This is the first part of a multipart series we’re rolling out on the history and culture of regional cuisines in Asia. Food is indelibly linked to culture and so by exploring the past, present and future of Asia’s great regional cuisines we can gain a better understanding of the people and cultures which drive Asia. We’re starting with Chinese cuisine simply because it has also played a big role in helping to shape other Asian menus.
Chinese cuisine is an important part of Chinese culture, which includes cuisine originating from the diverse regions of China, as well as from Chinese people in other parts of the world. Because of the Chinese diaspora and historical power of the country, Chinese cuisine has influenced many other cuisines in Asia, with modifications made to cater to local palates.
The preference for seasoning and cooking techniques of Chinese provinces depend on differences in historical background and ethnic groups. Geographic features including mountains, rivers, forests and deserts also have a strong effect on the local available ingredients, considering climate of China varies from tropical in the south to subarctic in the northeast. Imperial, royal and noble preference also plays a role in the change of Chinese cuisines. Because of imperial expansion and trading, ingredients and cooking techniques from other cultures are integrated into Chinese cuisines over time.
The most praised “Four Major Cuisines” are Chuan, Lu, Yue and Huaiyang, representing West, North, South and East China cuisine correspondingly. Modern “Eight Cuisines” of China are Anhui 徽菜 Huīcài, Cantonese 粤菜 Yuècài, Fujian 闽菜 Mǐncài, Hunan 湘菜 Xiāngcài, Jiangsu 苏菜 Sūcài, Shandong 鲁菜 Lǔcài, Sichuan 川菜 Chuāncài, and Zhejiang 浙菜 Zhècài cuisines.
Color, smell and taste are the three traditional aspects used to describe Chinese food, as well as the meaning, appearance and nutrition of the food. Cooking should be appraised from ingredients used, cuttings, cooking time and seasoning.
Chinese society has always greatly valued gastronomy, and as a result the people developed an extensive study of the subject based on its traditional medical beliefs. Chinese culture initially centered around the North China Plain. The first domesticated crops seem to have been the foxtail and broomcorn varieties of millet, while rice was cultivated in the south. By 2000 BC, wheat had arrived from western Asia. These grains were typically served as warm noodle soups instead of baked into bread as in Europe. Nobles hunted various wild game and consumed mutton, pork and dog as these animals were domesticated. Grain was stored against famine and flood and meat was preserved with salt, vinegar, curing, and fermenting. The flavor of the meat was enhanced by cooking it in animal fats though this practice was mostly restricted to the wealthy.
By the time of Confucius in the late Zhou, gastronomy had become a high art. Confucius discussed the principles of dining: “The rice would never be too white, the meat would never be too finely cut… When it was not cooked right, man would not eat. When it was cooked bad, man would not eat. When the meat was not cut properly, man would not eat. When the food was not prepared with the right sauce, man would not eat. Although there are plenty of meats, they should not be cooked more than staple food. There is no limit for alcohol, before a man gets drunk.”
During Shi Huangdi’s Qin dynasty, the empire expanded into the south. By the time of the Han Dynasty, the different regions and cuisines of China’s people were linked by major canals and leading to a greater complexity in the different regional cuisines. Not only is food seen as giving “qi”, energy, but food is also about maintaining yin and yang. The philosophy behind it was rooted in the I Ching and Chinese traditional medicine: food was judged for color, aroma, taste, and texture and a good meal was expected to balance the Four Natures (‘hot’, warm, cool, and ‘cold’) and the Five Tastes (pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Salt was used as a preservative from early times, but in cooking was added in the form of soy sauce, and not at the table. The predominance of chopsticks and spoons as eating utensils also necessitated that most food be prepared in bite-sized pieces or (as with fish) be so tender that it could be easily picked apart.
As Varied as the People Themselves
A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine but perhaps the best known and most influential are Cantonese cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Jiangsu cuisine (specifically Huaiyang cuisine) and Sichuan cuisine. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as availability of resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyle. One style may favour the use of garlic and shallots over chili and spices, while another may favour preparing seafood over other meats and fowl. Jiangsu cuisine favours cooking techniques such as braising and stewing, while Sichuan cuisine employs baking.
Based on the raw materials and ingredients used, the method of preparation and cultural differences, a variety of foods with different flavors and textures are prepared in different regions of the country. Many traditional regional cuisines rely on basic methods of preservation such as drying, salting, pickling and fermentation.
Across China you’ll find a diverse array of dishes and ingredients and preparation techniques. This is part of what makes Chinese cuisine so interesting. As well, Chinese cuisine has had a major impact on the menus of other Asia destinations. Chinese immigrants helped to shape the food served in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and many more countries.