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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 including most Asian nations. 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.
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, dog, 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 animal fats though this practice was mostly restricted to the wealthy.
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 regions and cuisines of China's peoples were linked by major canals and leading to greater complexity in the different regional cuisines. Not only is food seen as giving "qi", energy, but food is also about maintaining yin and yang. 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). Salt was used as a preservative from early times, but in cooking was added in the form of soy sauce, and not at the table. 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 frequently complained of lazy aristocrats who did nothing but sit around all day eating smoked meats and roasts.
During the Han dynasty, Chinese developed methods of food preservation for military rations during campaigns such as drying meat into jerky and cooking, roasting, and drying grain. Chinese legends claim that the roasted, flat bread shaobing was brought back from the Xiyu (the Western Regions, a name for Central Asia) by the Han dynasty General Ban Chao, and that it was originally known as hubing (胡餅, lit. "barbarian pastry"). The shaobing is believed to be descended from the hubing. Shaobing is believed to be related to the Persian and Central Asian naan and the Near Eastern pita. Foreign westerners made and sold sesame cakes in China during the Tang dynasty.
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties non-Han people like the Xianbei of Northern Wei introduced their cuisine to northern China, and these influences continued up to the Tang dynasty, popularizing meat like mutton and dairy products like goat milk, yogurts, and Kumis among even Han people. It was during the Song dynasty that Han Chinese developed an aversion to dairy products and abandoned the dairy foods introduced earlier.
The Han Chinese rebel Wang Su who received asylum in the Xianbei Northern Wei after fleeing from Southern Qi, at first could not stand eating dairy products like goat's milk and meat like mutton and had to consume tea and fish instead, but after a few years he was able to eat yogurt and lamb, and the Xianbei Emperor asked him which of the foods of China (Zhongguo) he preferred, fish vs mutton and tea vs yogurt.
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 Manchu cuisine, warm northern dishes which popularized hot pot cooking. During the Yuan dynasty many Muslim communities emerged in China, who practiced a porkless cuisine now preserved by Hui restaurants throughout the country. Yunnan cuisine is unique in China for its cheeses like Rubing and Rushan cheese made by the Bai people, and its yogurt, the yogurt may have been due to a combination of Mongolian influence during the Yuan dynasty, the Central Asian settlement in Yunnan, and the proximity and influence of India and Tibet on Yunnan.
As part of the last leg of the Columbian Exchange, Spanish and Portuguese traders began introducing foods from the New World 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, especially when the disply served also a formal ceremonial purpose, as in the case of the Manchu Han Imperial Feast.
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.
Crocodiles were eaten by Vietnamese while they were taboo and off limits for Chinese. Vietnamese women who married Chinese men adopted the Chinese taboo.
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 Sichuan 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 garlic and shallots over chili 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. 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.
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.
Some common vegetables used in Chinese cuisine include Chinese leaves, bok choy (Chinese cabbage), dao-mieu (Chinese spinach), on choy, yu choy, bitter melon, and Chinese broccoli or gailan (guy-lahn). Other vegetables include bean sprouts, pea vine tips, watercress, celery.
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.
Herbs and seasonings
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.
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.
Chinese desserts are sweet foods and dishes that are served with tea, along with meals, or at the end of meals in Chinese cuisine.
In larger cities, a wide variety of Chinese bakery products are 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 cake (Beijing and Taiwan varieties). 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.
Cold dishes, especially appetizers, can range from jelly, beancurd, noodle dishes, pork or chicken, to jellyfish to cold soups.
Chinese sausages vary from region to region. The most common sausage is made of pork and pork fat. Flavor is generally salty-sweet. Chinese sausage is prepared in many different ways, including oven-roasting, stir-fry, and steaming.
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 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.
It is common to eat noodles, especially soup-noodles between regular meals or in the evening, and many types of street foods, which vary from region to region. Prawn crackers are an often-consumed snack in Southeast 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 Kang, Lu Zhou Te Qu, and Wu Liang Ye.
Chinese herb tea, also known as medicinal herbal tea, is a kind of tea-soup made from purely Chinese medicinal herbs.
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.
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 and whose existence was not 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.
Chinese cuisine in other parts of the world
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.
The large Chinese population in the United States operates many restaurants, has developed distinctive dishes (such as chop suey) based originally on Cantonese cuisine.
- Singaporean Chinese cuisine
- Indonesian Chinese cuisine
- Malaysian Chinese cuisine
- Japanese Chinese cuisine
- Korean Chinese cuisine
- American Chinese cuisine
- Canadian Chinese cuisine
- Caribbean Chinese cuisine
- Filipino Chinese cuisine
- Indian Chinese cuisine
- Pakistani Chinese cuisine
- Puerto Rican Chinese cuisine
- Chifa (Peruvian Chinese cuisine)
The Chinese dining etiquette has that youths should not sit at the table before the elders. In addition to this, youths should not start eating before the elders start eating. When eating with a bowl, one should not hold it with its bottom part, because it resembles the act of begging. Also, when taking a break from eating at the table, one should not put the chopstick into the rice vertically, because it resembles the Chinese traditional funeral tribute, which involves putting chopstick inside a bowl of rice vertically.
Relation to Chinese art
Chinese dishes stress the three main points of appearance, smell, and taste. A really well-cooked Chinese food would need to achieve all three of them. Also, there is teaching of food carving in Chinese culture, typically using vegetables as materials to carve the sculpture for animals and spiritual beings.
Relation to Chinese philosophy
In Chinese philosophy, food is frequently used as the message that the author is trying to convey. A Chinese philosophy, I Ching (Chinese: 《易》), says, “Gentlemen use eating as a way to attain happiness. They should be aware of what they say, and refrain from eating too much." (《易》曰：君子以飲食宴樂。 又曰：君子慎言語，節飲食。; “Yì” yuē: Jūnzǐ yǐ yǐnshí yàn lè.)
Chinese cuisine is often linked with traditional Chinese medicine, which believed that certain ingredients possess a healing or potent property — despite most of them scientifically unproven. The quest and consumption of certain unusual ingredients in Chinese cuisine tradition has raised controversies. This includes the consumption of exotic game and bushmeats commonly considered unusual for human consumption, and also the consumption of live animals, which often condemned as a form of animal cruelty. The example of eating live animals includes Yin Yang fish (dead-and-alive fish), drunken shrimp, San Zhi Er (baby rodents) and monkey brains. Another exotic yet controversial dishes in Chinese cuisine includes Cantonese snake soup, dog meat and bear claws.
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- K.C. Chang "Food in Chinese Culture" Asia Society
- Chinese cuisine at DMOZ
- "Chinese food made easy" at the BBC
- "Chinese Culinary History (Websites for Research) Stony Brook University Libraries.