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Both ancient and modern Chinese societies have held knowledge of refined cooking skills in the highest esteem, and so thus, it is through examination of the earliest diets and most contemporary lavish feasts that one may gain an appreciation and true understanding of the culture. Food as an international language can provide valuable clues to the history and customs of any region and by drawing parallels between the Chinese cuisine of antiquity and that of modern times, the evolution of a society may be evaluated. At a time when most civilizations regarded foods simply in terms of survival, the Chinese had begun to develop an intricate system of preparation, service and consumption. In fact so important was the art of cooking that according to K. C. Chang, I Yin, a prime minister of the Shang Dynasty and formerly celebrated chef, initiated his expansive political career through the strength of his culinary prowess. (Hom, 21). By inspection of the regional flavors in Chinese cuisine today as compared with the ancient diet, the influences of both eastern and western cultures to the art of food preparation, and the progression from herbal remedies to seasonings for foods, one can gain learn much about the evolution of the Chinese way of life.
Over the many centuries comprising China’s history, each area of China has developed its own distinctive customs, culture, and character. Because of climate and the resulting limited crop availability, each section has adapted its own food and cooking style. Although basic cooking techniques remain similar throughout the country, each region features special ingredients and seasonings. A traditional Chinese family meal consists of four main dishes: meat or poultry, fish or seafood, a vegetable, and soup all over the country. Despite varying flavors, the menu always includes a basic staple dish of rice, steamed breads, pancakes, or noodles. The similarities in Chinese cuisine in each region end at this point, as the tastes and ingredients diverge to create a much-diversified menu.
In general, there are four main “schools” of Chinese cooking, the Cantonese method of the southern region, the Peking or Mandarin style from the north, Shanghai cooking on the east coast, and the Szechuan variety of cooking in inland China. The northern school associated with the city of Canton and southern China has evolved a unique history and has become the most familiar with Westerners because most of those who immigrated to Europe and the Americas during the nineteenth century originated from Canton. Canton was an ancient trading port and the home of many wealthy Chinese merchants and foreigners. Resulting from this varying culture and proximity to other lands via trade, unusual delicacies were introduced including frogs’ legs, snakes, turtles, and dogs. This region is subtropical with a humid climate, possessing an extended year-round growing season. The favorable climate denotes this area as primarily an agricultural region with vegetables and fruits such as bananas, pineapples, oranges, and lychees remaining abundant. Dim sun is prepared elsewhere in China, but it is in Canton that these “dot the heart” treats, including pastries, dumplings, soups, breads, cake, and noodles were most distinguished. The Cantonese slightly undercook their food to accentuate natural flavorings in steaming, blanching, barbecuing, roasting, and simmering. (Yu, 8).
The Peking or Mandarin style encompassing Peking, the northern provinces of Shandong, Hebei, and Shanxis as well as Mongolia, is arguably the most eclectic area of China. The climate for this region varies extremely as the plains covering majority of the land are beaten with cold Siberian winds during the winter and hot breezes from the Gobi desert in the summer. Shandong grows vast amounts of wheat, barley, millet, corn, and soybeans, however, as it has a suitable temperate climate. Because of the somewhat cooler climate, wheat rather than rice became the primary staple crop, and meals often partially consist of steamed breads, pancakes, and noodles. Palace chefs of Peking introduced new ingredients to suit the ruling monarchs, creating new dishes, which are still widely served today. Many beef and lamb dishes are present in the Mandarin diet, as Moslems in the north would not eat pork for religious reasons.
On the eastern coast where Shanghai cooking dominates, dishes are strongly flavored with soy sauce and sugar also including a wide variety of seafood from the nearby Pacific Ocean. A subtropical climate with warm, wet summers and cool winters provide a year-round growing season. Wheat, barely, rice, corn, sweet potatoes, soybeans, bamboo shoots, beans, melons, gourds, squashes, and leafy vegetables have become a vital part of the eastern Chinese diet. The Yangtse River provides freshwater crabs, shrimp, and carp inland. Shaohsing wine, soy sauce, and Chinkiang vinegar are each unique to this region. (Yu, 8).
