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 Food Culture in China 
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Post Food Culture in China
Food Culture in China
by: Jason Chang





To say that the consumption of food is a vital part of the chemical process of life is to state the obvious, but sometimes we fail to realize that food is more than just vital. The only other activity that we engage in that is of comparable importance to our lives and to the life of our species is sex. As Kao Tzu, a Warring States-period philosopher and keen observer of human nature, said, “Appetite for food and sex is nature.”1 But these two activities are quite different. We are, I believe, much closer to our animal base in our sexual endeavors than we are in our eating habits. Too, the range of variations is infinitely wider in food than in sex. In fact, the importance of food in understanding human culture lies precisely in its infinite variability -variability that is not essential for species survival. For survival needs, all men everywhere could eat the same food, to be measured only in calories, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins. But no, people of different backgrounds eat very differently. The basic stuffs from which food is prepared; the ways in which it is preserved, cut up, cooked (if at all); the amount and variety at each meal; the tastes that are liked and disliked; the customs of serving food; the utensils; the beliefs about the food’s properties -these all vary. The number of such “food variables” is great.

An anthropological approach to the study of food would be to isolate and identify the food variables, arrange these variables systematically, and explain why some of these variables go together or do not go together.

For convenience, we may use culture as a divider in relating food variables’ hierarchically. I am using the word culture here in a classificatory sense implying the pattern or style of behavior of a group of people who share it. Food habits may be used as an important, or even determining, criterion in this connection. People who have the same culture share the same food habits, that is, they share the same assemblage of food variables. Peoples of different cultures share different assemblages of food variables. We might say that different cultures have different food choices. (The word choices is used here not necessarily in an active sense, granting the possibility that some choices could be imposed rather than selected.) Why these choices? What determines them? These are among the first questions in any study of food habits.

Within the same culture, the food habits are not at all necessarily homogeneous. In fact, as a rule they are not. Within the same general food style, there are different manifestations of food variables of a smaller range, for different social situations. People of different social classes or occupations eat differently. People on festive occasions, in mourning, or on a daily routine eat again differently. Different religious sects have different eating codes. Men and women, in various stages of their lives, eat differently. Different individuals have different tastes. Some of these differences are ones of preference, but others may be downright prescribed. Identifying these differences, explaining them, and relating them to other facets of social life are again among the tasks of a serious scholar of food.

Finally, systematically articulated food variables can be laid out in a time perspective, as in historical periods of varying lengths. We see how food habits change and seek to explore the reasons and consequences. . .

My own generalizations pertain above all to the question: What characterizes Chinese food? . . . I see the following common themes:

1. The food style of a culture is certainly first of all determined by the natural resources that are available for its use. . . . It is thus not surprising that Chinese food is above all characterized by an assemblage of plants and animals that grew prosperously in the Chinese land for a long time. A detailed list would be out of place here, and quantitative data are not available. The following enumeration is highly impressionistic:

Starch Staples: millet, rice, kao-liang, wheat, maize, buckwheat, yam, sweet potato.

Legumes: soybean, broad bean, pea- nut, mung bean.

Vegetables: malva, amaranth, Chi- nese cabbage, mustard green, turnip, radish, mushroom.

Fruits: peach, apricot, plum, apple, jujube date, pear, crab apple, mountain haw, longan, litchi, orange.

Meats: pork, dog, beef, mutton, venison, chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, many fishes.

Spices: red pepper, ginger, garlic, spring onion, cinnamon.

Chinese cooking is, in this sense, the manipulation of these foodstuffs as basic ingredients. Since ingredients are not the same everywhere, Chinese food begins to assume a local character simply by virtue of the ingredients it uses. Obviously ingredients are not sufficient for characterization, but they are a good beginning. Compare, for example, the above list with one in which dairy products occupy a prominent place, and one immediately comes upon a significant contrast between the two food traditions.

One important point about the distinctive assemblage of ingredients is its change through history. Concerning food, the Chinese are not nationalistic to the point of resisting imports. In fact, foreign foodstuffs have been readily adopted since the dawn of history. Wheat and sheep and goats were possibly introduced from western Asia in prehistoric times, many fruits and vegetables came in from central Asia during the Han and the T’ang periods, and peanuts and sweet potatoes from coastal traders during the Ming period. These all became integral ingredients of Chinese food. At the same time,. . . milk and dairy products, to this date, have not taken a prominent place in Chinese cuisine. . . .

2. In the Chinese culture, the whole process of preparing food from raw ingredients to morsels ready for the mouth involves a complex of interrelated variables that is highly distinctive when compared with other food traditions of major magnitude. At the base of this complex is the division between fan, grains and other starch foods, and ts’ai, vegetable and meat dishes. To prepare a balanced meal, it must have an appropriate amount of both fan and ts’ai, and ingredients are readied along both tracks. Grains are cooked whole or as flour, making up the fan half of the meal in various forms: fan (in the narrow sense, “cooked rice”), steamed wheat-, millet-, or corn-flour bread, ping (”pancakes”), and noodles. Vegetables and meats are cut up and mixed in various ways into individual dishes to constitute the ts’ai half. Even in meals in which the staple starch portion and the meat-and-vegetable portion are apparently joined together, such as in . . . “wonton” . . . they are in fact put together but not mixed up, and each still retains its due proportion and own distinction. . . .

