cantonese origin. Being a major port area, people from Canton have traveled the world resulting in a local cuisine that shows more international influence than other parts of China. More than any other region in China, Cantonese cuisine is the melting pot of culinary styles. Long ago Cantonese cooks became masters at adapting recipes to the tastes of the "red haired foreign devils" as Westerners were described.
This melting pot aspect of Guangdong Cuisine makes this the most difficult to generalize because they serve dishes which represent all strong points of various cuisine styles in China, tasting clean, light, crisp and fresh. Steaming and stir-frying are used to preserve the ingredients' natural flavors. Steaming led to an entire category of dim sum (“dot-hearts” in Cantonese) with an almost infinite variety of bite-sized delicacies. Guangdong chefs also pay much attention to the artistic presentation of their dishes. Sauces are a crucial seasoning in Guangdong cuisine. Classic Cantonese sauces are light and mellow. The most widely used sauces in Guangdong Cuisine include: hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, plum sauce and sweet and sour sauce. Other ingredients popular in Guangdong Cuisine include spring onions, sugar, salt, soybean products, rice wine, corn starch, vinegar and sesame oil. Garlic is used heavily in some dishes. Ginger, chili peppers, five-spice powder, powdered white pepper, star anise and a few other spices are used, but often sparingly. An accomplished Cantonese chef will use oil much more sparingly than in an American Chinese restaurant.
Seafood is abundant in Guangdong and freshness is demanded, so that markets still sell live fish. With so much fish available, drying and salting are popular ways to preserve the catch. Beef is making some inroads but still not as popular as pork while lamb and mutton are rarely seen.
(Chinese: 闽菜 ; pinyin: mǐn cài ) or Min Cai Comes from the native cooking style of the province of Fujian, located in southeast China along the coast. Being on the coast Fujian Cuisine is closely related to Cantonese cuisine, blending aspects of the Han culture of the central plains and local Yue culture. Fujian cuisine emphasizes seafood, fresh water fish, shrimp and especially its soups and stews. In Fujian cuisine, "It is unacceptable for a meal to not have soup".
Fujian foods tend to be tender with a light flavor. Sauces and seasonings favor sour and sweet or mildly spicy from mustard and peppers or spicy and sweet with an emphasis on umami. Fujian chefs take pride in the artistic presentation of its dishes. Fujian cuisine is known for dishes cooked with red rice wine; these "drunken" dishes are prevalent in Fujian Province and very famous throughout China. Red rice-wine is made from glutinous rice fermented with red yeast. Red rice-wine adds a sharp, sweet-sour flavor that is highly prized by Fujian chefs
Well-known dishes include, oyster omelet, Popiah, yu wan (Fujian fish balls), and ban mien bian ruo (noodles with dumplings) chopped meat with fish lips and chicken noodle soup. Litchi pork, sweet and sour pork, soft fish with onion flavor, and razor clams stir-fried with fresh bamboo shoots. The important cooking techniques in the region's cuisine include braising, stewing, steaming and boiling with a great deal of emphasis placed on the knife skills of the chef, thinking that if the seafood is not cut well the dishes will fail to have their true flavor.
One of the most famous dishes in Fujian cuisine is "Buddha Jumps over the Wall" a complicated dish using many ingredients such as shark fin, sea cucumber, abalone, and Shaoxing wine with over thirty ingredients in all. The local legend is that after smelling the aroma, the Buddha forgot his vegetarian vows and leapt over the wall to acquire some.
(Chinese:湘菜; pinyin: xiāng cài) or Xiang cuisine Hunan Province's warm climate, rolling hills and beautiful valleys provide an ideal place for growing a wide range of crops, especially rice. As with most if not all tropical and subtropical areas Hunan foods can be very hot and spicy, The prominent aspects of Hunan cuisine are hot and sour from the use of chili peppers and a vinegar, richness, creaminess, with deep colors, fresh aromas and a reputation for greasiness. Forget the sweet and sour of other cuisines; to the Hunan palate these flavors don't mix, hot and sour is more traditional. Hunan dishes should be fragrant, with crunchy fresh vegetables. Hunan cuisine has the "saltiness of the cuisines of North China and the sweetness of the cuisines of South China". Hunan cuisine relies on fresh, seasonal local ingredients as staples. Smoked and cured foods are typical in this part of the country and the unusual so-called "strange sauce" (A hot and sour seasoning also used in Sichuan) enlivens many dishes. Chairman Mao, who was Hunanese, once claimed that the more chilies one eats the more revolutionary one becomes. The main cooking techniques include braising, stewing, smoking and steaming. Hunan cuisine is often compared to Sichuan cuisine but Hunan food is said to be "dry hot or purely hot", as opposed to Sichuan cuisine which is known for its "mala" (hot and numbing) seasoning and other complex flavors.
The most famous Hunan dishes include: Dong'an Chicken, Crispy Duck, Orange Beef and Spicy Frog's Legs but there are some 4 thousand Hunanese dishes.
