Chinese Food

“To the people, food is foremost”

“To the ruler, people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven”.

“Every home must have firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea”.

“Food is the first necessity”. Confucius.

Above are four classic sayings about the importance of food in the Chinese culture. Food is embedded in the Chinese culture and many philosophers, emperors and writers have extolled the importance of food as an indispensable part of Chinese life. The preoccupation with food is reflected in the spoken language, for example one of the most commonly heard questions to begin a discussion is ni(3)chi(1)le ma – ‘have you eaten’ The Chinese love to eat. From the market-stall buns, dumplings and soup through to the intricate variations of regional cookery China boasts one of the world’s greatest cuisines. It is popular across the world and one often hears people saying ‘let’s go for a Chinese or Cantonese’. Cities and towns have restaurants and takeaways carrying names like Wok this Way, The Great Wok of China etc.

Ancient China created a unified model of the universe that incorporates all aspects of existence, both material and spiritual. The model includes the Yin(1)-Yang(2) theory which is concerned with the creation of the universe and the Five Elements theory which further explains its structure. These theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements have had a significant influence on the Chinese people’s attitude towards food. Yang represents active force, heat and light while Yin represents the receptive force, cold and darkness. These two opposing interactions and are complementary and create the material world. For food Yang(2) is meat and Yin(1) is grain. A complete meal consists of both grain and cooked dishes which creates a balance between Yin(1) and Yang(2) giving rise to a balanced nutritional experience.

Over the years a number of cooking styles have been identified. References have been made to the Twelve Great, the Eight Great or the Four Great Cuisines. The Eight Great Cuisines are Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang and Hunan. At present it is generally acknowledged that there are four main Chinese cuisines. These are Shandong, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Guangdong (Cantonese) styles each of which encompasses thousands of different dishes many of which have been altered to reflect local tastes. In addition to these Four Great Cuisines there are many regional variations. These variations arise from such factors as availability of ingredients, climate, lifestyle and geography and technological developments which give rise to wide differences in taste, etiquette and eating habits across China. For example people on the China’s south eastern coast like to eat fish yu(2) and shellfish bei(4)lei(1), while people from the inland plateau prefer meat rou(4) and poultry qin(2)rou(4). Over thousands of years these regional differences have developed into many distinctive culinary traditions.

Many commentators argue that Chinese food in the south and east tends to be sweet, salty in the north, sour in the west and spicy in the west and central.

Traditionally there are Five Flavours in Chinese cooking namely sweet- tian(2), sour-suan(1), bitter-ku(3), spicy-la(4) and salty-xian(2). The Five Flavours also correspond to the Five Elements which classify the world into five categories as shown below:

Five Elements






Five Flavours






There are approximately 500 different condiments in Chinese cooking falling into nine classifications bitter, bland, fresh, numbing, salty, savoury, sour, sweet and spicy. When cooking Chinese food the art is in the choice and blend of the ingredients to create a mixture of compatible yet contrasting appearances, colours, aromas, flavours and textures. Everything must be fresh and clean and there should always be bitter, salty, spicy sour and sweet.

Globally people eat in three different ways namely with their hands, with knives and forks, and with chopsticks kua(4)zhi. Chopsticks were invented in China and are a key characteristic of eating food. The most common food in ancient times was a thick broth known as geng (1) composed of grains, vegetables and meat. Chopsticks were ideal for lifting the vegetables and meat out of the broth. Also the Chinese soup spoon is designed to pick up small vegetables and meat. The first record of chopsticks is from around 3,000 years ago in Records of the Grand Historian which stated that King Zhou used them.

Again great significance attaches to chopsticks kua(4)zhi; even their shape carries important statements. The ends of the chopsticks are round at one end and square at the other end. Round signifies the heaven tian(1) and the square the earth tu(3) so when you hold the chopsticks you are between heaven and earth!

Chinese cooking equipment requires very few utensils but an essential one is the wok guo(1). Wok is a Cantonese word and means ‘cooking pot’. It is a cross between a saucepan and a frying pan and has been developed over several thousand years. The wok is used to deep fry, stir fry and steam food. There is a special utensil for the steaming process.

Vegetarianism has an important in China dating back several thousand years and statistics show that there are over 600 different vegetables, more than six times as many as in the West. The vegetarian cuisine includes bamboo products, fungi, grains, greens, legumes, roots, soybean and other vegetables. There is also a very wide variety of cooking techniques involving deep-frying, stir frying, steaming, stewing, braising, boiling, roasting to create a dishes such as soups, stews, tofu based dishes etc.

