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How To Cook Chinese Food

Updated on May 6, 2010

Within the realm of culinary art, Chinese cooking is one of the most popular and highly praised. Its influence embraces all Far Eastern nations and reaches as far west as the Hawaiian Islands. In everyday food preparation it can be timesaving and inexpensive; for formal occasions it can be sophisticated, infinite in variety, and extravagant. The essence of Chinese cooking lies in the insistence that food must satisfy taste and provide flavor, however humble and simple the ingredients.

Characteristics of Chinese Cooking

The use of many different parts and forms of food, such as bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, lotus roots, shark's fin, bird's nest, turtle meat, duck's tongue, bear's paw, fish lips and gills, and lily blossoms, has given Chinese dishes an exotic reputation. Most of the dishes consist of a mixture of foodstuffs. Meat and vegetables are often prepared together, with seasonings and flavorings added during the cooking. Meticulous cutting of the food into small pieces is stressed, because small pieces not only can be handled better with chopsticks (q.v.), the implements used in eating, but also have more surface areas exposed to heat and seasonings. In addition, with small pieces cooking time can be shortened and fuel saved. The different shapes and sizes add to the appearance of dishes, providing harmony or rendering variety as the occasion requires.

In very ancient times the Chinese, like all other primitive peoples, relied on fishing and hunting for food. As time progressed, both animal meat and farm products became part of the Chinese diet. Still later there was a tendency toward a diet heavy in plant food; and with the introduction of Buddhism, which frowns on killing any living thing, and with China's great population increase during the T'ang and Sung dynasties, this tendency toward a predominantly vegetarian, and, therefore cheaper, diet became pronounced.

The modern Chinese diet, based on an agricultural economy that is squeezed by a huge, ever-increasing population, continues to consist mostly of foods of plant origin, supplemented by small amounts of meat. Instead of butter and other animal fats, Chinese cooking employs vegetable oils, such as cottonseed, com, soybean, and peanut. A number of bean products are present at almost every Chinese meal, in the form of bean sprouts, bean curd, soybean milk, and soy sauce. Among the grains, rice is of primary importance, especially south of the Yangtze River. Other mainstays for Chinese meals are wheat and millet. Com, barley, and kaoliang (a variety of grain sorghum) are used extensively in the north. Fresh seafood is used widely along the coastal areas, but not inland because of difficulties in transporting this food. Dehydrated and salted sea products are used in inland cooking, and they are often considered as delicacies or as therapeutic food.

Chinese food varies considerably throughout the nation, but methods of food preparation have long been standardized. Methods common to all regions include stewing, braising, simmering, deep-fat frying, roasting, and barbecuing, double-boiler cooking, and steaming. Baking rarely occurs in the home; boiling in a large amount of water is practically nonexistent. Blanching, however, is employed as a step in preparation of ingredients prior to cooking.

The proper cutting and preparation of food, quick intense heat, and accurate timing are essential elements in Chinese cookery. Upon these three items rests the success of the unique cooking method called ch'ao, which implies fast cooking in little fat over a quick fire accompanied by constant stirring. The oil, heated to a high temperature, quickly sears the meat to preserve the flavor, juiciness, and tenderness; it also preserves the crisp texture and attractive color of the vegetables. Fat also acts as a flavor extender, giving meat the fragrance of the accompanying vegetables and, in turn, giving the vegetables the flavor of the meat.

To develop or enhance the flavor of a Chinese dish, soy sauce is often used along with salt. Other common seasonings are monosodium gluta-mate in small amounts, sugar, honey, wine, mustard, hot pepper, curry, sesame paste, and oil. Common spices include Chinese peppercorn, star aniseed, cinnamon,, and clove. Fresh ginger root, scallion, garlic, and leek are indispensable flavoring agents.

Types of Chinese Cooking

There are five major schools of Chinese cooking: Shantung, Honan, Szechwan, Fukien, and Kwangtung (Cantonese). The Shantung and Honan schools represent northern regional cooking, where wheat flour is the staple. Shantung is noted for dishes prepared with wine stock; Honan is famous for sweet-and-sour sauce. Szechwan food is characterized by hot and peppery seasonings; this school of cooking produces the best dishes using ham and mushrooms. Fukien dishes utilize considerable amounts of seafood; the specialties are delicate in taste and light in body. This school is partial to sugar and hung tsao (red wine dregs) as seasonings.

The Cantonese school, offering the most variety and grandeur in its dishes, uses more expensive ingredients and herbs. Concentrated, rich stock is the base of many of its dishes. Cantonese cooking was the first to reflect foreign influence, and it played a major role in popularizing Chinese food in foreign lands. Chop suey, a dish which does not exist in China, was first improvised by early Cantonese restaurants abroad to cater to foreign tastes. While sweet-and-sour pork, chow mein, wanton, fried rice, and egg roll originated with other Chinese schools of cooking, they became popular Chinese food in the United States through Cantonese cuisine.

Non-Cantonese restaurants frequently carry a regional designation; they may specialize in Shanghai, Mandarin, or Szechwan cooking. Shanghai represents the cooking and foods along the Yangtze River; Mandarin, north of the Yangtze; and Szechwan, inland.

In restaurants featuring these types of cooking, various forms of steamed bread (man t'ou, pao tzu), noodles (mein), and other pastas (ping, chiao tzu, wanton) are available in addition to rice. In Cantonese restaurants these foods are served more often as appetizers or refreshments.

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