(Chinese: 苏菜,pinyin: sū cài) Jiangsu province has a temperate climate, moderate rainfall, and four distinct seasons. This province has some of the highest population densities in China with Nanjing the local capital and Shanghai on the border. In Chinese culinary circles Jiangsu cuisine is considered one of the four most influential regional cuisines along with Cantonese cuisine, Shandong cuisine and Sichuan cuisine.
Jiangsu cuisine's texture is characterized as soft, but not to the point of mushy or falling apart. Jiangsu chefs select ingredients according to the season, placing emphasis on the matching color and shape of each dish and using soup extensively. The knife skills of the chef are very important here in determining how successful the dish is in appearance and taste. Melon carving is another expression of the knife skills of local chefs. Cooks in Jiangsu are well known for utilizing the famous Chinkiang vinegar, a major brand of black rice vinegar originating from the city of Zhenjiang.
Typical cooking methods are stewing, simmering, steaming, sautéing, stir-frying, and baking. Dishes here tend to be flavorful, light soups and meat dishes that use the original juices of the meat eliminating the need for heavier sauces as much as possible. These dishes have a clear and fresh taste, with moderate saltiness and sweetness. Their heavy sauces are thick without being greasy and light sauces are light without being watery.
Famous dishes: Butterfish in Creamy Juice, Santao Duck, Steamed Large Meatballs, Fragrant and Soft Silverfish, Crystal Pig‘s Trotters, Steamed Hilsa Herring, Dumplings with Juicy Crab Meat Filling, Noodles in Clear Soup, Jadeite Steamed Dumplings.
(Chinese: 鲁菜; pinyin: lǔ cài) or Lu Cuisine Shangdong was once the home of Confucius. Shangdong cuisine is famous for its wide selection of material and use of different cooking methods. This province is on the north east coast of China so seafood is an important part of the menu. Being northern also means the cuisine has influences from the Mongols and Muslims, thus, pork is still important but lamb and mutton are on the menu. Shandong province is home to Beijing and is the most influential of the eight major cuisines of traditional China, with other cuisines being derived from it. Shandong is known for the use of Western foods like tomatoes, potatoes, and locally grown corn, which is chewy and starchy, often with a grassy aroma, unlike our corn. Peanuts are also part of the cuisine in Shandong being used in dishes both hot and cold and being served either roasted in the shell, or shelled and stir-fried with salt. Grains other than rice have a place on the menu here. Millet, wheat, oats and barley are often eaten as congee, or milled and cooked into steamed and fried breads. These breads are a staple here, even more than rice.
Shandong cuisine is clean, pure and fatty, characterized by its emphasis on aroma, freshness, crispness and tenderness, generally salty, with light-color sauces and some sweet and sour flavors. Shallots and garlic are frequently used as seasonings. Soups are emphasized in Shandong cuisine.
Typical menu items: Sweet and Sour Carp, Bird's Nest Soup, Mutton Hotpot, Peking Duck, Dezhou Stewed Chicken and Red Braised King Prawns
Chinese Hot Pot
(Chinese:川菜; pingyin: chuān cài) or Szechwan cuisine now is correctly Romanized to Sichuan cuisine, This is the other southern Chinese cuisine known throughout the world for its hot and spicy foods. Preserving food has always been a challenge in southern climates and in Sichuan, they preserved through pickling, salting, and drying and often with the heavy application of chili oil. (Oil flavored with chili peppers) The use of Sichuan pepper "flower pepper" sets this cuisine apart from Hunan cuisine. Sichuan pepper has an intensely fragrant, citrus-like flavor and produces a "hot-numbing" (mala) sensation in the mouth. Garlic, chili peppers, ginger, star anise and other seasonings are common and there is a plethora of fruits and vegetables available. Broad bean chili paste ("Doubanjiang") is also a staple seasoning in Sichuan cuisine. Doubanjiang is a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices. Beef is sometimes seen on the menu here, which is unusual in most of China.
Typical menu items: Hot Pot; Kung Pao Chicken, (Note that this Kung Pao chicken recipe is more authentic than what we see in Chinese takeout shops, there is no thick greasy batter and there is a moderate use of sugar) Water-Boiled Fish, Fried Diced Chicken with Chili Sauce, Zhang Tea Duck, Mapo doufu, a spicy bean-curd and vegetable dish cooked with some of the most powerful chilis in the world; Cabbage in Boiling Water, Tasty and Spicy Crab, Twice Cooked Pork,
(Chinese: 浙菜, pinyin: zhè cài) or Zhe Cai cuisine Combines the specialties of Hangzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. Like the other eastern coastal provinces, this is regarded as a land of fish and rice. Zhe Cuisine has an extensive selection of materials with emphasis placed on using the freshest seasonal ingredients and placing the focus on the primary ingredient. Main cooking techniques here are stir-frying, baking, thick soups, braising and deep-frying without being greasy featuring clearness, freshness, tenderness, with pleasant aromas that eliminate any fishiness.
Many dishes here feature bamboo shoots while poultry, freshwater fish, and seafood including shrimp, crab and oyster, with emphasis on freshness and salty flavors.
Typical dishes include Beggar's Chicken, (an entire chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and cooked in a ball of mud) Dongpo pork, west lake fish in vinegar sauce, Fish Balls in Clear Soup and shelled shrimp cooked in Longjing tea,