IT IS fascinating to learn of the myriad of influences which through the ages have produced the exotic dishes of contemporary Chines cuisine. China is one of the largest countries in the world, but only 9 percent of the land is arable.Little food combined with a scarcity of fuel are the major impetuses in the evolution of the Chinese cuisine.
With the paucity of harvest, the Chinese had to find ways to use anything edible, and they did. They found uses for fungi, flower stems, plant shots and plant roots which not only made them edible, but transformed them into an appealing and appetizing food. Many of their ingredients are unknown in the western world of cooking.
With fuel scarce, the Chinese developed ways to cook that required little of it. Chopping food into small uniform pieces and cooking rapidly over intense heat conserved fuel and enhanced the taste of the small amount of meat available. Vegetables predominate in Chinese cuisine. Most recipes were devised to use meat as sparingly as possible, often as just a flavoring rather than as a main ingredient.
Predictably, a very imaginative, highly nutritious vegetarian cuisine evolved. The scientific study of vegetables is actually a part of Taoism, and some of the dishes they created are simply ingenious. They resemble meat in texture as well as taste.
The Chinese attitude toward food bears some similarity to that of the French. Esthetics play an important role. Each food is valued for its own taste, aroma, texture and color and the way it's interplayed with a combination of other foods.
A traditional Chinese family meal consists of five or six dishes that are all served at the same time. If a soup is served, it is as an accompaniment to the main dishes unlike the way it is served to occidentals in Chinese restaurants. The appearance of each dish is important. All the pieces on a platter are cut to uniform size and shape but two dishes never look alike. If one dish is sliced, another will be diced, or minced, or shredded. The dishes are intended to compliment each other in every way.
Chinese cuisine has a remarkable range, marked by regional differences. Cantonese food is the most popular in the Western world and is one of the most varied of the regional cuisines. Canton has always been the wealthiest province in China, with a subtropical climate and very fertile soil. Cantonese cuisine is the lightest, and uses fruits and fruit juices in many meat and savory dishes. Canton, situated in the province of Kwangtung, has over a thousand miles of coastline and abundant seafood.
The Cantonese use a technique called explosive frying which is a popular way of cooking lobsters. After frying the lobster with the flavorings, the heat is increased until it is intense. When a cup of sauce is pured over the lobster, there are loud cracking sounds and the sauce penetrates the cracked shell of the lobster.
Szechuan style cooking is rapidly becoming a popular as Cantonese. Szechuan and Hunan are both located on fertile basins of the Yangtze River and their cuisines are strikinly similar. Both are characterized by hot and spicy flavorings. Szechuan peppers are very strong and very hot, and give this region's cooking its sharp tanginess. From Hunan comes another explosive cooking technique -- explosive braising. In Szechuan, a popular method of frying is splash frying.Ingredients are hung over a wok of boiling oil and constantly splashed with the hot oil until cooked.
Shanghai is located at the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and is one of the largest cities in the world. During the 1930s and '40s, Shanghai was one of the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities in China and was renowned for its fine cuisine. An abundance of vegetables, fresh water fish, shrimp and crabs influenced the cooking of this port city. The dishes are delicately seasoned and use light sauces. Food is cooked so that the natural flavor of the main ingredient is enhanced, rather than blended with the other ingredients and seasonings. Cooking techniques are simple, as are the dishes. Salt and pepper are frequently used as the only seasoning. Soup-type dishes are popular and are cooked by steaming in a closed vessel. Crystal sugar, unrefined sugar crystals, are used in the preparation of many dishes, including pork, ham and fish. The shrimp and crab dishes are usually sweeter than in any other part of China.
Peking is to Chinese food what Paris is to French food -- the culinary center of the nation. Peking was inhabited by aristocrats and emperors and has always been China's intellectual and cultural center. Naturally, the best resturants in the country were found in Peking. Some of the finest dishes of this area are part of the Palace Cuisine, and include Peking duck and royal concubine chicken. Soybean paste (soy sauce in solid form) is used in stir-frying pork or chicken and brings out the flavor of the ingredients with which it is cooked. It is also used as part of the sauce brushed on the pancakes for wrapping Peking duck.
The Peking hot pot, or Mongolian hot pot dates back to the Genghis Khan takeover of northern China in the 13th century. Hot pots guests do their own cooking in small metal strainers in a hot broth. A fire pot fueled by charcoal is popular in other areas of China as well. In the north, the Mongolian hot pot uses only thinly sliced lamb which is cooked in a broth flavored with scallions and garlic and dipped into various sauces. The Cantonese version is a chrysanthemum fire pot, and uses all kinds of meat, vegetables and fish.
Fukien is in the southern coastal region of China, and its dishes are characteristically soupy and light. This region is famous for "red cooking," braising large pieces of meat or whole chickens in a mixture of soy sauce, stock and wine. Red cooking is a very slow cooking method, and depending on the cut of meat used, can take from one to six hours. The use of slow steady heat keeps the liquid in the pan from evaporating. Foods cooked in this way are deeply colored by the soy sauce and remain moist and juicy. A delicious gravy, thick and richly flavored, results from the simmering sauce.
Chopsticks are not as tricky to manage as they look. They are made of various materials, including ivory, coral, plastics, even silver. The bamboo chopsticks are the most inexpensive and versatile. They can be used for cooking, mixing and beating since they can withstand high temperatures and don't impart any taste to the food.
Learning to use chopsticks takes just a little practice. Place your fingers around the lower middle of the chopstick, between the thumb, index and middle fingers. The lower chopstick remains stationary between the middle of the thumb and the index finger, resting against the middle finger. The top chopstick is manipulated by the index finger and the thumb to form a V and to grasp the food. Use firm and steady pressure to hold the food with the chopsticks while transporting it from the plate to your mouth. Rice is eaten by using the chopsticks as scoopers, slipping them under the rice to life them. The bowl is held close to the face, the rice can be scooped into the mouth more easily.