What do you typically think of when you hear the phrase: ‘Chinese food?’ In the U.S., most towns will have a sprinkling of Chinese takeaway outlets serving the likes of sweet-and-sour chicken, egg-fried rice, beef in black bean sauce. The flavors of these dishes are all too familiar to the West, but authentic Chinese food is a far cry from these well- known dishes in their ingredients and diversity of taste. Inherent in the Chinese understanding of food is its connection to health. Too much hot and spicy food such as garlic, ginger and chilli will make you warm, grumpy and sweaty, maybe constipated and with a swollen tongue. Too much cold food, such as salad, cheese, green tea and beer, will make you pale and weak, cold to the touch and give you poor blood circulation. For the Chinese, a healthy diet is about keeping warm and cold foods in balance, so the body can live in harmony and reflect the symbolism of the ying and yang.
China has a cultural heritage spanning thousands of years, and cooking was first recognised as an art during the Chou Dynasty, (771–256 BC). Under Confucianism philosophy, there developed an emphasis on the harmony of varied spices and tastes and the importance of bite-sized foods. Since Ancient times, food has symbolised togetherness, and till today it is a vital ingredient in family gatherings or groups of friends getting together to break bread during festivals or everyday life.
“The Northerners eat noodles and the Southerners eat rice” is a phrase commonly heard to broadly classify the staples of the country, but we are going to explore some of the more localised regions’ collections of famous dishes.
Dumplings are perhaps the staple that brings the North and South together. Although dumplings feature in many cuisines, the Chinese cooks have enjoyed a version known as Jiaozi for more than 1,800 years. According to legend, a man named Zhang Zhongjian invented stuffed dumplings during the Han Dynasty. He found that many of his fellow citizens were suffering from frostbite, particularly around their ears. As a way to solve this problem, Zhang cooked up a batch of mutton, chilli and healing herbs and wrapped them in scraps of dough. He folded the dumplings to look like little ears, boiled them and handed them out to his afflicted neighbours. Today, dumplings are still widely enjoyed.
We’ll begin our journey in the country’s capital: Beijing. As a visitor, you are likely to be encapsulated by the wonder of the awe-inspiring Confucianist architecture in landmarks such as The Forbidden City. Where the emperors once ruled, the food reflects the wealth and abundance of the area. An absolute must to try is the Peking Duck. Some restaurants will give you the option of glazing your own with a sticky honey-based glaze before watching it fizzle and ooze on the spit. You then use the slices to fill a thin pancake, add cucumber and sweet sauce, and the combination is delicious. Polish it off with the famous Wan Dou Huang, a cake made from pea flowers, and Nian Gao, a glutinous rice cake with jam, and Aiwowo, balls made from sweet glutinous rice, sesame and walnut seeds and peach kernels. Then wash it all down with tsingtao beer, a refreshingly mild golden lager from the neighbouring Shangdong province (thanks to German settlers in 1903).
Travelling south a little will eventually bring you to the Jiangsu Province, home to Suzhou, the sister city of Shanghai, the country’s commercial capital. Typically, you will notice tones of sweetness in most of this region’s local dishes. At night, certain areas of the city, such as amongst the ghettos and the small family-run businesses, groups will sit in circles, throb with laughter and enjoy the mouth-watering aromas of barbecued pork, squid and vegetables, thickly coated in peppery goodness.
Without doubt, the most famous dish from the area is the Squirrel fish, fresh from the lake and decoratively cut to create protruding spike-like features, in a brilliantly contrasting sweet/sour, tomato- based sauce.
Squirrel fish of Jiangsu
Returning to the belief in Chinese culture that food is inextricably connected to health and wellbeing, the sweet, Sticky Lotus root dish is a fine example of this, and another of the Jiangsu province’s finest offerings. The root is sliced and stuffed with sticky, glutinous rice, boiled in sugar and served with a sweet sauce made from Osmanthus flower. Lotus root is low in calories and high in fibre, vitamins C and B and minerals. Lotus root can be added to stews, salads, soups, and stir-fried dishes. It can be ground into powder to make drinks, or processed to make lotus starch, which is mixed into drinks and used in Chinese medicine. It’s a significant part of Chinese cuisine, in the same way the potato is to Westerners.
For your breakfasts or light snacks, the street vendors come highly recommended, although they are rarely without a queue, they are well worth the wait for a very cheap but delicious bite. Jidan bings are popular with locals, and consist of a large, thin, wheat-based crêpe, enfolding a deep-fried cracker, an egg, coriander, onions and two to three savoury / spicy sauces.