The final region, inland China distinguished by the Szechuan style of cooking, produces hot, spicy dishes. In the providences of Sichuan and Hunana, the climate is comprised of warm, humid summers and mild winters, allowing subtropical fruits to thrive such as oranges, tangerines, and kumquats. Dried ingredients such as black mushrooms, wood ears, and silver tree ears in addition to the red chili peppers were used along with peppercorns, garlic, onions, dried tangerine peel, and gingerroot, make for a spicy cuisine. Flavoring and condiments create an intricate blending of hot, sour and sweet tastes in the western Chinese diet. (Yu, 9).
The ancient Chinese diet was relatively indistinctive early on, both bland in taste and in texture before the influence of the cookery of different cultures. Unlike the diverse and exceedingly tasty food served in the various regions of China today, early menus consisted of dishes lacking in flavor from spices and foreign vegetables. Despite the seemingly unvarying meals of the early Chinese people, many of the staple foods in modern China were as important to their ancient ancestors. Archaeologists have uncovered farming tools and pots containing grains of rice that date back to 5000BC. (Hom, 21). Flour milling, introduced into the Chinese diet during 206 BC, would later evolve into noodle making. (Wellman). In addition to the agrarian food derived from the earth in the ancient Chinese diet, wild beasts and seafood caught comprised the savory, yet very bland diet.
As the Chinese culture evolved and diversified, so did its everyday and imperial cuisine. For thousands of years, the Chinese empire undertook extensive land development including constructing vast irrigation, flood control, and water transport facilities to assist with agriculture. During the Han Dynasty (200BC – 220AD), Chinese agricultural advancements greatly increased production. Low taxes, land distribution, and public projects in as well as the dissemination of agricultural knowledge aided in the rising prosperity of Chinese agriculture. (Hom, 66). The Southern Song Dynasty (1126 – 1279AD) was famous for the refinements it brought to Chinese imperial cuisine. (Hom, 67). During this time, a huge influx of Buddhist influence introduced many delicious vegetarian meals. Often times meals of the emperor would consist of thirty courses composed of nearly one hundred dishes. An official taster, an eunuch, sampled each of the emperor’s dishes first to test for poisons before the monarch was able to consume his meal. (Hom, 68). The middle class also adapted its own culinary style, adopting a hybrid of wealthy settings with simpler, more balanced dishes. The late ancient Chinese cuisine had become altered greatly over the country’s two thousand year history, even more so with the introduction of new fruits, vegetables, and spices from far away lands.
Many of the “traditional” Chinese dishes have been adopted from foreign sources either partially with the contribution of new ingredients or completely with innovative new tastes. Because the country has many natural barriers including the Pacific Ocean, desert, and mountains as well as the man-made Great Wall from the Bohai Sea to the Gobi desert, it seems that China was relatively sealed off from the outside world from any “barbarians” for many centuries. However, this great civilization was very accessible for other cultures through trade, although on China’s own terms. Somewhat dependent on the outside world for livestock, produce, seafood, spices, poultry, rice, wine, and wheat, China became a central location for the convergence of many diverse oriental cuisines with the construction Silk Road, built in the third century AD during the Han Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), grapes, spinach, lettuce, figs, sugar beets, leeles, and shallots, as well as pine nuts, almonds, and pistachios were introduced from the near East. Hom, 51). During this dynasty, traders from many areas and nations including Japan, Korea, Arabia, India, and Persia delivered their goods and traded for many rich products in China, leaving behind facets of their own cultures, especially new foods. The growing influence of Buddhism, which had traveled via the Silk Road from India and Nepal, and its emphasis on vegetarianism led to innovative uses of wheat products in the form of dumplings and fried dough strips. The Mongols introduced yogurt, game, goat, mutton, and the mare’s milk derivative, Koumiss upon taking over China in 1279 AD. (Hom, 53) Despite the radical invasion of Mongolian leader, Kublai Khan, the Chinese menu remained unchanged for the most part throughout the occupation. The earliest western influences arrived from southern Europe during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). (Hom, 54). New World foods including peanuts, sweet potatoes, and corn were introduced by the Portuguese and Spanish explorers when traveling from the New World to India, China, and the Philippines in the early sixteenth century. (Hom, 54). Through Chinese traders who initially left China but then later returned, squash, tomatoes, and chili peppers were brought from the Americas approximately one hundred years ago. (Hom, 51). With the contribution of foods from various countries over thousands of years, the Chinese cuisine has culminated into a diverse sampling of many cultures from around the world.
