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Numerous cultures are scattered around the world today, and among one of the oldest cultures is the Chinese culture. China has a known history of over 4000 years and has been through more than 15 dynasties. Due to its broad history and an isolated natural geography, it has accumulated a rich culture with its own unique characteristics different from others. Among its culture, food takes a huge part of it. Going through the history, Chinese food has evolved from basic cooking to a very complex part of the Chinese culture. (Chinese History, 2005)
The Differences between Different Regions
China covers a vast area of land, and although there are many similarities among those people who live on it, different regional cultures still have their own characteristics. We will first divide China into four main areas: Beijing (North), Canton (South), Shanghai (East), and Szechuan (West). Later, we will further divide it into 8 regions for a more detailed view of the Chinese food culture. (Parkinson)
In the northern China, people eat flour products made from wheat as their main source of food due greatly to their local culture. They do so because their harsh weather condition doesn't allow rice to be grown. The winters are freezing cold, and summers are hot and very dry. That forced them to grow the easier grown food, wheat, which created the unique characteristic for northern Chinese cuisine. Today, common food from the north includes: dumplings, noodles, steamed buns, etc. (ChineseHomeCooking.Com, 2005)
In the southern China, unlike the north, their major staple is rice, and they have an abundant supply of vegetables, fruits, and livestock. This is because they have a mild weather and water supply from the river. Also, Canton is just beside the sea and therefore they have an ample supply of shrimps, fish, crabs, etc. As a result, Canton cuisine includes a variety of seafood and in nearly every meal, Cantonese eats rice and vegetables. Cantonese food is well known for its cooking methods. Methods that are frequently used include roasting, boiling, and Steaming. A famous dish called congee originated from southern China and later spread throughout China. Other famous food from this place includes Dim sum, which are famous food from the south served on little plates on wheel-carts. (ChineseHomeCooking.Com, 2005)
In the eastern China, people eat both rice and flour-made foods. Because the weather is excellent for agriculture, and there is Yangtze River for irrigation, this region has the greatest rice production compared with other regions in China. Due to this, rice is used by the people in many creative ways. They make rice into rice wine for beverage or seasoning, or they use rice to make desserts. One distinct characteristic for eastern Chinese food is its use of red-cooking. It is a cooking technique in which you use soy sauce to season your food, causing it to turn into the dark red color. In addition, a fairly large amount of sugar is added, giving it a sweet taste. Similar to Canton, the eastern China has access to both sea and river and therefore seafood is common. Keeping it fresh and retaining its natural taste is important for eastern Chinese cuisine, so therefore cooks there favor to cook by braising, stewing, and roasting. (ChineseHomeCooking.Com, 2005)
Finally, in the western China, the best representative would be Szechuan's cuisine. Szechuan is a basin surrounded by mountain and therefore isolated from the rest of China since long time ago. It has a temperate warm, but humid climate all year, so agriculture is very successful there. Spices, vegetables, and other terrestrial material are common. Because Szechuan is nowhere near sea, it doesn't have as much seafood as compared to Canton or Shanghai. Szechuan is known for its spicy hot food. Most of their food contains a lot of spice and chilly, and is usually dry and without sauce. This is due to their cultural belief. According to the local people they believe that spicy food helps you sweat and when your sweat precipitates, it brings the heat away so you will instead feel cool. On top of that, sweat brings away toxics and helps keep you healthy. Also, they believe that spicy food "stimulate one's palate to be able to indulge the different tantalizing flavors presented in Szechuan cuisine." (ChineseHomeCooking.Com, 2005) Unlike other regions, Szechuan people focus on techniques that can preserve food because of their humid climate. "Salting, drying, smoking and pickling are popular methods used by households." (ChineseHomeCooking.Com, 2005)
Festivals and food
Chinese culture includes many festivals, and foods have a great association with it. Over thousands of years, Chinese people have developed a large number of festivals to please the Gods and to celebrate; foods take a great part in it. In Chinese, a single pronunciation can be represented by a lot of word characters. Most of the time people will eat the food that have the same pronunciation as something that symbols good fortune. Foods that are prepared for Chinese New Year, such as year cake and fish, are perfect examples. Nian gao, or the so called year cake, is one of the foods that Chinese have to eat during New Year's Festival. It is made of steamed glutinous rice. In Chinese "gao" means high and "nian" means year, this dish is a symbolization of getting better, climb to a higher position each year. "Nian" is also the pronunciation for sticking together. Chinese families will eat it while wishing the family will be together forever. Another food that will definitely be on the table is Fa gao. It is a cup cake like dessert made of flour, sugar and yeast. "Fa" is the word for raising and earning money in Chinese. Fish is one interesting dish that will be eaten during New Year. It is interesting because it will be placed on the table but cannot be eaten by anyone. The reason is that fish's pronunciation is "yu," which is the same as left over. Chinese people don't eat it because they wish something is left for them every year. The long history of China also influences their food cultures a lot as we will soon see.