Jiangsu province hosts China’s second largest freshwater lake: Taihu. Donghsan, a small town on the north-western shores, offers the opportunity to breathe in cool, clean countryside air and sample some delightful products. Here, you can drink in the refreshing juices of the bountiful mandarin oranges, try the organic, pure, succulent honey, and enjoy it all in sweet, faintly fruity tea. In the town you will find small, traditional vendors hand making Youtiao, a deep- fried dough stick, which makes for the perfect, warming breakfast when dunked in Congee, a rice porridge.
Travelling south a little into the Southern Anhui Province after a tough day’s hiking in the forebodingly steep Huangshan mountains (Yellow Mountains), small towns nestled in the foothills offer many a warm, inviting café, serving the region’s top dish: braised, salted, stinky mandarin fish, so-called; Stinky fish, due to its distinctive odour after eight days of fermenting. The skin will have been removed and the fish cooked in an amalgam of soy, ginger, chilli and garlic – fit for an emperor!
Onwards to the subtropical climate of Guangdong, the capital city of which is Guangzhou. This area stretching to Hongkong and Shenzhen forms the Cantonese geographical regions, with its own defined language and food culture. The highly acclaimed finger food, Dimsum, popular across the country due to its delicate, bite-sized pieces is an essential part of any Cantonese table spread. The shrimp-stuffed variety is perhaps the most widely renowned. The star attraction on many a menu is also the barbecued pork, which has been divinely steeped in soy sauce, salt, sugar and Shanxing wine for hours.
The slow, smouldering burn of dried chillies and the pungent bite of raw garlic pull us west, to the Sichuan Province; the home of the pandas, oh, and the spiciest menus in all of China! Peanuts are plentiful and found in many dishes, such as the popular Kung Pau chicken, which will provide each mouthful with a delightful crispy bite with a fiery interlude and sweet undertones. The dry-fried, light and crunchy green beans are a fantastic accompaniment to any dish.
Next door to Sichuan, is Chongqing; birthplace of the hotpot. During its cold winters, it is a common sight in many urban areas for people to gather around a steaming, soup-like dish, sometimes in a specially designed table with a dip in the middle to hold the hot pot. The soup will contain hot pepper, crystalized sugar and wine. The custom is to dip vegetables, or the raw kidney, chicken, tripe, goose intestine, into the soup to cook awhile and eat straight out of the soup’s hot liquor. A highly warming and satisfying experience.
Having unearthed the terracotta warriors a few decades ago, Xi’an in the Shaanxi province is now firmly on any wannabee China visitor’s map. Although the warriors are a fascination, the province offers a dazzling food culture. The term Biang Biang noodles was coined hundreds of years ago to reflect the sound of the dough noodles as the cook would slap them on the countertop while stretching and kneading them. A far cry from the Eastern sweet infusion, this province enjoys a hearty, salty undertone to most staple dishes. The biang biang noodles are usually served with tomato, egg, onion and a variety of vegetables and meat.
With the Muslim quarter embedded in Xi’an’s centre, a unique food culture haven can be found. Top of the list to try is Rou Jia Mo, a warm and savoury shredded lamb in a flaky pastry bun sandwich, a chewy, melty, crispy heaven with every bite. Another must-try is the cold noodles Liangpi, a dish served with shredded cucumber, bean sprouts, garlic, sesame paste and chilli oil.
Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India all border the Xinjiang Province in the north west of China, which therefore has a wide variety of historical, and cultural influence. It is where once the most famous part of The Silk Road passed through. Vastly different ethnically and culturally from the rest of the country, it has its own culinary favorites, so prolific you will find some of the nation’s crème de la crème commonly enjoyed thousands of miles away in the far eastern and southerly reaches of the country. The local Uyghur peoples have tempted the palates of the region’s visitors with the likes of Pollo Zhuafan, a slowly braised rice dish blended with carrots, onions, sometimes raisins, lamb and oil. The spicy pork and lamb kebabs and the Dapanjie, a chicken and potato stew with chunky, flat noodles, closely follow as the region’s favorites.
The people of China are raised with a strong awareness of the significance of a balanced diet and, typically across the nation, tables will be circular so all can sit around and join in the conversation. Each person at the table will have their own small rice bowl and, using chopsticks, will take from the various main dishes in the middle. On particular social occasions or business meetings, all participants will share a toast of Baijiu, a white spirit, and shout Ganbei!, meaning Cheers!. Although so different from the Western ways, once experienced, it never leaves you, and certainly provides an appreciation for collective eating and a reminder of the centrality of food to our well-being and sense of connection to our community.
Author: Hannah Gates