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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Taste the Exotic Orient in Chinese Cooking

Chinese Cuisine: The diversity of cooking styles in China developed through centuries of incorporating locally available ingredients, taking time to prepare, and making every meal a banquet.By Linda Orlando

The vastness of China's geography and history are reflected in the diverse styles of Chinese cuisine available today. The art and pageantry of traditional Chinese cooking evolved over centuries through a succession of dynasties, and palace banquets were very important to the royalty. Meals could last up to three days or longer, and during the feast much discussion would take place about critical government issues. Fish, deer, and pork were the mainstays of these dinners, along with a variety of exotic desserts rich in flavor.

Today, Chinese cuisine is a favorite in many western countries. To understand the different varieties of Chinese food, it is best to divide Chinese cuisine into the four major regions of China. The northern region spreads into Mongolia, home to the Gobi Desert and Arctic winter winds. Because many people in this region are Muslim, pork is forbidden, so the diet is heavy with mutton and lamb. The vegetables and fruits used in Mongolian cooking—cabbage, squash, grapes, pears, and apples—are very like those grown in North America. Because of its hostile climate, the north is not amenable to rice cultivation, so wheat, barley, millet, and soybeans are used in making breads and noodles.

To the west are the mountainous Szechwan and Hunan provinces, where rice grows abundantly, as do citrus fruits, bamboo, and mushrooms. These varieties of Chinese cooking are well known for their spiciness, due to the locally grown chilies and the local residents’ fondness for highly seasoned meals. Distinctively different from all other Chinese cuisines, Szechwan and Hunan varieties developed through the centuries in this fertile region and absorbed many influences from non-Chinese lands to the southwest. Ginger, onions, garlic, and brown peppercorns are regular additions, and a good Szechwan cook creates subtly seasoned masterpieces with them. Although Szechwan food is notorious today for its heat, there are some who say the spiciness of the food was originally developed by cooks who needed to use hot and spicy seasonings to mask the taste of foods that rotted quickly in the heat.

To the east of Hunan lies "the land of fish and rice." Like the west in latitude, it has the added bonus of lowlands for rice cultivation and a coastal region for fish. The three East China Sea provinces, together with their two adjacent inland provinces, make up what is called the Eastern School of Chinese cuisine. Because hundreds of different regional and village recipes from these provinces were brought into the dominant port city of Shanghai, "Shanghainese" cuisine is now the most diverse style of cooking in China. Stewing, braising and frying are common, as well as the slow "red cooking" techniques that necessitate quick eating before the hot oiliness turns into something less appetizing. Breads, noodles and dumplings are eaten more frequently than rice, and seafood is often served in salted form.

Canton is perhaps the most famous of the four Chinese provinces known for its food, which is generally recognized to be the finest and has been considered so for centuries. The seasons are mild, wet, and warm for most of the year, which creates a perfect environment for cultivating just about anything. Rolling groves and gardens are fertile and full of fruits and vegetables, and ample fresh seafood is available on the coast. Canton cooking methods and recipes are sophisticated and varied. Characterized by lots of steaming and boiling, this style is perhaps the healthiest and the most widely known outside China. Since the local produce is so lush, the judicious use of natural oils and garnishes highlights its freshness, relying less on intense sauces and deep-frying and concentrating more on the basic flavors of the food rather than smothering the fresh ingredients. Desserts, generally of little interest to the Cantonese, are typically heavy and sweet. Throughout history, the Cantonese made an art out of a necessity, and in times of hardship they used every part of an animal, fish, or vegetable. As a result, nothing is allowed to go to waste in a Cantonese kitchen, and no animal is taboo. A famous saying among Cantonese cooks is that the only thing with four legs a man should not eat is a table!

Classical aesthetics dictate the form and order of many eating customs in China, no matter what variety of cooking you enjoy. The concepts of the yin and the yang govern the choice of food, combinations, timing, and order of each dish. It is not an exaggeration to say that most Chinese, rich and poor alike, are gourmets—at least in the sense that they really enjoy good food, and every meal is a banquet.
By Buzzle Staff and Agencies

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