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Chinese cuisine

Chinese cuisine

Chinese cuisine is one of the oldest and most diverse cuisines in the world. Two thousand years before the beginning of our era, people there ate noodles. Even today each province – there are twenty-three in total – has its own cooking style, based on regional ingredients and preferences. These range from wildly picked greens in the mountains and fresh, salty seafood on the northeast coast to the light, sweet accents of Cantonese cuisine. In Central China, where chilli peppers are rampant, people love hot spicy food, while in Beijing, lamb is a favourite.

Chinese variety

What all Chinese people have in common is that they like variety. Just as in Indian and Indian cuisines, China also always serves multiple dishes per meal – even on a normal weekday evening. If it is a banquet, then all the stops are pulled out. Since many dishes already contain a sweet element, desserts are unimportant. You won’t see dessert appear on the table very often.

In Europe, we are most familiar with, and love, Cantonese cuisine from the province of Guangdong in the southeast of the country. Cantonese dishes, including chow mein and barbecue ribs, are often slightly sweet. Ingredients are stewed or braised and the sauces are mild because there are not many strong seasonings involved. The aim of the Cantonese chef is to preserve the original taste of the ingredient used, be it meat, vegetables or fruit. Because relatively little sugar, fat or dairy products are used, Cantonese food is also fairly slimming.

A little bit weird

Chinese soup

Where our concept of tasty is mainly related to the taste of a dish, the Chinese are intrigued by texture. The more crunchy, tougher, more fibrous or chewier an ingredient, the more interesting and, therefore, tastier it is found. It seems that the Chinese are fond of things that we would hardly call edible: shark fins in shark fin soup, for example, duck feet, snakes and fish entrails. And if an ingredient has a special texture but a bad taste, it’s not a problem. The unpleasant taste is first extracted by cooking the thing for a long time, and then it is nicely flavoured with favourite Chinese seasonings such as hoisin sauce, garlic or five-spice powder.

Typical ingredients

The taste base of many Chinese dishes consists of garlic, ginger, five-spice powder (star anise, cinnamon, clove, Sichuan pepper, fennel seed) and roasted sesame oil, made from white sesame seeds. Fermented products such as soy sauce, rice vinegar, Shaoxing rice wine and fermented bean paste have a strong taste and aroma and are usually used in small quantities or processed into a dip, with the aim of adding a savoury dose of umami. Sichuan peppercorns, also called flour pepper, are typical for Chinese cuisine. These citrus-like grains are not actually pepper grains but the skin of a very small fruit. They are processed in salt, fried in oil until they release their aroma, or roasted in the wok and sprinkled over dishes. Pork has traditionally been the main meat ingredient of Chinese cuisine. Pigs were the first animals that were farmed for food. When Chinese people referred to meat, they were actually always talking about pork. And pork is still the star of many dishes, including cha sieuw and siu mai. It is stewed, stir-fried, steamed and fried.

Chinese food in Europe

Wherever there are historical Chinese populations, there are regional adaptations to traditional Chinese recipes. This has led to significant developments in fusion cuisines across Europe and beyond. Today, Chinese food is known and loved as one of the continent’s most popular cuisines. It is widely available in supermarkets, while most towns have at least one Chinese restaurant offering extensive menus ranging from Cantonese to Szechuan. Well-known dishes include crispy duck with plum sauce, shredded spring onion, cucumber and pancakes; sweet and sour pork; chicken chow mein; beef in black bean sauce, and spring rolls.

Chinese table manners

Chinese dishes

• The guest of honour or the head of the family is in charge at the table. As long as he or she remains standing, nobody can sit. And no one can start eating until he or she does.

• If you eat with a group in a restaurant, the numerous dishes are often placed on a turntable that sits on the table. This allows everyone to turn the desired dish towards themselves and transfer something from the bowl or dish into their own bowl.

• To prevent spills, you can raise the bowl of food to your mouth. Pick it up with your thumb and three fingers; the bowl should not touch the palm of the hand. Do not bend over the bowl, but sit up straight. Bending forward is considered rude and is also believed to be bad for the digestive system.

• Knives are seen as violent instruments and do not belong on the table. The Chinese eat everything with chopsticks.

For beginners

If you are new to Chinese cuisine, try the following dishes and you will get a good overview of what the country has to offer:

Soup
Crab and sweetcorn soup – The perfect blend of sweet and spicy, crab and sweetcorn soup is a favourite item that can be found on the menu of most restaurants in the UK.

Main
Roast Pork Chow Mein – A tasty mix of stir-fried egg noodles combined with shredded roast pork and vegetables.

Side dishes
Dim sum – These filled dough packages are actually one-dish dishes and the perfect way to get to know the different flavours of Chinese cuisine. You can expect, among other things, ha kau and siu mai on a mixed dim sum dish.

Dessert
Dumplings – Chinese people do not usually do desserts. However, in a buffet, there are often sweet treats hidden between all the savoury things, such as in dumplings.

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