“I’m Dino, a 22-year-old history student and a massive foodie! As well as travelling around the world and sampling lots of delicious food I enjoy cooking and like to cook authentic dishes with real flavours that have been made from generations old recipes, though I can occasionally be innovative too! My two specialities are Balkan cuisine and Chinese cuisine; the former is the region where my home country, Bosnia & Herzegovina, is located (and Serbo-Croatian is my first language), while the latter is a cuisine that I have developed a great admiration for due to its massive variety, innovation and frankly delicious flavours! I have now decided to share my food knowledge and some of my recipes-most of which have been collected on my extensive travels-with all of you. I also have an interest in nutrition. For me, a healthy diet and cooking that incorporates high quality, fresh ingredients is a way of life and I believe that a good diet is key to overall good health. When I’m not at university or in the kitchen I enjoy DSLR photography, learning Mandarin Chinese and caring for my extensive 400+ orchid and carnivorous plant collection. I hope you all enjoy my blog and that it inspires you to cook and love your food!”
So You Think You Know Chinese Food?
#3 ‘Fish Cheeks Symbolise Importance’
What constitutes a typical Chinese meal? Regardless of region, most Chinese would make fan (staple), which would either be wheat flour noodles in north China or steamed rice in south China. These staples have historically been so important that even the word for “to eat” in Mandarin Chinese is chifan, literally “eat staple”. Aside from the staple, there will be at least two or three cai (main) dishes. If it is dinnertime, one of these will often be a clear soup. The other dishes are often stir fries-usually vegetables with a little chopped meat, often pork-though in the winter stews, hotpots and other braised dishes make an appearance. All these dishes are placed in the centre of the dining table and everything is shared. Deep fried food is considered unhealthy and such dishes are not commonly eaten.
Another common characteristic of Chinese cooking is the high regard in which vegetables are held, though the harsh climate of north China means that the variety and availability of vegetables there is less than in south China, particularly in the winter. Meat consumption in a traditional Chinese diet is less than in a traditional Western diet, with many home style dishes consisting of vegetables with small pieces of chopped meat. Whole chickens and large pieces of meat are often prepared for special occasions, though they are always chopped into bite size pieces before being served. When it comes to every day dining, the meat of choice for almost all Chinese is pork. River fish or seafood (depending on the region) are popular and supplement the pork, though they are eaten less frequently-say once or twice a week. Chicken, while highly regarded, is usually prepared as a whole bird and therefore eaten only occasionally. However, eggs are commonly eaten, especially in rural areas. Duck, while occasionally prepared at home, is more often bought ready roasted from a market and is either chopped up and eaten as it is or stir-fried with vegetables and seasonings. Because of its price it is more a treat than an every day meat.
The Chinese, in stark contrast to most Westerners, love to eat meat on the bone. Therefore ribs and chicken wings-cheap and unremarkable in the West-are delicacies in China. Whole chickens and ducks are usually chopped on the bone. Finally, we must remember that Chinese think very differently to Westerners when it comes to food. For example, duck and chicken heads are often thrown away in the West. In China they are given to the family patriarch, as the head cannot be shared, therefore signifying importance. Similarly, a plate of fish cheeks might be reserved for a special guest because potentially dozens of fish have to be killed for it! Such symbolism is very common and influential. Another famous example is the tradition of serving fish whole, head and tail intact, because it symbolises prosperity.
#2 ‘Tradition, Philosophy and Food’
As may be expected, such huge diversity means that the food in China is also very diverse. However, let us first consider the similarities of Chinese cooking before regional differences. Historically, most Chinese homes have lacked an oven. In fact, this remains true for many families to this day, especially in rural areas. Consequently, baked or roasted dishes are not a big part of Chinese cookery, though there are some important roasted dishes that we will discuss later. Instead, Chinese cooks rely on an ancient Chinese invention: the wok, which is what every kitchen in China has been equipped with, regardless of the wealth of the occupants. The traditional Chinese wok is made of cast iron with a circular base that is placed over an open fire. A wok can be used for many things, among them: boiling, steaming, deep-frying and most famously of all, stir-frying. Forget the way many non-Chinese stir-fry their food: a real Chinese stir fry is done on a very high, roaring heat which results the ingredients being cooked to perfection in just one or two minutes. Aside from the wok, equipment in a Chinese kitchen is simple compared to a Western one. There is often a steamer (either a traditional bamboo one or a metal one), a large round chopping board (caibao), Chinese cleaver (caidan) which is used for everything from peeling to mincing, and a wok spatula for stir frying (chanzi) and a Chinese perforated spoon (often called a “spider”).
