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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Asian Miscellany (3)—Food and Drink in Chinese Culture

[a] Dimsum (點心) RF
My third post in "Asian Miscellany" is driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of December 20th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For today's post, I have been asked to write about food and drink in modern the space of only 1,000 words. I "spend" a little more verbiage than that here, but not much. If you want to read more on the subject, I have an entire chapter on food and drink in China in China (2010), from the publisher's "Asia in Focus" series. It should be available at your local library.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children

Take a walk down any street in China today—from the smallest mountainside village to the largest metropolitan centers. You will see an array of food and drink that will test the understanding of anyone who grew up with “Sweet and Sour Pork” or “Moo Goo Gai Pan.” Chinese food is rich, varied, and most definitely not “Chinese-American.” To begin, you will not find a fortune cookie anywhere near your plate in China (it is a quaint Chinese-American invention from the turn of the twentieth century). You will find chopsticks, and almost always no real understanding of how anyone can fail to manipulate them. It is a different world if you have come of age near North American Chinese restaurants—and it is worth the journey.

Food and Drink in Chinese Culture
Food played an enormous role in Chinese history, from eminently practical (around the family hearth) to highly refined occasions, such as imperial feasts. China has always been an agricultural society, and that remains true, for the most part, today. Agriculture has been the foundation of the economy, and everything from family organization to government policy has been organized around it. Even today, the central government holds key resources in reserve in case of shortage, for it has been shown countless times in Chinese history that certain resources—from tea to pork—are the difference between social calm and uprising, especially in times of tension.

[b] Cultured Layers RF
Although food has only occasionally been a subject of serious scholarly study in China, almost everyone will agree that it is a central element in Chinese culture. This is suggested by the standard greeting in traditional times: “Have you eaten yet?” (chibaole meiyou). The proper response, to this day, is “yes.” Any hesitation will result in extensive efforts to feed you, whether you are in a home, a restaurant, or near streetside vendors. Contrary to popular Western belief, not all Chinese survive on rice. In the arid northern plains, wheat is the staple grain, and noodles, steamed buns, and a plethora of other wheat products are standard fare. In the south, where both rice and labor have traditionally been plentiful, one finds elaborately produced dim sum. The foods of China vary, often quite starkly, across regions, as we will soon see.

Cooking methods also vary. Although electric and gas ovens were virtually unknown in China until the last several decades, there has always been a broad array of possibilities for cooking over an open wood or coal fire. Breads, as well as other foods, including dumplings and some noodles, are often steamed in wooden or metal baskets that sit atop a stove, and they can be found along almost any street or alley in China. Foods are also fried, with the style ranging from deep fried in the south to lightly sautéed in the north.

The focus is on providing a balance of flavors that comes from both the primary ingredients and the spices that accompany them. Cooking takes place in one single motion. It happens quickly, over a hot fire, and with little room for hesitation or error. Three meals a day is the Chinese custom. A normal breakfast is relatively simple: a steamed bun, a sesame-seed pancake, or a pair of deep-fried dough sticks with a bowl of soy milk for a northerner, or rice porridge with pickled vegetables for a southerner. The major daily meals are lunch and dinner. A typical major meal for a family consists of a staple, such as rice, plus three or four stir-fried dishes, including a meat dish (pork, chicken, lamb, and sometimes beef, as well as seafood in areas where it is plentiful) and several predominantly vegetable dishes. One of the distinctive aspects of Chinese cooking lies in the ways countless ways that meats and vegetables can be combined; the traditional Western notion of a meat dish balanced by separate helpings of vegetables is quite foreign in China.

China’s Regional Cuisines
[c] Mushrooms (Shanxi) RF
Wheat products prevail over rice in China’s northern provinces. Many varieties of noodles and dumplings make up the northern diet, and they often have a high caloric content, as much to ward off the cold as to provide fuel for labor. Westerners will likely recognize jiaozi (steamed dumplings) and chunjuan (spring rolls), as well as a variety of roasted meats, the most famous of which is Peking Duck. Northern cooking relies less on seafood than freshwater fish, and poultry dishes are also quite prevalent. People from China’s south and west tend to think of northern cuisine as quite bland, and it is often perceived as food that may fill the stomach but leave little to remember. The assessment seems rather harsh, but it is true that the combination of dumplings, vegetables (especially cabbage), and meats make it a good fit for the hardy northern conditions, where winds blow throughout the year and the chill of winter is fierce.

By contrast, the bountiful coastal areas of China’s southeast provide a rich array of culinary opportunities. The farmlands are subtropical, so the southeastern cook has a range of vegetables far richer than those to the north or the west. The cuisine from Fujian, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces tend to be too oily for the tastes of most northerners, but it is a rich blend of steamed, deep-fried, boiled, and braised vegetables and meats. The balance of fish, meats, and vegetables is impressive, as are the soups, which blend the same ingredients in innovative ways.

[d] Eggplant RF
The names “Sichuan” (Szechwan) and “Hunan” are commonly associated in the United States with “Chinese” food, but even those who are familiar with American versions of this fare will be amazed by the rich possibilities in the cuisine of China’s west, or “inland” areas. For obvious geographic reasons, seafood will not be encountered very as often in “inland” cuisine as in coastal regions, but poultry, freshwater fish, soybeans, legumes, and a wide variety of vegetables cooked in heavy seasonings dominate. Tiny dumplings in hot, spicy sauce (chaoshou), hot pepper dishes with chicken or other meats (gongbao jiding), and spicy beancurd and pork (mapo doufu) are among the dishes most familiar to foreigners, but they only scratch the surface of culinary possibilities, and it is fair to say that they are rarely prepared in everyday American restaurants the way that they are in western China or China’s urban centers.

Finally, among the dominant cuisines of China, “southern” has the most familiarity in North America. Before the 1970s, most immigrants from China had ties to Guangdong or neighboring southern provinces. The weather is hot in the summer and still warm in the winter. It is humid, with a great deal of rainfall (unlike the western and northern regions).  The possibilities for combining vegetables and meats are enormous in this climate, and they tend to be stir-fried or steamed so that they maintain their taste as much as possible. Southern cuisine is justly famous for dim sum  and its seemingly endless variety of dishes that subtly echo the cuisines of various regions of China.

***  ***
[e] Tea RF
Chinese food and drink—of which tea, in its many and storied forms, is the most prevalent—has been a foundation of Chinese life for as long as we have records of family, state, and society. From the most humble and lonely breakfast to the elaborate feasts that make up festival and celebratory life, food lies at the heart of Chinese culture, and is far more important to all levels of society than mere sustenance (significant as that has been in Chinese history, to be sure) could ever be.

Again, for a full chapter on this topic, please see my book China (ABC-Clio, 2010). Parts of it can be accessed (click on the link, above) on Google Books. It should also be available in your local library (or have them order it).  RL for RSQ.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children 

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