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Regional Chinese Cooking

China is a vast country and as such as exposed to extremes of both geography and climate. This naturally results in the growth of different agricultural products, so it is little wonder that cuisines vary from province to province. Even though there has never been an agreed view on the subject, many cookbooks divide Chinese cuisines into eight main streams: Peking, Shantung, Kiangsu, Anhwei, Kwangtung, Fukien, Szechuan and Hunan; others analyse the sub-regional cuisines within some of these provinces.

One may well ask what constitutes regional differences since there are basic national characteristics underlining all of the regional cuisines. The main cooking methods - boiling, steaming, braising, sauteing, deep-frying and stir-frying - are used by all Chinese, the wok is the national cooking utensil, and soy sauce is a ubiquitous and indispensable seasoning. The differences are subtle, and are related to climate, to local produce, to the mixing and use of different condiments, to the emphasis on a certain technique, and to the manner of presentation.

Peking or Northern Cuisine

This is the largest area, embracing Inner Mongolia, Hopei, Honan, Shantung, Shansi and Shensi provinces. Although Shantung has a more temperate climate, the overall climate of the area is very harsh; Peking itself suffers from extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter, and in the spring suffers from periodic sand storms, blowm in from the Gobi desert.

Wheat, millet, sorghum, peanuts, corn and soy beans are the main crops and Tientsin cabbage, better known as Chinese leaf or Chinese celery, cabbage, cucumber, and celery are the main vegetables grown. Noodles, steamed breads and buns are a more popular staple than rice and, unlike the Southern Chinese who habitually eat their noodles in soup, Northern Chinese eat them on the dry side, seasoned with a sauce.

Food from Inner Mongolia and Shantung forms the backbone of Northern cuisine. The Mongolian influence is reflected in the many lamb dishes eaten, the most famous of which are Mongolian fire pot and lamb slices barbecued on the spit. In fact, mutton here is eaten and cooked in more ways than in any other region in China. Besides, bringing refined dishes to the capital, Shantung chefs left their imprint on Peking cuisine with their liking for raw garlic and leeks.

Peking cuisine may be considered plain and robust, but since the 19th century it has exported one dish that has captivated the imagination of the whole world: Peking duck. The duck is fattened specially for the table, roasted in special oven, then pancakes and a special sauce are made to accompany it. In Peking, the duck can be an all-in-one meal, in which the head, tongue and feet are served as separate courses alongside the more familiar crispy skin and meat.

Shanghai or Easting Cuisine

This area, based around the Yangtze delta area which covers Kiangsu, Chekiang and Anhwei provinces, is temperate in climate and its fertile land, traversed by many rivers and ponds, is a rich agricultural area growing both wheat and rice, and yielding much fish and seafood.

Taken as a whole, Eastern cuisine is rich, decorative and rather on the sweet side; unlike Peking food, garlic is used sparingly, if at all. Although Shanghai is the name used to identify the Eastern school there are other culinary centres, represented by the main cities of the area - Hanchow, Yanchow, Suchow and Wuhsi for example. The area as a whole is renowned for certain products and dishes: the specially cured Chinhua ham, with its pinkish red flesh and succulently savoury-sweet taste, the rich dark Chinkiang vinegar and the amber coloured Shaohsing rice wine. Classic dishes include Crisp stir-fried shrimp, Eel cooked in oil, Yangchow fried rice, Lion's head and fish from the West Lake with a sweet and sour sauce.

One special cooking technique originating from the region has been adopted nationally. This hung-shao, or the red-braising method of cooking, whereby the ingredients (mainly meat, poultry and fish), are cooked slowly in an aromatic mixutre of thick dark soy sauce and rice wine. When, at the end of cooking, the sauce is reduced while being spooned over the main ingredient, the resulting sauce is both rich and fragrant.

Shanghai cuisine is the least known outside China. Its oiliness and sweetness are perhaps less appealing to the Western palate and, because it is decorative, it tends to be labour intensive. Moreover, it depends largely on fresh produce - the famous Shanghai crabs, studded with yellow roe in the Autumn, have no counterpart elsewhere, and for the delicate taste of the famous West Lake fish one has to go to Hanchow.

Szechaun or Western Cuisine

Western cuisine is represented by the provinces of Szechuan, Hunan and Yunnan, and of these Szechuan is the most influential. A land of precipitous mountains and the Yangtze gorges, and home of the pandas, Szechuan is the most populous province in China. Fortunately, it is also known as one of China's rice bowls. Very humid and rainy in the Summer but mild in the winter, the temperate climate is suitable for agricultural growth almost all year round. With good irrigation, the Szechuan basin in the east of the provice grows rice, wheat, rape seed, corn and bamboo shoots; citrus fruits, especially tangerines, and mushrooms are also grown. A special spice, Szechuan peppercorns, and a preserved vegetable are two special products.

Many pepole, when they first encounter Szechuan food, find it highly seasoned and spicily hot. Fresh and dried red chilli are evident, providing the fiery result. But, in fact, the sophistication of Szechuan cooking goes far beyond this apparent over-spiciness. Often in the same dish, the full spectrum of tastes can be experienced: salty, sweet, vinegary and hot. Rather than overpowering the taste buds, the Szechuanese claim that the chilli pepper is only a harbinger awakening them and that once stimulated, they will be able to appreciate the full range of tastes and aftertastes.

Special Szechuanese dishes are Hot and sour soup, Fragrant and crispy duck, Twice-cooked pork and a range of fish fragrant dishes.

In terms of cookery techniques, Szechuan dishes often employ multiple processes; for example, its famous smoked duck which is first marinated, then smoked, steamed and finally deep-fried.

Cantonese or Southern Cuisine

Centred in the provinces of Kwantung and Fukien, the climate of this area is sub-tropical, with heavy rainfalls between May and September; the coast is subject to typhoons. The Pearl River delta of Kwangtung and the coastal plains of Fukien are rich agricultural areas. Rice crops are harvested twice a year, and rice is the staple eaten twice a day. Sweet potato, corn, taro and wheat are also cultivated. There are many pig and poultry farms, and fish ponds. Vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, abound. Tropical fruits, oranges, bananas, peaches, pineapples and juicy lychees are plentiful. High quality tea is a special product of Fukien, while all along the coast fish and seafood crabs, crayfish, prawns, scallops, clams - are plentiful. This wealth of ingredients has helped to make Cantonese cooking the most versatile and varied of Chinese cuisines.

Cantonese food is not highly seasoned. Instead, a harmonious blending of different flavours is sought in order to bring out the best of ingredients. However, this does mean that it often relies upon fresh ingredients and when they are not available and substitutes have to be used the results can taste insipid.

Whilst they are adept at all Chinese culinary techniques, Cantonese cooks are at their most skilful when they stir-fry dishes. If red-braised dishes are an Eastern contribution to Chinese gastronomy, then Southern stir-fried dishes region supreme nationwide. Their "wok-fragrance", a term used to describe the aroma so desirable in stir-fried dishes, is matchless.

Dim sum, hot hor d'oeuvres of pastry cases stuffed with a mixture of deliacies such as pork, beef or seafood, bamboo shoots or mushrooms, steamed, sauteed or deep-fried, is another Cantonese speciality. They are, of course, dim sum in all the other regionsl cuisines, but none can beat the Cantonese for variety. Because of the time, labour and special skill called for to make dim sum, they are more of a treat to be enjoyed at restaurants than at home.


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