For the preparation of ts’ai, the use of multiple ingredients and the mixing of flavors are the rules, which above all means that ingredients are usually cut up and not done whole, and that they are variously combined into individual dishes of vastly differing flavors. Pork for example, may be diced, slice shredded, or ground, and when combined with other meats and with various vegetable ingredients and spice produces dishes of utterly diverge, shapes, flavors, colors, tastes, and aromas.

The parallelism of fan and ts’ai an the above-described principles of ts’ai’ preparation account for a number ( other features of the Chinese food culture, especially in the area of utensil To begin with, there are fan utensils and ts’ai utensils, both for cooking an for serving. In the modem kitchen, fan kuo (”rice cooker”) and Ts’ai kuo (”wok”) are very different and as a rule not interchangeable utensils. . . .

As a country that pays great attention to courtesy, our cuisine culture is deep rooted in China’s history. As a visitor or guest in either a Chinese home or restaurant you will find that table manners are essential and the distinctive courtesies displayed will invariably add to the enjoyment of your meals and keep you in high spirits!

(A)Respect First

It is really an admirable custom to respect others at the table, including the aged, teachers and guests while taking good care of children.

Chinese people stress filial piety all the time. The practice of presenting the best or fine food first to the senior members of the family has been observed for countless generations. In ancient times the common people led a needy life but they still tried their best to support the elder mother or father who took it for granted.

Although the hosts in China are all friendly and hospitable, you should also show them respect. Before starting to eat dinner, the host may offer some words of greeting. Guests should not start to eat until the host says, ‘Please enjoy yourself’ or something like that, otherwise it suggests disrespect and causes displeasure.

When hosts place dishes on the table, they will arrange the main courses at the center with the supporting dishes evenly placed around them. When the main dishes are prepared in a decorative form either by cut or other means they will be placed facing the major guests and elder people at the table. This also embodies virtue.

(B)On Chopsticks

The Chopstick is a miracle among the creations of Chinese food culture. This utensil helps the dinner to really relish his or her food. The use of chopsticks with ease will add to the enjoyment of the delicacies. How to use them maybe a problem and here are our suggestions that may be helpful:

First, hold the upper stick like a pen with your thumb and middle finger. Second, take the lower one with the thumb and set it on the ring finger. Finally, try to move the two sticks and pick up your favorite dish.

It is considerately convenient to have noodles with chopsticks. Then you can wind noodle threads lightly but firmly, to avoid splattering soup or sauces in the bowl. For the first time, be some may slide off the sticks, but the slight lapses are inevitable and practice makes perfect. After practice you will become adept at picking up all sorts of morsels from plates.

When the dishes are positioned on the table, usually the first to help them selves should be the hosts or the elderly. Do not take too much once, or return your food to the plate. Try to avoid the collision of chopsticks with those of your neighbors since they are longer than forks or knives.

Do not drum or tap bowls and plates with chopsticks especially when you are a guest, because people believe that is the humble behavior of beggars when they beg for food.

Never insert chopsticks upright onto the vessels for food, as this will be viewed as an evil presage and will sustain the disapproval of the seniors. The reason is that, it is the unique way to show the esteem and care for the dead. Long ago it was a tradition in China to worship their ancestors with offerings of food. However, in consideration that the dead could not use chopsticks smoothly, the living had to use them at an upright angle.

Avoid sucking the end of a chopstick or keeping it in mouth for a long time. Never point at someone with a chopstick and do not use it to prick food in order to pick it up. These are also regarded as impolite and irreverent.

Chinese Eight Regional Cuisines

Chinese cuisine includes a variety of different flavors due to China’s vast geography and diverse nationalities. Local dishes with their own distinctiveness can be roughly divided into eight regional cuisines.

Sichuan Cuisine: Sichuan, both spicy and pungent, is one of the most famous Chinese cuisines in the world.

Guangdong Cuisine: Guangdong cuisine is creative with an emphasis on artistic presentation. The cuisine is considered light, crisp, and fresh.

Zhejiang Cuisine: Made up of Hanzhou, Ningbo and Shaoxing Cuisines, Zhejiang is enjoyed for its freshness, tenderness, and mellow fragrance.

Jiangsu Cuisine: Also called Huaiyang, Jiangsu uses seafood as its main ingredient and is known for carving techniques and a light, fresh and sweet flavor.

Anhui Cuisine: Anhui Cuisine focuses on cooking temperature, braising, and stewing. Hams are used to improve taste and sugar candy for freshness.

Fujian Cuisine: A combination of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, and Xiamen Cuisine, Fujian is characterized by a pickled, sweet & sour taste and bright colors.

Shandong Cuisine: A combination of Jinan and Jiaodong, Shandong is characterized by an emphasis on freshness, aroma, and crispness.

Hunan Cuisine: Including local cuisines of Xiangjiang Region, Dongting Lake and Xiangxi coteau, Hunan is known for its use of chili, pepper and shallot, and a pungent flavor.


About The Author
Welcome to Jason Chang's blog Chinese food, which is about Chinese recipes, Chinese culture. If you want to understand some information for CHINA, it is a good site.

http://www.nicechinesefood.com/


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Sat Dec 11, 2010 12:19 pm
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