As host, the Chinese will serve some of the meals with their own chopsticks which, though unusual, is a sign of hospitality.
China is situated in eastern Asia, on the western coast of the Pacific Ocean. It borders with Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos and Vietnam.
According to Chinese beliefs, taking cold drinks during the meal is not recommended for health reasons.
As a country of great contrasts, China’s geography offers mountains, deserts and fertile river valleys. The majority of western China is covered by the Himalayas, Tian and Pamir Mountains and great deserts, while central China is primarily a mountainous region. Rivers also play an important role in transport and irrigation. The Great Wall of China was raised by the population over 2500 years old to defend from invasions from the north.
China has a long history, dating back several millennia. The country was ruled by emperors and dynasties for more than 3000 years. In the early 13th century, China was conquered by the Mongolians led by Genghis Khan. His grandson Kublai Khan founded the Yuan dynasty which was replaced by the Ming dynasty after a hundred years. The Qing dynasty was founded in the mid 17th century.
The exceptional diversity of Chinese cuisine was created over its long and exciting past. With each new dynasty, new recipes were created, new ingredients and spices introduced and original techniques reveals; however, the peak of the art of preparing food was reached during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). In this period (1714 for the birthday of the emperor), the Imperial Man Han Quan Xi banquet was conceived – an unbelievably luxurious banquet consisting of 108 types of dishes (a fusion of Manchu and Han cuisine), which took place over 3 full days. Man Han grew into a tradition and was eliminated only upon establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1911.
Characteristics of the cuisine
Chinese cuisine has a great deal in common with the culinary heritage of the remainder of eastern Asia, particularly Japanese, Singapore and Vietnamese cuisine.
Originally, dishes were served in plates laid in the middle of the table and those around the table would freely take from each of the dishes with their chopsticks.
Geographic and cultural difference have divided Chinese cuisine into the main "8 cuisines" (according to where they originated) "4 flavours" (salty, sweet, sour and spicy), but there are also divisions based on regions (northwestern cuisine, mandarin, jiang-huai, northeastern, Cantonese, chiuchow, hakka, hunan, Shanghai, Szechuan, fujian, yunnan and hainan; Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and nanyang).
The best known are Szechuan (strongly, intensely seasoned food, plenty of rice, bamboo, fermented soy, citrus and mushrooms, chilli, garlic and ginger prepared by frying, sautéing and pickling) and Cantonese (sophisticated, light and refreshing cuisine with plenty of fish, fruit and vegetables prepared by baking, frying, cooking, steaming or as a stir-fry). In the cold northern areas touching on Mongolia, lamb and mutton are more available than fish, while wheat, oats and pasta are more readily available than rice. The Hunan region, with its extremely cold winters, is known for its very spicy though tasty dishes.
The classic Chinese meal consists of two main dishes in which carbohydrates play the main role (rice, noodles or mantou, steamed buns), while fish, vegetables and meat play secondary roles as side dishes.
Rice is virtually unavoidable, however it is sometimes the case where, for example at formal dinners, the rice appears only at the end of the meal or not at all.
Solid dishes are eaten with chopsticks: ingredients are previously cut into pieces and just a little practice is required to master this technique. Fish is usually cooked or baked whole and served, and is also eaten with chopsticks. Soups are eaten with a wide and shallow, most commonly ceramic spoon . Traditionally, the use of forks and knives at the table was considered barbaric, as they were viewed as weapons.
Dishes made by cooking, steaming, frying, baking or frying are served in separate containers, which can be particularly attractive.
Originally, dishes were served in plates laid in the middle of the table and those around the table would freely take from each of the dishes with their chopsticks. This, quite unhygienic approach, is being replaced in modern Chinese families with western serving methods, with serving utensils placed in each of the common dishes. Only the rich bowl stands separately, with one for each guest. In the role of host, the Chinese will serve some of the dishes with their own chopsticks; though this may seem unusual, this is a sign of hospitality.
Sweet desserts at the end of the meal also are not part of the typical Chinese menu. It is more likely that a sweet dish (such as fried fruit with syrup) is served in the middle of the meal with the remaining side dishes. However, this practice is changing in western restaurants, where fruit or fried ice cream comes at the end.
According to Chinese belief, taking cold drinks during the meal is not recommended for health reasons, therefore, hot tea or hot water is offered.
Cha, or tea, has been drunk in China from times immemorial. Tea has always been a medicament, but formerly, it was also a means of payment. Green, red and black, and the thousands of kinds in between, are drunk for every occasion. The most well known teas on European tables are the black oolong, green Dragon Well and red keemun.
Mastering cooking methods is critical for final success of the meal. The skilful mastering of temperature is key for achieving top results. Though cooking, steaming, baking and frying are used, the typical Chinese method is the stir-fry, i.e. fast frying of finely chopped ingredients on hot oil in a wok.
Harmony of yin and yang
A perfectly prepared meal is expected to satisfy much more than the sense of taste: the colours must be pleasing to the eye, pieces cut into equal sized parts, and the entire composition should have an enticing aroma. Tastes and textures should alternate dynamically throughout the meal: crunchy and gentle, dry and juicy, mild and spicy…
It is said that "the heavens love those who eat well ". The cuisine is often compared with that of the French, primarily due to the philosophy: little, but good. In Chinese culture, food is not only taken to calm hunger, but also as a means to achieve health and an art of great symbolism, which is particularly evident during festivals or, for example, the New Year celebration. On that occasion, whole fish and black algae are served to represent wealth, dried bean curd that bring happiness, chicken for a good marriage, eggs for fertility and so on.
To avoid insulting the host
Several tips for proper behaviour at a Chinese table:
- do not pick your chopsticks vertically in the rice bowl – this is done only at funerals
- turn the spout of the teapot so that it does not point at anyone
- tapping your chopsticks on your plate or bowl will insult your host
- Name: People’s Republic of China
- Capital city: Peking
- Area: 9, 600, 000 km², third largest in the world
- Flag: red with five stars
- National currency: Renminbi (RMB) yuan (1$=cca 8.27 yuana)
- Symbols: panda, gingko
- Climate: extremely different, from tropical in the south to subarctic in the north
- Religion: Buddism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity
- Languages: standard Chinese or Mandarin, with dialects Yue, Wu, Minbei, Minnan, Xiang, Gan and Hakka