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Chinese Food

The demand for Chinese food is growing at a very fast pace. This entire furore about Chinese food could make one wonder what is so special about this cuisine. Well, the answer is if one has to put it in one word, it is wholesome.

Chinese cuisine is a term for styles of food originating in the regions of China, many of which have become widespread and popular in other parts of the world – Asia, Americas, Australia, Western Europe and South Africa. When a Chinese is given a chance to comprise a meal, he will never lose sight of the fact that food has two main roles:

- It is essential to maintain the body
- Eating correct food has a beneficial effect on the mind and emotions and is bound to promote good thinking while increasing strength and determination. A stable and harmonious individual makes up a stable and harmonious society at large.

With this philosophy, Chinese food has its unique character that makes it what it is – so popular! 

‘Chinese cooking’ is a broadly descriptive term for its food perceptions and varieties. According to ancient Chinese philosophy, sickness arises from an imbalance in body’s yin and yan, or negative and positive energy. Foods can be yin (cooling), yan (warming) or neutral in nature. Right mix is vital to good health. Be it sweet, sour, pungent, hot, salty, spicy – these six basic flavours are incorporated deftly in all Chinese dishes. The dishes score on the health front too as the meals are balanced in carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrates such as noodles and rice provide energy and vegetables provide vitamins and minerals. The foods are cooked by stir-fry method or steaming method so that most of the nutritional values are preserved. As red meats and dairy products are used sparingly, it is white meat like chicken and seafood that provide good quality protein.

Chinese food reflects a search for balance and contrast in the ingredients, which are used for preparing a dish and at the same time in taste and texture, also. They will combine many and may be most of the element needed for a good diet in just one dish. So be it the subtle sprinkling of MSG, the heavy lacing of soy sauce or the crunch of ginger julienne, the succulence of the dumpling or the crispness of the vegetables, Chinese cuisine is definitely worth writing home about. We all could have a word of praise for the beauty of a Chinese dish. It is an epitome of harmony of taste, texture, aroma and colour. It is a symphony of the dry with the juicy and the soft and smooth with the crisp and crunchy. That’s not all: the sweet, sour, pungent, hot, salty or spicy…each taste adds a note of harmony to this ‘symphony’. It is a marvel how each ingredient manages to make its presence felt in one single dish! Now that is the secret of a good Chinese dish and it is not a difficult art to master.

How to cook Chinese

Foreigners experiencing Chinese cuisine for the first time are sometimes bewildered by the variety and form of the ingredients presented. Some like jellyfish, sea cucumbers, swallows’ nests and dried shark’s fin have never been seen on the tables in the rest of the world. Moreover, familiar ingredients acquire totally different tastes when prepared the Chinese way. Even those familiar with prawns will hardly recognise them when they have been coated with honey and sesame seeds! The treatment of various ingredients categorically differentiates between different preparations. It would be a revelation to most to know that there are 16 methods of cutting raw materials and 11 distinctive shapes in the Chinese repertoire. 

Be it the subtle sprinkling of mono sodium glutamate, the heavy lacing of soy sauce or the crunch of ginger julienne, the succulence of the dumpling or the crispness of the vegetables, Chinese cuisine is definitely worth writing home about.

  •The key to cooking good Chinese meal is to do preparation well in advance. All the cutting and chopping should be done with time on your side. As the cutting of ingredients has a lot of importance in the final presentation of the dish, it is imperative that cutting and chopping is done with dexterity. It would be a revelation to most to know that there are 16 methods of cutting raw materials and 11 distinctive shapes in the Chinese repertoire. Once the mis-en-place is over, actual cooking hardly takes any time.

  •The readily available, economically priced Chinese food we all have these days is a finely redefined version of the original recipe. What with the need to cater to the common man’s palate the caterers adapt their recipes according to the demands of fashion. Hence we will see a lot of vegetables and sauces that adorn many a noodle and rice dish. The methods of cooking are duplicable from the original hence the final flavour with its faint veil of smokiness with succulence intact is what can make or mar a Chinese dish. 

