Chinese Culture 


 Chinese Culture






Living & Values -- Food

The Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu once said: "Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish." He meant that governing a country required just the right "seasonings" and adjustments for successful results. This metaphor clearly illustrates the significance that food occupies in Chinese culture!

Some Chinese Food
Chinese food can be roughly divided into the Northern and Southern styles of cooking. In general, Northern dishes are oily without being cloying and the flavors of vinegar and garlic tend to be more pronounced. Pasta also plays an important role in Northern cooking; noodles, ravioli-like dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, fried meat dumplings, and steamed bread are the favored flour-based treats. The cooking styles of Peking, Tientsin, and Shantung are probably the best known styles of Northern Chinese cuisine. An elaborate, stuffed chicken symbolizes the Chinese wish for plenitude and satisfaction. Representative of the Southern cooking styles are: Szechwan and Hunan cuisine which are famous for their liberal use of chili peppers; the Kiangsu and Chekiang styles which emphasize freshness and tenderness; and Cantonese food which tends to be somewhat sweet and full of variety. Rice and rice products such as rice noodles, rice cakes, and rice congee are the usual accompaniments to Southern style cooking.

In Chinese cooking, color, aroma, and flavor share equal importance in the preparation of each dish, thereby, satisfying the gustatory, olfactory, and visual senses. Any one entree will combine three to five colors, selected from ingredients that are light green, dark green, red, yellow, white, black, or caramel-colored. Usually, a meat and vegetable dish is prepared from one main ingredient and two to three secondary ingredients of contrasting colors. It is then cooked with the appropriate method, seasonings, and sauces to result in an aesthetically attractive dish. The primary methods of preparation include stir-frying, stewing, steaming, deep-frying, flash-frying, and pan-frying. A dish with a fragrant aroma will whet the appetite. Among many others, some ingredients that contribute to a mouth-watering aroma are scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, chili peppers, wine, star anise, stick cinnamon, pepper, sesame oil, and dried black Chinese mushrooms. Of utmost importance in cooking any dish is preserving the fresh, natural flavor of the ingredients and removing any undesirable fish or game odors. In Western cooking, lemon is often used to remove smells of fish; in Chinese cooking, scallions and ginger serve a similar function. Soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and other seasonings add richness to a dish without covering up the natural flavor of the ingredients. A well-prepared dish will be rich to those who like strong flavors, not over-spiced to those who like a blander taste, sweet to those who like a sweet flavor, and hot to those who like a piquancy. A dish that is all of these things to all of these people is a truly successful one.

However, color, aroma, and flavor are not the only principles to be followed in Chinese cooking; nutrition is the first concern. A theory of the "harmonization of foods" can be traced back to the Shang dynasty's (16th to 11th century B.C) scholar Yi Yin. He relates the five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant, and salty to the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems of the body (the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys), and he stresses their role in maintaining good physical health. In fact, many of the plants used in Chinese cooking such as scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, dried lily buds, and tree fungus have properties of preventing and alleviating various illnesses. The Chinese have a traditional belief that food and medicine share the same origin and that food has a medicinal value. This view can be considered the forerunner of nutritional science in China. According to this theory, a correct proportion of meat to vegetable ingredients should be maintained. One-third of meat-based dishes should be made of vegetable ingredients, and one-third of vegetable dishes should consist of meat. In preparing soups, the quantity of water used should total seven-tenths the volume of the serving bowl. Basically, the correct ingredient proportions must be adhered to in the preparation of each dish or soup in order to ensure optimal nutritional value.

The Chinese have a number of traditional rules and customs associated with eating. For example, food must be eaten while seated. Also a set order of who may be seated first among men, women, old, and young exists. Furthermore, one must eat main courses with chopsticks and soup with a spoon.

The Present
In this cosmopolitan world, Chinese food is available in practically all major and many not-so-major-cities of the globe. In fact, in any large city or little village in China, you do not have to walk very far to find a restaurant. Even in home cooking, food is prepared with sophistication and variety. Northern style dishes include Peking duck, smoked chicken, chafing dish with sliced lamb, fish slices in sauce, beef with green pepper, and dried scallops with Chinese white radish balls. Representative of the Southern style of cooking are duck smoked with camphor and tea, chicken baked in salt, honey glazed ham, flash-fried shrimp, eggplant in soy sauce, and Szechwan style bean curd. With the rapid expansion of industry and commerce, a new twist has been added to traditional Chinese food: Chinese fast food franchises. At the same time, restaurants serving foods from all over the world have been springing up in the large cities of China: American hamburgers, Italian pizza, and Japanese Sashimi.


Wherever Chinese go, the custom of drinking tea follows. Tea was first discovered by the Chinese. Tea is an indispensable part of the life of a Chinese. A Chinese saying identifies the seven basic daily necessities as fuel, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea. The custom of drinking tea has been ingrained in the Chinese for over a thousand years. During the mid-T'ang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), a man named Lu Yu created the first compendium in the world on tea, the Tea Classic. This work helped to popularize the art of tea drinking all across China.

Tea is made from the young, tender leaves of the tea tree. The differences among the many kinds of tea available are based mainly on the roasting and fermentation of the tea leaves. Through fermentation, the originally deep green leaves become reddish-brown in color. The longer the fermentation, the darker the color. Depending on the length of the roasting and degree of fermentation, the fragrance can range from floral to fruity to malty.

Tea drinking aficionados usually enjoy the beauty and feel of teapots. Small teapots are used to steep tea (in the "kung fu" steeping method). This particular method has been passed down to the present day from 16th century China, so it boasts a 400-year history. The full aroma and sweetness of the tea can be brought out when using a small teapot to steep tea.

Tea is China's national drink. It contains vitamins, tea derivatives, essential oils, and fluoride. It is a diuretic attributed with the properties of improving the eyesight and increasing alertness, so Chinese believe that frequent tea drinkers enjoy an increased life span. Its medical properties and benefits to the human body have actually been scientifically proven, and tea has come to be generally recognized as a natural health food.

The origins of fermenting and drinking wine in China go far back in time. The ancient Chinese either used wine as a libation to their forefathers to express reverence, enjoyed it by themselves while writing poetry or prose, or toasted their relatives and friends during a feast. Wine was intimately connected with most Chinese men of letters. Grains were used to ferment wine throughout ancient China. Thus, whether or not the grain harvest was bountiful became a criterion by which many governments decided whether to lift their ban on wine making or how heavy a wine tax to levy. Over the ages, wine gradually became directly linked to the daily life and tax burden of the people.

As early as in the Shang dynasty of the 18th through 11th centuries B.C., the use of grain to make wine had become widespread. Inscriptions preserve many records of Shang-era people worshiping their ancestors with wine and of the fact that wine drinking was very popular at the time. The development of Chinese wine-making techniques accelerated after the 3rd century A.D. Each part of the nation used different grains to produce yeast. This not only led to an increase in the varieties of wine, but also indicated progress in the technology of yeast production.

From wine making and drinking we can glimpse a bit of the wisdom of ancient Chinese. Wine was influential in the accomplishments of intellectuals. Policy measures prohibiting wine making and measures levying wine taxes illustrate certain links between wine and national taxes. Wine is an important segment of dietary culture, and its significance in Chinese culture should not be overlooked.