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What Makes Food Chinese

Whatever the arguments about the greatness of Chinese cuisine, it is undeniable that certain features make the food look Chinese, smell Chinese and taste Chinese.

One feature, unique to Chinese cooking, is the technique of stir-frying. Here, a small amount of oil is poured into a heated wok and a few condiments are added to "arouse the wok" and lend fragrance to the main ingredients which are rapidly stirred and cooked in a short time.

This very rapid cooking technique requires sepcially prepared ingredients. In Chinese cooking the ingredients are cut up into uniformly small pieces so that they will both absorb the taste of the seasonings that they are marinaded in, and retain their freshness, juiciness and, in many cases, crispness.

Another speciality of Chinese cuisine is its use of dried products. Before the invention of canning and deep-freezing, drying was the Chinese way of preserving food. But even though canning has become a Chinese industry and frozen food products are now exported abroad, dried products are still widely used and are very often more expensive than corresponding fresh ones. This is because the dried products, when reconstituted, add an extra dimension to the taste and richness of the finished dish. For instance, the flavour and fragrance that dried Chinese mushrooms so miraculously lend to other ingredients are beyond the capabilities of fresh mushrooms. The same can also be said of dried scallops, dried oysters, dried shrimps and dried abalone, one of the most exotic ingredients in Chinese cuisine.

Nowhere in other cuisines is there such a pronounced emphasis on texture. Exotic ingredients like shark's fin, bird's nest, edible jellyfish or duck's feet, and everyday ones such as cloud ears, bamboo shoots or cellophane noodles, often have little taste, yet the Chinese go to any amount of trouble preparing them, combining with other ingredients to lend them taste. Why? Nutrition apart, it is the texture, whether crisp, lastic or slippery, that they provide that makes them invaluable. Emphasis on texture is also apparent at a more basic level: leaf vegetables, whether boiled or stir-fried, must retain their crispness; noodles must be served el dente.

What is a typical Chinese meal?

To the Chinese, a meal constitutes rice or another grain, with a few dishes. The number of dishes accompanying the rice depends on the number of people sharing the meal, but a family of six may have three or four dishes at dinner, and perhaps one less at lunch. Obviously, the more the dishes, the more festive and special the occasion. Whatever the number of dishes, they should be well balanced so that in one meal a variety of ingredients, including meat, seafood and vegetables, are eaten, and different cooking methods appreciated.

Laying the table

As a Chinese meal is a communal affair, a round table is usually used, being more conducive to sharing of the dishes. For each place setting you need one rice bowl, a matching saucer and a pair of chopsticks. As the name so aptly suggests, the rice bowl is for the rice, the saucer underneath is for food taken from the communal dishes before you eat them, or for the bones you gently spit out. The chopsticks are placed vertically to the right side of the bowl and saucer - the Chinese do not seem to have made concession to left-handers!

How to serve a meal

On a day-to-day basis, all the dishes are served together in the centre of the table (with extra rice kept warm for second or third helpings). There is no specific order for eating the dishes, so one may have a mouthful of chicken followed by another of bean curd, followed by yet another of fish. However, for more formal occasions, the dishes are served individually. The sequence of order varies from place to place, but generally one or two seasonal "delicacies" are served at the beginning, followed by substantial dishes of meat and poultry, with special soups in the middle and a fish to end the dishes. ("To have fish" is pronounced exactly the same as "surplus", in Mandarin and Cantonese, so the Chinese frequently use this pun and choose fish to symbolically end the main dishes.) Then, one fried rice and often one noodle dish will be served. This is the host saying, with traditional polite modesty, "Excuse my humble fare which may not have been sufficient, so please fill up with some grain food!"

How to eat rice

The proper way is to raise the bowl with one hand and perch it on your lower lip and then, holding the chopsticks with the other hand, to shuffle the rice into your mouth without dropping the grains on to the table or floor. Rice symbolises blessings in life for the Chinese and it is therefore vital for you to grab your blessings rather than pick away at them.

Eating other dishes

When you pick up a piece of food from one of the central dishes, it is quite all right to do so at the same time as another person so long as your chopsticks do not end up fighting in the dish. Having picked up the pieces, remember to make a gesture of touching the rice in the bowl, however momentarily, before putting the food into your mouth.

When a piece is large in size, whether with or without bone, it is polite to eat it in bites, rather than in one gulp. The bones can be suced, quietly, before being gently spat out on to the side plate.

The main aim should be to enter into the spirit of the meal and to enjoy yourself. Don't forget, however, if you are host, to always put some choice pieces on to the bowl or saucer of your guest.

What to drink with Chinese food

Like table manners, the Chinese are casual about what they drink with their meals. Traditionally, they drank warmed up rice wine with their food and tea after the meal, but some Chinese have now adopted a habit of drinking beer or cognac or whisky, sometimes straight and sometimes diluted, with the meal. In Chinese restaurants abroad, a custom has developed of serving tea throughout the meal. Many Westernised Chinese have also found that some Western table wines, especially white or rose, go well with Chinese food. Many Chinese never drink anything with their food; they are, on the other hand, more particular about the tea they drink after the meal - jasmine, keemun, Oolong, iron goddess of mercy or Tit-koon-yum, Pu-erh from Yunnan and chrysanthemum, to name but a few. Jasmine is a green tea scented with jasmine petals, originally beloved of the Shanghaiese but now popular throughout China and abroad. Tit-koon-yum from Fukien, gleaming with a dark lustre, releases its subtle fragrance slowly after it has been infused in the pot for some minutes. Pu-erh tea is believed to have a slight medicinal property, and is excellent after a meal of rice dishes.


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