  •Most of the Chinese food is cooked on very high flame. The most common method is stir-frying using only a small amount of oil. It calls for a really hot flame that singes the outer covering keeping the inner juices as flavourful as they can be. This very step is a little difficult to achieve on a common household gas flame. But nonetheless that does not deter us from giving Chinese cookery a hand in our own kitchens. Other methods are steaming, deep-frying, red cooking and roasting.

 •In most dishes in Chinese cuisine, food is prepared in bite-sized pieces, ready for direct picking up and eating. In traditional Chinese cultures, chopsticks are used at the table. Remember, traditional Chinese cuisine is also based on opposites, whereby hot balances cold, pickled balances fresh and spicy balances mild. The yin with the yan. 

 •A hint about red cooking: this method is so named because soy sauce is always used, giving the food a slightly reddish colour. The food is simmered, without browning, over low heat for one to four hours.

 •The right equipment for Chinese cooking would mean having a wok, a steamer, a cleaver and a spatula. The food is generally cut into small pieces as it cooks faster, is easier to eat and exposes a greater surface area to the other ingredients and flavours. Very often several different ingredients have to be fried, each requiring a longer or shorter cooking time; when they are cooked together in a wok, the cook must obviously work out which needs the most cooking, and will add this first to the wok, the rest being added one after the other, according to their texture.

A taste of Indo chinese food

But Chinese made in India comes with its own story! We have our very own versions of Chinese food and interestingly, it is very popular all over the country. In fact, innovations are to be seen in South Indian cuisine too! One such is the Chopsuey dosa. The normal dosa batter is spread out on the tawa and sprinkled with chopped cabbage, carrots, spring onions and cooked noodles. Some dabs of ketchup, chilli sauce and soya sauce are added and then a pat of butter. As it gets heated through the delicious pungent smells of Chinese cooking permeates the air and once folded over the 'Chopsuey dosa' is ready.

Sino-Indian hybrids are manifest in other tasty treats such as Chinese Bhel Puri, Vegetable Manchurian, Schezwan Popcorn to name a few. There is Jain Chinese too without onion and garlic. It tastes far from the original but people demand it. The Indian Chinese food uses more oil, spices and chilli powder than the typical recipes hence it is less digestible than traditional Chinese food.

Some popular ingredients used in Chinese cooking are used in Indian cooking too. The health giving properties of some common ingredients are worth a mention:

Soya: Fights cancer as it has antioxidant powers. It is rich in isoflavones, which are plant estrogens with antioxidant properties. These can also block tumours. Isoflavones help bolster bone density. 
Tea: Compounds called polyphenols may ward off cancer and heart disease.
Chillies: Capsaicin which gives chillies their fire is used in creams to relieve pain from arthritis and diabetes nerve damage. Is also an antioxidant.
Garlic: Lowers cholesterol and eases blood pressure. It has pungent sulphur compounds that can nip cancer in the bud.
Ginger: Ginger has gingertol, which soothes inflammation and alleviates fever. It helps lessen nausea too.  Improves digestive powers.
Mushrooms: Shiitake mushrooms specifically have an ingredient that increases production of immune cells.
Cabbage: Has tumour-fighting compounds. Chinese use cooked cabbage to cure stomach aches, coughs and sore throats.

Other ingredients typical of Chinese cookery are commonly available in India for the simple reason that Chinese food is popular and here to stay. The Indian Chinese food typically uses more oil, spices and chillies. Soya sauce, sesame oil, dried noodles, exotic spices like ground ginger are freely used in Indian Chinese cooking.

Interestingly we have our own version of Chinese food which is very popular all over the country. In fact, innovations are to be seen in South India. One such is the 'Chopsuey dosa'. The normal dosa batter is spread out on the tawa and sprinkled with chopped cabbage, carrots, spring onions and cooked noodles. Some dabs of ketchup, chilli sauce and soya sauce are added and then a pat of butter. As it gets heated through the delicious pungent smells of Chinese cooking permeates the air and once folded over the 'Chopsuey dosa' is ready.

