As an foreigner living and working in China, I have had over 17 years to try all the different styles of Chinese cuisine that this large country has to offer. From super hot chili hot pots from Chongqing to salty duck congee and the ubiquitous traditional tea ceremonies, a whole world of new favours, textures, and aromas awaits your discovery in this country which truly is the home to a 1,000 different styles of food.
There is a Chinese saying that goes “food is heaven for the people”.
With over 6000 different dishes, Chinese cuisine is as varying as the country’s different peoples and geographical areas. Traditionally, Chinese cuisine is a magical mix of appearance and aroma, taste and texture, balance and harmony and its nutritious properties.
What would Chinese cuisine be without rice?
Of course you can’t talk about Chinese food and not talk about rice!
There are many various ways to cook Chinese cuisine using rice. In China you can find rice boiled, steamed, roasted, or stir-fried. In Chinese culture rice is one of the ancient seven basic necessities of life. The others are tea, fuel, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar. However if you travel to northern China you will find wheat is more prevalent. When the Northern Chinese prepare their food they will use wheat rather than rice to supplement their diet.
The eating of meat has long been a symbol of wealth and status throughout Chinese history.
In the past, the common people could not afford meat. Therefore the making of tofu became an important source of protein. The Chinese have taken the art of using tofu to a whole new level. Nowadays you can literally eat tofu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Today, with the increase in disposable income amongst the masses, more meat is now being eaten on a daily basis. Pork is the most popular meat in Chinese cuisine, except among the Muslim community. In Muslim cuisine they will not eat pork rather replace it with beef and lamb.
The Chinese Have a Very Sweet Tooth
If you thought the Chinese people didn’t have a sweet tooth, you would be wrong! Every street corner has a cake shop and sweet treats are sold everywhere. Chinese sweets and desserts are a little unlike what you are used to due to the ingredients used in the making of these treats. As a result they may take a bit of getting used to for those from other areas of the world.
Some common ingredients used in making these delicious sweet treats can include; mung beans, red beans, glutinous rice, lotus seeds, and different types of nuts.
The Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking
To be honest there are so many variations within China for each dish you want to try. I have sampled the same dish in different cities and it has been very different. Different places have their own specialities and you will have countless choices wherever you go! For the sake of simplicity here I have written only about the main styles of Chinese food.
Mongolian Hot Pot and Mu Shu Pork: The Northern Style of Chinese food
The Northern style of Chinese food is heavily influenced by the nomadic Mongols. Also by the arid climate of this part of China.
The basic foods of this type of Chinese cuisine are wheat and millet, grilled meat, milk, and garlic. The two main dishes are Mongolian Hot Pot, with mutton as the main ingredient. Second is Mu Shu pork, made using pork, leeks, onions, and garlic wrapped in steamed pancakes.
Stir-Frying and steaming: The Eastern Style of Chinese food
The Eastern style of Chinese cuisine is defined by the prevalent use of fish and rice.
Stir-frying and steaming are the two most common methods of cooking in this region. The style of cooking here relies on the use of soy sauce. The term “red-cooking” stems from this culinary style. When using soy sauce to cook the meat it will often turn dark red. Congee, a porridge-like rice gruel which eaten for breakfast throughout China, but originated in Fukien in south-eastern China.
Fish fresh from the sea: The Southern Style of Chinese food
Although the rest of China may find the Southern style of cooking lacking in flavour, it does stand out. Due to its plentiful use of fresh ingredients.
This is especially important in Cantonese cooking. As the wet, warm climate of the south results in bountiful harvests, a large variety of fresh ingredients are available throughout the year. Rice and seafood are common ingredients for this variety of Chinese cuisine. One style of food I am fond of from this region is Dim Sum. When you sit down to eat Dim Sum, you will have the choice of many different nibbles all serves in little bamboo baskets.
The spices of the Silk Road: The Western Style of Chinese food
The Western style of Chinese cuisine reflects the country’s many different ethnic minorities and cultures.
These dishes are definitely not lacking in flavour! Sometimes many types of tastes will be combined in one bite — sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy. In Sichuan, the cuisine has been influenced throughout the centuries by travellers journeying along the Silk Road. Most notably, Spanish travellers introduced hot chillies to the region in the 16th century. This region is famous for its hot and spicy hot pot. Chongqing is probably the most famous city for this dish.
Eating Out in China
I remember when I ate my first meal in a Chinese restaurant in China and thought this tastes nothing like what I ordered back home in the U.K.
The style of Chinese cuisine most prevalent in Western countries stems from the Cantonese tradition of cooking, mostly from Hong Kong. If you want to taste what real Chinese food is like, step out of your comfort zone, ignore the big commercial restaurants that cater for foreigners and go where the locals go.
Be Brave and Try All The Chinese Cuisine
Ordering Chinese food in a restaurant might seem like it could be disastrous because of the lack of an English menu. Don’t worry, often, you can just point to pictures in a menu or models of the different dishes arranged in display cases. It’s even OK to point to what other people are eating to indicate that you’d like to try that, too!
Restaurants will often have multiple floors. The first floor will serve cheaper, cafeteria-style food. On the second floor, you can enjoy a multiple-course sit-down meal. The top floor is normally reserved for private groups and parties. The atmosphere in Chinese restaurants is usually very lively and loud. I am not a smoker and I don’t like people smoking when I eat, thankfully smoking is banned in restaurants. Don’t be surprised if people still smoke, however they will stop if you ask them.
You’ll be missing out on the wide variety that Chinese cooking has to offer if you only eat in restaurants, though. Countless street stalls and night markets offer delicious local specialties. However, you should be careful about hygiene to avoid getting sick. A good rule of thumb is to only buy food from the busiest stalls.
Drinking tea in China
The tradition of drinking tea in China dates back to 2737 BC, during the rule of Emperor Shennong.
For hygiene purposes, this emperor decreed that all water should be boiled before drinking. According to legend, one day some leaves blew into the emperor’s tea and began to steep, and the emperor liked the taste so much that he started experimenting with the process — and tea was born.
There are many different types of Chinese tea — from black and green, to yellow, white, and oolong. Tea is best enjoyed between meals with some dim sum, a collection of bite-sized dumplings and pastries. If possible, tea should be consumed in a quiet and peaceful place, such as a garden, where one can take a break from the busy and stressful day.