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In ancient China, hunting and foraging supplied much of the food. Wild game, such as deer, elk, boar, muntjac (a small deer), wolf, quail, and pheasant, was eaten, along with beef, mutton, and pork. Vegetables such as royal fern, smartweed, and the leafy thistle (Sonchus) were picked off the land. Meats were preserved by salt-curing, pounding with spices, or fermenting in wine. To provide a contrast in flavours the meat was fried in the fat of a different animal.

As Chinese agriculture developed, styles of food were determined to a great degree by the natural resources available in certain parts of the country, thus the vastly different manners of cooking and the development of distinctive regional cuisines of China. As a more varied fare began to emerge, tastes grew more refined. By the time of Confucius (551-479 BC) gastronomes of considerable sophistication had appeared on the scene. Confucius wrote of one of these fastidious eaters:

For him the rice could never be white enough. When it was not cooked right, he would not eat. When the food was not in season, he would not eat. When the meat was not cut correctly, he would not eat. When the food was not served with the proper sauce, he would not eat.

Emergence of a cuisine

Like all other forms of haute cuisine, classic Chinese cooking is the product of an affluent society. By the 2nd century AD the Chinese court had achieved great splendour, and the complaint was heard that idle noblemen were lounging about all day, feasting on smoked meats and roasts.

By the 10th or 11th century a distinctive cuisine had begun to emerge, one that was developed with great attention to detail. It was to reach its zenith in the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1911/12). This cuisine was a unique blend of simplicity and elegance. The object of cooking and the preparation of food was to extract from each ingredient its unique and most enjoyable quality.

As in the case of the French cuisine, the hors d’oeuvre set the tone of the meal. “The hors d’oeuvre must look neat,” say the Chinese gastronomic authorities Tsuifeng Lin and her daughter Hsiang Ju Lin:

They are best served in matched dishes, each containing one item. Many people like to garnish the dishes with parsley and vegetables cut in the shape of birds, fish, bats, etc., or even to make baskets of flowers from food. These are all acceptable if kept under control, and if the rest of the meal is served in the same florid style. The worst offence would be to start with a florid display of food and then suddenly change style midway.

Common foods and traditions

The theory of balancing fan (grains and rice) with ts’ai (vegetables and meat) is one of the factors that distinguish Chinese gastronomy from that of all other nations. This refined proportion of harmony and symmetry of ingredients was practiced whenever possible in households throughout the ages and is not limited to formal or high cuisine or to meals served on special occasions.

In addition to taste that pleases (a most elemental requirement in China), astrological, geographical, and personal characteristics had to satisfy the complex system of the yin-yang balance of hot and cold, based on Taoist perception of the cosmic equilibrium. According to this theory, every foodstuff possesses an inherent humour; thus, consuming foods and beverages at proper and complementary temperatures can adjust the possible deviation of the normal state of the two intertwining forces.

Certain foods and culinary traditions are prevalent throughout most of the country. Rice is the staple except in the north, where wheat flour takes its place. Fish is extremely important in all regions. Pork, chicken, and duck are widely consumed, as well as large quantities of such vegetables as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and bean sprouts. The Chinese season their dishes with monosodium glutamate and soybean sauce, which takes the place of salt. Another distinctive feature of Chinese cooking is the varied and highly imaginative use of fat, which is prepared in many different ways and achieves the quality of a true delicacy in the hands of a talented Chinese cook. The Chinese take tea with their meals, whether green or fermented. Jasmine tea is served with flowers and leaves in small-handled cups.

The great Chinese schools

Traditionally, China is divided into five gastronomic regions, three of which are characterized by the great schools of Chinese cooking, Peking, Szechwan, and Chekiang-Kiangsu. The other two regions, Fukien and Kwangtung, are of lesser importance from a gastronomic point of view.

Peking is the land of fried bean curd and water chestnuts. Among foods traditionally sold by street vendors are steamed bread and watermelon seeds. Vendors also dispensed buns called paotse that were stuffed with pork and pork fat, and chiaotse, or crescents, cylindrical rolls filled with garlic, cabbage, pork, scallions, and monosodium glutamate. Wheat cakes wrapped around a filling of scallions and garlic, and noodles with minced pork sauce are also traditional Peking specialties. But the greatest of all delicacies of this region is of course the Peking duck. This elaborate, world-renowned dish requires lengthy preparation and is served in three separate courses. In its preparation, the skin is first puffed out from the duck by introducing air between the skin and the flesh. The duck is then hung out to dry for at least 24 hours, preferably in a stiff, cold breeze. This pulls the skin away from the meat. Then the duck is roasted until the skin is crisp and brown. The skin is removed, painted with Hoisin sauce (a sweet, spicy sauce made of soybeans), and served inside the folds of a bun as the first course. The duck meat is carved from the bones and carefully cut into slivers. Sautéed onions, ginger, and peppers are added to the duck meat and cooked with bean sprouts or bamboo slivers. This forms the second course. The third course is a soup. The duck bones are crushed and then water, ginger, and onion are added to make a broth. The mixture is boiled, then drained, and the residue is cooked with cabbage and sugar until the cabbage is tender.

The cooking of Szechwan in central China is distinguished by the use of hot peppers, which are indigenous to the region. The peppers lend an immediate sensation of fiery hotness to the food, but, once this initial reaction passes, a mingled flavour of sweet, sour, salty, fragrant, and bitter asserts itself. Fried pork slices, for example, are cooked with onions, ginger, red pepper, and soy sauce to achieve this aromatic hotness.

The provinces of Chekiang and Kiangsu feature a broad variety of fish—shad, mullet, perch, and prawns. Minced chicken and bean-curd slivers are also specialties of these provinces. Foods are often arranged in pretty floral patterns before serving.

Fukien, which lies farther south, features shredded fish, shredded pork, and popia, or thin bean-curd crepes filled with pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, prawns, and snow peas.

To Americans perhaps, the most familiar form of Chinese cooking is that of Kwangtung, for Canton lies within this coastal province. Mushrooms, sparrows, wild ducks, snails, snakes, eels, oysters, frogs, turtles, and winkles are among the many exotic ingredients of the province. More familiar to Westerners are such Cantonese specialties as egg roll, egg foo yung, and roast pork.

From Album of the Yongzheng Emperor in Costumes, by anonymous court artists, Yongzheng period (1723—35). One of 14 album leaves, colour on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing.
china spring message 
Spring’s Peaceful Message, c. 1736, by Giuseppe Castiglione (Chinese name Lang Shining, 1688—1766). Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. The Palace Museum, Beijing.
Eating and Drinking in China
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  Chinese ivory importers  (sound file)