Sino-Indian hybrids are manifest in other tasty treats such as Chinese Bhel Puri, Vegetable Manchurian, Schezwan Popcorn to name a few. There is Jain Chinese too without onion and garlic. It tastes far from the original but people demand it. The Indian Chinese food uses more oil, spices and chilli powder than the typical recipes hence it is less digestible than traditional Chinese food.

The acceptance of Chinese food has added new dimensions to the variety of food offered in Indian homes and eateries. It is here to stay. No doubt about that!

Regional cooking of China

Some say Chinese cuisine is 400,000 years old going back to the Peking Man and his use of fire. There are other studies taking it to the Chinese stone age, where the cultivation of rice and the production of noodles, both typical representations of Chinese cuisine as we have known today, are understood from archaeological findings.

‘Chinese cooking’ is a broadly descriptive term for its food perceptions and varieties. There are regional cooking styles that are explained in brief here. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as available resources, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques and lifestyle. One style may favour the use of lots of garlic and shallots over lots of chilli and spices, while another may favour preparing seafood over other meats and fowl. Many traditional regional cuisines rely on basic methods of preservation such as drying, salting, pickling and fermentation.

Food from northern China
We can include food from Beijing, Mandarin and Shantung. It is known especially for its steamed bread and noodle dishes. You are likely to find imperial style dictating the food and ambience: red brocade, tasselled lanterns and lacquer furnishings. Best known dish is Peking Duck. There is a Mongolian influence visible in the use of mutton and lamb. As the colder climes of north China are not suitable for cultivation of rice, wheat, barley, millet and soybeans are staples and that explains why breads and noodles are so evident in the meal. Cabbage, squash, pears, grapes, and apples are also popularly used.

The south eastern Chinese treats
Cantonese and Chaozhou are areas known for presenting lightly cooked meats and vegetables. Canton is China’s gateway to the West. There are cosmopolitan influences here, French being more dominant, and so much like the French the Cantonese believe that they live to eat! In this area, you can indulge in dim sums (meaning ‘touch your heart’), that are bite sized eats prepared by frying, steaming, stewing and baking. You can also be served tea with these. The key ingredient of Cantonese food is fresh produce: be it meat, poultry, fish, vegetables.

East China – relish red cooking of Shanghai
This region is the perfect introduction to slow red cooking, seafood and clear light soups, so much so that do not be surprised if you are served more than one soup in one meal! Being a port city, Shanghai plays a vital role in this region’s cuisine as some international ideas do merge well. You will find food that has great dependence on soy sauce and sugar, foods that are stewed, braised and fried, in all giving a red coloured presentation. Meals are light, balanced with red fermented bean sauce. Rice is the staple here. You can also enjoy egg rolls, paper thin pancakes, seaweeds, suckling pig and green tea.

Call it Szechuan style from west China
Szechuan and Hunan are areas that enjoy a steamy, hot, tropical climate and hence the cuisine matches. Plus that fact that locally grown chillies make the food spicy! This region uses locally grown rice, citrus fruits, bamboo, chillies and mushrooms. Ginger, garlic, onions and brown peppercorns are popular seasonings.You will not need any table condiments as dishes themselves are seasoned, spiced and oily, for example Deep Fried Chicken Wrapped in Paper. World famous Hot and Sour Soup is Szechuan style, so are spicy tofu dishes.

Unknown Central China
Interiormost region of the large country that it is, central China, more so Honan, is on the culinary map for the carp fish from the Yellow River. Food here is mostly sweet and sour.

Those who have a sweet tooth
Chinese like to serve their sweet foods with tea, or along with meals and also at the end of meals. Moon Cakes, Red Bean Paste Pancakes and Sun Cakes are evidently Chinese. Glutinous rice is used to make rice based snacks. Chinese candies use mostly cane sugar, malt sugar, honey, nuts and fruit. Ice cream is a popular dessert, as are Chinese jellies set with agar agar. Chinese tea is often classified into several different categories according to the species of plant from which it is sourced, the region in which it is grown, and the method of production used. Some of these are green tea, oolong tea, black tea, scented tea, white tea, and compressed tea. 

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