Ancient Chinese Food

2017-08-10 10:16:40


Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who lived in the sixth century BC and is considered the founder of Taoism, said: "Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish." What he meant was, in order to govern successfully, one required just the right adjustments and seasonings. This metaphorical allusion to food illustrates quite clearly how important it has always been in Chinese culture.


The culinary history of ancient Chinese food dates back to about 5000 years. And over this vast period of time, the Chinese have developed and mastered a complex system of preparing food, such as identifying ingredients that make compatible combinations; making use of cooking techniques that are multi-phased such as first steaming and then deep frying or stir frying, then boiling; and administering multi-phased flavoring like marinating between the stages of roasting, or after steaming, or before stir frying.


Ancient Chinese food can be divided roughly into the Northern style of cooking and the Southern style of cooking. Generally, Northern Chinese dishes tend to be oily, although they are not cloyingly so, and garlic and vinegar flavoring are more pronounced. Northern Chinese food also includes a lot of pasta; some of the favorite flour-based treats being steamed bread; fried meat dumplings; steamed stuffed buns; dumplings resembling ravioli and noodles. The best known cooking styles of Northern Chinese food are perhaps the methods used in Shandong, Tianjin and Beijing. The Chinese wish for satiation and plenitude is symbolized by an elaborately made stuffed chicken. Some of the distinguishing Southern styles of cooking are: Hunan and Sichuan cuisine well known for the liberal utilization of chilli peppers; the Zhejiang and Jiangsu styles of cooking with their emphasis on tenderness and freshness and Cantonese cuisine which has a tendency of being a little sweet and includes a lot of variety. Rice as well as rice products like rice cake, rice congee and rice noodles usually accompany Southern main dishes.


The Chinese always laid a lot of emphasis on satisfying the olfactory, visual, as well as the gustatory senses, which they did by giving equal importance to incorporating aroma, color and flavor. Entrees usually have a combination of 3-5 colors, chosen from ingredients that are caramel, black, white, yellow, red, dark green and green in color. Typically, a vegetable and meat dish is cooked using one principle ingredient and then including 2-3 ingredients of secondary importance which have contrasting colors. It is then prepared according to ancient methods of cooking, adding sauces and seasonings, resulting in an aesthetic dish full of aroma, color and flavor.


Some of the main methods of cooking are: pan-frying, flash-frying, deep-frying, steaming, stewing and stir-frying. Since the Chinese always knew that the fragrant aroma of a dish whets the appetite, they used various flavoring agents like black, dried Chinese mushrooms, sesame oil, pepper, cinnamon, star anise, wine, chili peppers, garlic, fresh ginger and scallions. One of the most important aspects of cooking any dish was to preserve the natural, fresh flavor and remove all unwanted game or fish odors, which ginger and scallion served to do. Ingredients like vinegar, sugar and soy sauce were used to enhance the richness of a dish without smothering the natural flavors.


Hence, in ancient Chinese cooking, a well made dish would be: hot and spicy for those with a penchant for piquancy; sweetish for people with a predilection towards sweet flavor; for those with a preference for blander tasting food it would not be over-spiced; and for those who revel in strong flavors it would be rich. The Chinese were of the opinion that if a dish comprised of all these features and satisfied all these tastes, it was indeed a successful one.


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张力平,IT行业资深分析师。Zhang Liping, aka Sevencastles,a senior analyst in IT industry and the owner of Seven Castles,'a Shanghai blog featuring news and views of great interest'.