The Top Flavors Of China
Thankfully our knowledge of Chinese cooking has evolved beyond the de rigueur sweet-and-sour chicken to the country's extensive regional dishes. From the simpler food of the North to the complex sauces in the East, Chinese cuisine is characterized by a multilayered range of flavors.
A country of vast territory and rich resources, China is divided among regions that rely on the products and traditions of their own provinces to formulate specialized dishes and menus. Generally divided into four regions, there are some that subdivide the north even further, separating Beijing (Peking) and Shandong.
Beijing/Peking (Northern Region) Characteristically simple and elegant, encompassing the basic foods of the people and the exotic elegance of the Imperial kitchen. Both types of preparation are enhanced by the addition of noodles, soybeans and breads, as rice is not grown in the north. Breads -- like green onion cakes and the pork-filled man tau -- dumplings, buns and pancakes can be deep-fried, steamed or pan-fried. Cooking techniques include the "fire pot" (a Mongolian influence), the use of chiles and warming spices. Mutton, lamb and goat are common, along with pickled vegetables, cabbage and root vegetables (including ginger, garlic, leeks and onions). China's capital city is renowned for Peking duck, served in a sequence of separate courses that use the meat and skin in a variety of preparations. Prized sweet-and-sour carp from the Huang He River is the specialty of Shandong.
Moving down the eastern coast, Shanghai (Eastern Region) Richly flavored sauces (often sweet and complex), with a focus on fish and crustaceans. Fish, chicken, duck and pork are the primary sources of protein; very little lamb or beef. Wine, soy sauce and vinegars are used liberally in cooking and in the flavoring of the sauces. Cooking techniques includes stir-frying, slow-simmering (soups and stews) deep-frying, steaming and pan-frying. Pot stickers and steamed buns are favorites, along with deep-fried spring rolls, fried rice, vegetarian dishes and the braised foods of Suzhou (cooked to perfection in their rustic clay pots.
Canton/Cantonese (Southern Region). The most well known and familiar of all Chinese cooking styles. Fresh ingredients, natural products and the proximity to ports translate into an abundance of flavorful dishes and tropical fruits. Chicken, pork, beef, fish, wine-cured sausage and duck are frequently used proteins, along with tofu. When stir-fried, these ingredients are often accompanied by an assortment of vegetables. While stir-frying is predominant, steaming and roasting (barbecuing) are typical cooking techniques. The southern region is noted for its dim sum (snack-size dishes of "heart's delight"), a colorful array of vegetables dishes with light sauces, sweet-and-sour pork, whole steamed fish, beef with oyster sauce, fermented black bean sauced entrees and a crispy garnish made of fried rice noodles.
The Szechuan (Western Region). Influenced by bordering countries of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Laos and Vietnam, which results in interesting spices and piquant flavors. This region specializes in fiery spicy-hot dishes, tea-smoked duck, the famous Yunnan hams, Szechuan crispy duckling, preserved vegetables and cold noodle combinations. Garlic, salt, Szechuan peppercorns and chiles are used liberally, and oils and pastes are made from them. Abundance of rice and tea, with moderate amounts of freshwater fish (carp) and shrimp available from lakes and local rivers. The pungent and spicy flavors are well-balanced, purposeful and complex.
Regardless of region, there are five components of taste in the Chinese Kitchen: sweet, sour, salty, hot (spicy) and bitter. A well-balanced meal contains some of each. What's more, each meal is also a balance of color, aroma, flavor, texture and harmony.
Taoism and Confucianism, the two early dominant philosophies of China, prescribed the kitchen customs, set the standards, and established personal table etiquette. Food is central to the family: it is an art form, a tradition, a daily part of family life. The Chinese integrate the principles of yin and yang (Taoist philosophy) into their diets for a perfect internal balance of health. Harmony is essential, as very few traditional Chinese dishes consist of only one main ingredient. A single ingredient offers no visual contrast; subsequently, it cannot provide the necessary harmony. How foods are cooked or prepared may also have an effect on the yin and yang. Yin foods like melons, asparagus, crab and tofu are cooling and soothing, and characteristically tend toward the vegetarian. Yang foods, like ginger, chiles and red meat,- are warming, invigorating and powerful.