Historical events helped created many festivals today, along with the traditional foods that come with it. The Dragon boat festival and Moon festival are the two well known examples. The famous food Zhonzi, or the rice dumplings, was originally made to prevent fish from eating the body of great poet, Qu Yuan, who jumped into the river; however, it is now a remembrance for his death and eaten during the Dragon boat festival. Moon cakes are for the Moon festival, the day which emperors used to pray to the moon. Ancient Chinese made it according to the shape of full moon and carved symbols of good luck on it.
Some ancient tales also have something to do with Chinese food culture. Take Dragon boat festival as an example. People drink Shun Huan wine on Dragon boat festival to keep the snake woman Bai Suchen away. It was recorded in an old story that a monk used that wine to turn Suchen back to her original form. Shun Huan wine is a kind of medicated wine, the strong scent can keep away many bugs and insects, as well as snakes and other poisonous animals. The original reason to drink Shun Huan wine was to keep people safe during May, the hottest month that attracts a lot of bugs, especially for those who work in mountains. Other festivals also have their own stories that are related to the things Chinese people do or eat on that day, but there are practical reasons behind it. (The Chinese Festivals, 1-6)
Dining may be counted as one of the most important thing in Chinese culture and much etiquette is expected to follow. Chinese regard themselves as the country of decorum, so their respect to others, especially to elders, is an absolute manner. Before entering the seat, the guest or the elders will always be asked to sit first and on the so called "host seat." In China, people have to use chopsticks, spoons, bowls and plates to dine. Unlike western countries which use knife and forks made out of steel, Chinese people use chopsticks made from bamboo and porcelain spoons. "This is related to Confucianism, knife and fork are considering violence, like cold weapons. On the other hand, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence." (1) People hold chopsticks in one hand but it is impolite to put the other hand under the table in Chinese culture. When eating, it is important to hold up the rice bowl in the other hand instead of placing it on the table. People will think you are rude if you put your elbow up on the table, especially when it takes up other people's space, since Chinese eat in round tables. Chinese foods are placed in a large plate for everyone, and taking more food while there are still some remaining food in your bowl is very impolite. It is also forbidden to use your own chopsticks to dig around in the public plate searching for the thing you want. Many rules are made for dining in Chinese culture, but it is sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand, even for younger generations in China.
Tea, Liquor, Herbal medicine and Food
Tea is the most common drink in China for over thousands of years, people drink it almost everyday. Every Chinese restaurant offers tea and they do have special reasons. The most obvious one is because tea can neutralize the seasonings of the food; it can also refresh the breath. The main reason for Chinese people though, is that they see drinking tea as a way to calm and relax. In ancient times, tea is counted as a type of herbal medicine. Nowadays Chinese have developed their special drinking cultures. Different types of food are served with different kinds of tea. For example, when eating Sichuan cuisine, which has a stronger flavor, light flavored teas are offered. On the other hand, when eating foods that are lightly flavored, stronger tea such as Tie Guan Yin is usually served. (Tea, Food and Dining. 1)
Drinking liquor may also count as a special food culture for China. Many famous meals require wine as an important seasoning, and whenever people gather for dining, liquors are often provided. Chinese wine usually have a strong scent. People from southern area drink often to keep themselves warm. Chinese people have been trying to find a way to live a long life. An emperor, Qin Shi Huang, even seek medicine that can let him live forever. Chinese have their unique ways to have a healthier life, and one of them is associated with their food culture. In a famous ancient article, Ben Tsao Jing, it listed most of the plants that have special functions to treat illness and many of them have been used as food ingredients. Chinese even have special medicated dishes that include tea and liquor which can keep you healthy using sources from nature. Chinese believes that all foods have its special potency. Some foods will affect your body in some ways, and it can be neutralize by another type of food. Tea is an example for this.
Over the years, Chinese food has been evolving from the traditional household food into a more novel and creative food but still retaining the traditional ideas and flavor. Food continues taking a great part for Chinese people's life and is a symbol for Chinese culture. Nowadays, Chinese people might be losing the old traditional values or had forgotten the meaning of the festivals, but through eating Chinese cuisine, you can search back the values and it can remind you of the festivals. Although many regions are isolated by natural barriers and therefore developed unique cuisines, they are all still sharing a characteristic in that they are made by Chinese people with all their hearts.
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ChineseHomeCooking.Com. (2005). The regional cuisines of Chinese cooking (Part 4 of 4). Retrieved February 9, 2011, from ChineseHomeCooking.Com: http://www.chinesehomecooking.com/articles/regionalcuisine4.htm
Chinese Chef Agency. (2007.) Table Manners. (p. 1,2)
Retrieved February 8, 2011