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Chinese Food

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Chinese Food

Chinese Food
Chinese food – if only there was time to try it all!

Chinese food comes in such a vast range, and exhibits such an incredible richness of regional variety, that no individual will ever be able to know all there is to know about Chinese food, let alone try all of it. But that’s no reason not to have a very enjoyable time eating as many as possible of the marvellous things Chinese people can cook up.

Chinese Food – Regional Variations

Food in China varies by region. In Yunnan in Southern China, the people eat home-made cheese, whilst Hong Kong they while away lazy afternoons sipping tea and eating all manner of tiny dumplings and titbits known as dim sum.

On the flat plains of Manchuria in the North, steaming bowls of hotpot are essential to fight off the bitter cold, whilst in fishing villages on the Eastern seaboard there are some places where the peoples’ diet consists almost entirely of seafood.

The Chinese food in Chinese restaurants and Chinatowns in the West is only representative of a tiny proportion of the styles and ingredients available. Most of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Western countries were of Cantonese origin, and so the food they started to serve in restaurants was Cantonese.

Factor in that that food has now gone through several generations of evolution to suit Western tastes, and it will come as no surprise if you recognise little of what you see on the Beijing dinner table.

In the face of such regional variation, it’s sometimes hard to work out what binds all the regional traditions together. The answer is probably a combination of things, like the social significance and communal methods of eating, the philosophy behind cooking, the fàn/cài dichotomy (see below), and the methods of cooking and preparation.

Chinese Food – Fàn and Cài

The Chinese divided food into the staples ‘fàn – 饭’, and the accompanying dishes or ‘cài – 菜’. In South China the fàn is invariably rice, be it fried, steamed or submerged in soup, and in the North they tend to eat noodles and wheat based pastry.

The Importance of Food in China

Chinese people take their food and eating it extremely seriously. Eating is a communal, social, human experience in China. Sharing a meal is a sign of friendship and trust. Eating plays a central role in friendship, business, medicine, family and love. In short, food is life.

When eating, the fàn is separated into your own personal bowl, but the cài are placed in communal bowls in the centre of the table and everybody helps themselves with chopsticks. It’s considered polite, and sign of respect and friendship, to encourage other people to eat plenty of the good bits, even to pick up food with your chopsticks and drop it into their rice bowl for them.

Food is an essential component of weddings, funerals and almost all Chinese festivals. New Year is the time for jiăozi dumplings, the Dragon Boat Festival is the time for sticky rice Zongzi wrapped in leaves, and Mid Autumn Day is the time for Moon Cakes. The dinner table is the best forum to close business deals, and it’s the number one thing to do with friends.

Chinese women express their admiration for the opposite sex by cooking elaborate feasts of many courses, and these days it’s the other way round too.

In short, if you want to get to know Chinese people, understand Chinese culture and thinking and get into Chinese life, you have to eat and appreciate Chinese food.

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