Because of historical food shortages, many Chinese dishes feature food that is cut up into small pieces before cooking. There is another common feature of Chinese cuisine: everything, including vegetables, is generally cooked before being consumed. While there are some exceptions, such as fresh fruit and smacked cucumber salad (pai huang gua), and raw shellfish may occasionally be consumed in some areas, Chinese people are generally horrified by undercooked food, including soft-boiled eggs!
When it comes to the ingredients, the Dao philosophy splits everything into two categories: yin (cool) and yang (hot). Most meat and a few fruits and vegetables, such as ginger and chillies, are yang. Many vegetables, including garlic, are yin. Cooking methods are also either yin or yang. For example, steaming is yin while deep-frying is yang. Eating a diet that is too rich in either yin or yang is considered unhealthy, so the Chinese always strive to balance their meals. The actual ingredients employed can vary greatly from region to region-as you might expect-but there are some which are almost universally used. The sauces are light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, bean pastes (most notably yellow bean and hoisin sauces for savoury dishes, red bean and lotus bean pastes for sweet dishes), fermented tofu (red and white types; both are mushed down and used for marinades or as seasonings), black rice vinegar, white rice vinegar as well as Chinese cooking wine. The condiments and seasonings are salt, sugar, white pepper, garlic, ginger, spring onion, star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, cassia (related-and similar to-cinnamon), coriander, salted and fermented black beans, dried shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms and dried and fresh chillies. If you have these core ingredients to hand you can create many authentic Chinese dishes. You may notice that I have left out oyster sauce; this tasty sauce has become very popular in Britain, but in China it is a regional sauce mainly used in the far south.
#1 ‘Dispelling the Myths’
When many hear the phrase “Chinese food”, two distinct things often come to mind. One is the image of MSG laden dishes in thick, gloopy sauces and greasy spring rolls from Chinese takeaways, and the other is that of very unusual and exotic ingredients such as fish heads, snakes and dog. Yet while most British people either delight in the flavours of their local takeaway or rant about how disgusting it is to eat dog meat, few know that neither is a good representation of real Chinese food. The truth is that takeaway Chinese food has been altered to Western tastes to such an extent that it hardly resembles real Chinese food. Takeaway food is certainly not the food that Chinese people would eat. And while all sorts of exotic delicacies from both land and sea can be found in China, the reality is that they are often expensive and rare, meaning that few eat any of them regularly. This is especially true when it comes to every day home cooking.
Despite the fact that China has opened up to the world-especially in the last 10 years or so-it has still largely failed to shake off these two perceptions about its cuisine. What many people fail to realise is how enormous and diverse China really is. It is the most populous country in the world, and the third largest by land area. Its landscapes range from deserts and grasslands to high mountains and tropical jungles. This has blessed Chinese cooks with a large range of ingredients and seasonings. The people who live in China are as diverse as its environments. The largest ethnic group, the Han Chinese, are the ones who founded the legendary Chinese Empire and who developed many of the traditions that we think of as “Chinese”. However, more than 50 other ethnic groups live in China. Many have been there as long as the Han Chinese and have peacefully co-existed with them for hundreds of years; and have mostly retained their unique languages and customs to this day. But the passage of time has resulted in extraordinary linguistic diversity within the Han Chinese themselves: more than 60% speak a dialect of Mandarin Chinese as their first language, but there are a further 6 distinct Chinese languages that are not intelligible with each other or Mandarin.
Nor is China homogenous when it comes to religion. Most Han Chinese are Buddhist, though Chinese Buddhism also incorporates indigenous Confucian and Dao beliefs. But a Muslim community has existed in China from as early as the late 7th century (merely decades after Islam was founded in the Arabian Peninsula by Prophet Muhammad) and continues to flourish to this day. In addition, some ethnic minorities have their own indigenous religions, while Christian missionaries from Europe and later, North America, have been preaching the Gospel and building churches in China for hundreds of years. Foreign traders, from Arabs and Persians to Europeans, as well as invaders (most notably the Mongols) have also left their mark, not least in the form of the food products they introduced. Add all this to the fact that China has some 3500 years of recorded history and that the Chinese Empire was founded in 200 B.C. and existed almost continuously until its abolition in 1913, do you still believe that China is only capable of producing a takeaway menu of 30 or so items or that it’s people are only capable of devouring all sorts of oddities?