The cuisines of China have evolved over the centuries into one of the best in the world. Food has played an auspicious role in nearly all aspects of Chinese society for more than five thousand years. This is true for issues ranging from health and medicine to business and festivals, and remains so even today. The Chinese restaurants scattered all over the globe indicate the richness of Chinese cuisine, which remains till today a glittering feature of Chinese culture. It may surprise many that the city of Beijing alone now boasts of around 150 thousand Chinese restaurants across the megacity.
There have been eight schools of Chinese cuisine starting from the Ming (1368) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties. These originated from the provinces of Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Anhui. Apart from these traditional cuisines, the Chinese culinary industry has undergone many transformations, as almost all places have their own specialties. A food connoisseur can readily taste the familiar and famous dishes from around China in large cities like Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
Known as 'nature's storehouse', Sichuan is a reservoir of Chinese cuisines. The ingredients used in Sichuan cuisine are simple, but the spices are quite distinctive. The application of prickly ash seeds makes the food very tasty and soothing for the mouth. Apart from this unique spice, other spices like chili pepper are also applied. Use of fermented bean sauce and a unique cooking method have made the Sichuan cuisine very popular all over the globe.
Located in southern China, Guangdong province boasts of a cuisine that is renowned for its seafood as well as originality and refinement of the cooking process. As it had one of the earliest ports for foreign trade, it developed a culinary culture of its own and soups originating from the province have been loved by people at many locations of the world. Representing food along the lower Yangtze River, the Zhejiang cuisine is light and superb. One of its famous dishes is 'West Lake Vinegar Fish', which is delicate and tender and has the refreshing flavours of virgin nature.
An emphasis on the freshness, flavour and texture of ingredients has been a key to fine Chinese cooking. A variety of techniques are used to get the most out of even simple ingredients in order to highlight and accent food qualities. Quick cooking with a wok and deep frying are almost universal to most cooking styles in China. Other cooking methods are also extensively applied, such as steaming, roasting, barbecuing, stewing, poaching and braising.
Most Chinese dishes carry a story that explains their popularity. For example, the Fujian cuisine has a famous dish called 'Buddha Jumping the Wall', which is the most popular dish in the province. Over 20 ingredients are used in preparing this dish, including chicken, duck, sea cucumber, dried scallop, tendon, fish and more than a dozen garnishes like mushrooms, winter bamboo shoots and pigeon eggs. It was created by a restaurant in Fuzhou, Fujian called 'Gathering Spring Garden' during the reign of the Qing Emperor Guangxu. The dish was initially named 'Eight Treasures Stewed in a Pot' and later changed to 'Blessing and Longevity'. One day, when the dish was served among several scholars inside the restaurant, one of them exclaimed, "Fragrance spreads to the neighbourhood once the lid lifts,/One whiff and the Buddha jumps the wall, abandoning the Zen precepts". The name of the dish emerged from that verse.
What is most important about eating among the Chinese people is consumption of food in a certain atmosphere with certain sentiments. Usually, the old and the young sit in order of seniority, where the elders select food for the young, and the young offer toasts for the elders. The atmosphere is joyous, lively, warm and harmonious. Arranging dishes as a way of expressing respect, concern and hospitality is still popular among the older generation. Usually, a host would apportion the dishes for treating guests and would offer the best part of a steamed fish to the most important guest by using a pair of serving chopsticks. Such culinary customs have strengthened the collective spirit of the Chinese nation. While at a party or banquet, the participants first take into consideration the needs of the group. The eating period is considered to be a time for demonstrating humility and concern for others. This is in sharp contrast to Western eating habits that pay more attention to individual needs.
The Chinese people appear to be particularly concerned about what food to eat during festivals. People consume varying food items at different festivals. For example, people in the north choose 'Jiaozi' - meat and vegetable dumplings at family reunions on the eve of Spring Festival while bidding farewell to the previous year and welcoming the New Year. While celebrating on the day of the Lantern Festival, many prefer to eat 'Yuanxiao' - sweet dumplings symbolising perfection and family reunion. During Duanwu Festival, people consume 'Zongzi' - glutinous rice wrapped in reed leaves in a triangular shape, in remembrance of the poet Qu Yuan.
Symbolic importance is attached in Chinese cooking to the idea of hand-made dishes and this has been a contributing factor to the high quality of cooking. Eating is sometimes akin to enjoying an acrobatic performance. A specialty of Shanxi province called 'pared fresh noodles' is made in an acrobatic style. Any observer witnessing the cooking scene for the first time would be fascinated by the marvelous skill of the cook.
Similar to the pared noodles of Shanxi, Sichuan 'dandan' noodles are the staple food for ordinary people. It is cleverly prepared with concocted sauce of sesame oil, chili pepper oil, Chinese prickly ash oil, mustard oil, garlic oil, fennel oil and chicken oil. Besides, tender tips of pea vines, chopped green onions and bean-sprouts are also added. In earlier days, 'dandan' noodles used to be sold by vendors who wielded clappers for attracting customers. As was expected, people would gather around the vendors on hearing the familiar sound. Some people even hold the view that one bowl of 'dandan' noodles embodies the cooking wisdom of all of Sichuan.
Processing quality roast duck for cooking entails a long, complicated procedure involving numerous steps. Each of the steps is carefully executed for guaranteeing that the roast duck is shiny in appearance, red in colour, aromatic and hot with thin steam when served. Ducks are roasted upon getting orders from diners in the restaurant. When a roast duck is ready, it is put on a large plate atop a buffet cart and brought to the diners. The chef would then skillfully slice the tender, juicy meat with crispy skin attached to each piece. The slices of duck are then dipped into the sweet sauce made of fermented flour, the meat is wrapped with some scallions inside a thin pancake, and only then can one take a bite. The remaining bones are stewed for making delicious soup.
A combination of varied geography, climatic variations and sheer land size produces an extraordinary cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood in China. This has evolved into and given rise to one of the most interesting, creative and widely-enjoyed tasty cuisines liked and loved all over the world.
The writer is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.
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