The most prominent flavors in Chinese food are created by a careful mix of seasonings comprised of gingerroot, scallions, garlic, star anise, and red pepper, some of which have been introduced by other cultures and were used in ancient times as herbal remedies. In seasoning their meals, Chinese chefs believe that harmony and balance must be obtained by everything in life, including food. Each food is classified as either hot (Yang), denoting that it has a stimulating effect on oneself, or cold (Yin), implying a calming, quieting effect. Seasonings were originally paired with foods to neutralize their effects on the body. Gingerroots are served in soups, pickled in a sweet and sour dressing, and sprinkled on top of dishes as a garnish. In a stronger, more mature version of the herb, gingerroot is used to remove strong tastes, mainly in seafood. Garlic is used liberally in many Chinese dishes, as are scallions. The white portion of the scallion is usually used as flavoring and the greens for garnish. Star anise, a seasoning with a licorice-like flavor is used primarily in marinades and in braised dishes and stews. (Hom, 96). The most common flavorings include gingerroots, scallions, garlic, and star anise, all of which were originally used as herbal remedies in ancient times.
The seasonings made of herbs in modern Chinese cuisine were in fact first used in ancient times for medicinal purposes. Herbal remedies were time-tested for effectiveness and safety for generations not just a few years or decades as is done today through human trial instead of animal testing. Over many years, the toxic properties and side effects were noted in each herbal treatment, and most of those that were proved too harmful were discarded. The Shennong Herbal (Shen Nong Ben Cao) introduced in 200 BC, is currently considered the oldest Chinese herbal guide. This record contains a listing for three hundred sixty five herbal combinations, one hundred twenty considered non-toxic, one hundred twenty considered mildly toxic, and one hundred twenty five toxic. Garlic, scientifically known as Allium Sativum and called da suan by the Chinese is cultivated world wide for use as a condiment and as an herbal cure. According to Li Shizhen, garlic was introduced about two thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty. Garlic is used to treat bacterial dysentery, amebic dysentery, enteritis, sores, carbuncles, common cold, whooping cough, internal parasites, pulmonary tuberculosis, bellyache, nosebleeds, and snake and insect bites. The northern Chinese employ garlic quite frequently, but those in the south tend to avoid it because of its odor. Gingerroot is another herb found in both Chinese cookbooks and herbal guidebooks. Gingerroot is believed to have originated from the Pacific islands and is now grown mostly in China, India, Jamaica, and Nigeria. In ancient medicine, gingerroot was first introduced at least two thousand years ago as described in the Shennong Herbal. Traditionally, gingerroot has been considered to have warming, diaphoretic, anti-nausea, and anti-emetic properties. Its most common uses include the common cold, nausea, vomiting, wheezing, coughing, nasal congestion, abdominal distention, and diarrhea. The most widespread ancient gingerroot treatment was to remedy motion sickness. A small piece of gingerroot is eaten during a boat or car ride to serve this purpose. Star anise, also a popular Chinese seasoning, first became popular as an herbal treatment. Termed ba jia hui xiang, meaning “eight-horned fennel” in Chinese, it is most frequently grown in the southern providences of Guangxi, Guangdons, and Yunnan. Star anise has been used in Chinese for many centuries, but it was not until the sixteenth century that its usage was first recorded. It was first employed to warm internal organs, particularly the heart, kidney, bladder, and small intestines, as well as for pain relief. Additionally, star anise was used to treat vomiting, lumbago due to kidney deficiency, and abdominal pain due to hernia. (Leung, 9-18). Seasonings in early Chinese cuisine were first introduced and utilized as ancient herbal remedies, many of which are still in use today.
Through the exploration of Chinese diet both past and present, the nature and progression of Chinese civilization is revealed. From the initial publication of the “Li Chi”, the most extensive handbook describing social behavior ever complied back in the Han Dynasty (Hom, 22), to the modern Chinese cookbook, one observes the great importance placed upon cooking traditions by the Chinese people, as the country and populace have evolved over nearly two thousand years.
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