Though it possesses an engaging history that spans over 5000 years, Chinese culinary history only began to be documented during the 5th Century B.C. and evolved across several dynastic periods including the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Imperial oversight played an important role in the development of culinary trends. A cook’s work was set to strict culinary rules determined by the emperor and senior officials. China’s varied regional, climatic and cultural influences saw the development of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes with exclusions that followed the availability or religious significance of certain ingredients. Over the last 2000 years, Chinese cooking saw the development of strong culinary differences across the banks of the Yangtze River. European travellers brought with them dairy products, a class of products rarely found in historical culinary records. The blurring of cultural and geographic lines led to the development of regional cuisines and the ‘Four Schools’ and ‘Eight Schools’ of this cuisine as well as several dietary trends. Today, we know these as ‘cleansing’ or ‘balanced’ diets. Ancient Chinese cookbooks list nearly 200 distinct vegetables and over 100 types of meat that featured on imperial and common menus throughout the country. Through all these cultural, religious and imperial upheavals, the core philosophy of this cuisine has been moderation, balance and harmony.
Chinese food has always enjoyed immense popularity in the West. Today, there are nearly 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, a tribute to the popularity of a culinary style that feeds over a billion people every day. Some of the most popular Chinese dishes that find their place on tables around the world include:
Chow Mein: This delicious marriage of hand-drawn noodles, meat and select vegetables such as Bok Choy and bamboo shoot. Chow Mein, served crispy or soft is popular comfort food in the West and may be served with a hot sauce or with a choice of milder, aromatic sauces.
Duck: Roast duck is easily the most popular gourmet delicacy served up in Chinese restaurants. The modern Peking duck is a challenging interpretation of an imperial recipe that serves up a beautifully glazed roast duck with aromatic herb sauces and tender meat. Some gastronomes have gone as far as to name it ‘China’s National Dish’
Xiaolongbao: These soup dumplings form excellent finger food and accompany other dishes. These steamed buns are served with soups and several gravies including a garlic vinegar sauce or a Schezwan dip. A culinary cousin, the sweet Lai Wong Bao is the perfect end to a Chinese meal.
Kung Pao Chicken: One of the most popular savory dishes from southwest China, Kung Pao chicken is one of the best examples of a recipe that has survived since the imperial aristocracy of the Qing dynasty. This delicately flavored chicken is typically cooked in peanut oil.
The diversity of China’s varied cuisine places hundreds of ingredients at a cook’s disposal. Some of the most ingredients unique to Chinese modern cuisine include Shaoxing rice wine, Nanjing Chinkiang vinegar, sesame and groundnut (peanut) oils, Hoisin sauce, spring onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, red chili, mushroom and shiitakes or dried mushroom. These ingredients are combined to create the legendary flavors of Chinese cuisine and combined with a palate of over a dozen spices. Five spice powder—a combination of Cinnamon, Cloves, Fennel seeds, Schezwan peppers and star anise — rounds off the list of essential ingredients of the Chinese kitchen.
The Chinese people attribute their long lifespan and excellent quality of life to the philosophy and style of culinary arts. Centuries of refining the harmony of food groups offer several significant dietary benefits. One of the key benefits of Chinese dishes come from the use of steamed ingredients and well-balanced food groups. Most vegetables and some meats are steamed and have a much lower lipid composition. Very few Chinese dishes are deep-fried and are far healthier than most other South Asian cuisines. The use of rice and wheat in noodles is a perfect combination of carbohydrate energy and the wheat aids to slow down digestion for sustained energy release. The use of soy as a primary vegetable protein is considered one of the healthiest culinary features of this cuisine.
Over time, the term ‘Chinese food’ has, quite inaccurately, expanded to include South-East Asian cuisines such as Thai, Malay and Singaporean cuisines. Every country has its own interpretations (and often, distortions) of Chinese dishes. American-Chinese and Indo-Chinese cuisines have emerged from the shadows of being dubious imitations to culinary art forms that pay respect to both cuisines. As the world appreciates the curative benefits and flavor of healthy Chinese food more chefs are beginning to study and experience the magic of this beautiful, balanced style of food.