In China meat dishes are usually sliced and cut into small pieces which are then cooked with vegetables. This is in contrast to Western cooking where meat is often presented in large pieces such as in chicken, pork chops and steaks.

A traditional meal consists of two parts called fan(4)cai(4). This simply means that one half consists of fan(4) or the staple grain such as rice, noodles mian(4)tiao(2) or dumplings jiao(3)zi, and the other half consists of cai(4) which is anything else such as fish, meat, poultry and vegetable dishes. A typical meal is composed of a soup, one fan(4) dish and three or four cai(4) dishes. Each dish is complementary e.g. a spicy dish with a mild one, a crisp dish with a soft one, a moist dish with a dry one etc.

Soups consist of a clear broth with lots of delicious chucks of fish, meat and vegetables shu(1)cai(4). The Chinese actually serve the soup tang(1) between courses and sometimes at the end of the meal.

China has many rivers and a large coastline and as a result the Chinese eat large amounts of seafood and freshwater fish.

Chicken ji(1)rou(4) and duck ya(1)rou(4) are very popular in China and so there are numerous recipes for them. The most famous one is Peking /Beijing Roast Duck. Lamb yang(2)rou4) is also popular and to a lesser extent beef niu(2)rou(4).

The most popular meat is pork zhu(1)rou(4) which features in many well-regarded recipes such as Sweet and Sour, Spare ribs and Chop Suey.

It is not the custom in China to serve puddings or sweet dishes with every-day meals and so there is a limited range of Chinese deserts dian(3)xin(1). One can end a meal with a fruit salad usually served in a melon shell or fresh or canned lychees or ice cream. There are also some special deserts including Pandan Chiffon Cake and Fruit Salad with Almond Jelly.

The most popular drink yin(3)liao(4) that accompany the food is tea cha(2) in all forms, green, black, red and flower-scented varieties. Equally popular is beer pi(2)jiu(3) especially amongst young males. Wine jiu(3) is increasingly becoming popular and China is developing its own vine yards and at present imports a great deal of wine from abroad. Bottled water shui(3) is also popular and many varieties of soft drinks are imported. Spirits are available in supermarkets. According to Chinese etiquette when filling someone’s tea cup, it should be filled to seven tenths of its capacity. With pouring wine or other alcoholic drink, the glass should be filled to eight tenths of its capacity. This is known as cha(2)qi(1)jiu(3)ba(1) meaning tea seven, wine eight.

Street food and night markets are very popular with the Chinese and tourists, many arguing it is the most real and authentic of the cuisine. It consists of a number of distinctive categories: shao(1)kao(3) meaning barbecue, ma(2)la(4)tang(4) meaning numb and spicy soup, bing(3) describing all kinds of wheat flour-based breads and cakes and shui(3)jiao(3) meaning dumplings. Eating street food is an enjoyable and great experience in China.

It is said that the Chinese eat anything; while not strictly true they enjoy a very broad range of items. A rather cruel joke is that the Chinese eat everything with wings except aeroplanes and everything with legs expect tables. China has suffered many periods of drought and famine and had to resort to eating anything that they could get. Edible plant products include all sorts of grains, vegetables, numerous herbs, fruits, flowers and fungi.

Another facet of Chinese eating is the love of snacks from xiao(3) chi(1) / dian(3(xin(1) which means small eats of Sichuan to the dimsum of Hong Kong. The words dimsum means ‘heart’s delight’ or ‘to touch the heart’ beyond Hong Kong it is called dian(3)xin(1).  Cooking techniques for dimsum include steaming, poaching, shallow or deep frying. It is eaten throughout China but the best selection is located in the South and it is a popular choice across the world.

The shape of certain foods have symbolic meanings. Mooncakes and yuan(2)xiao(1) sweet dumplings areround, symbolising the moon and family reunions. Jiao(3)zi dumplings filled with vegetables shu(1)cai(2) and meat rou(2) are shaped like gold and silver ingots symbolising wealth and prosperity. Noodles mian(4) are long and symbolise longevity.

Like many people I really like eating Chinese food in all its varieties. Eating in China is very different than in other countries – both in terms of the wider range of ingredients, taste and etiquette but always a great experience.

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