Chinese cuisine is widely seen as representing one of the richest and most diverse culinary heritages in the world. It originated in different regions of China and has been introduced to other parts of the world- from Southeast Asia to North America and Western Europe.
A meal in Chinese culture is typically seen as consisting of two general components: (1) a carbohydrate source or starch, known as 主食 in the Chinese language (Pinyin: zhǔshí; lit. "main food", staple)- typically rice, noodles, or mantou (steamed buns), and (2) accompanying dishes of vegetables, fish, meat, or other items, known as 菜 (Pinyin: cài; lit. "vegetable") in the Chinese language. (This cultural conceptualization is in some ways in contrast to Western meals where meat or animal protein is often considered the main dish.)
As is well known throughout the world, rice is a critical part of much of Chinese cuisine. However, in many parts of China, particularly North China, wheat-based products including noodles and steamed buns (饅頭) predominate, in contrast to South China where rice is dominant. Despite the importance of rice in Chinese cuisine, at extremely formal occasions, it is sometimes the case that no rice at all will be served; in such a case, rice would only be provided when no other dishes remained, or as a token dish at the end of the meal. Soup is usually served at the end of a meal to satiate one's appetite. Owing to western influences, serving soup in the beginning of a meal is also quite normal in modern times.
Chopsticks are the primary eating utensil in Chinese culture for solid foods, while soups and other liquids are enjoyed1 with a wide, flat-bottomed spoon (traditionally made of ceramic). It is reported that wooden chopsticks are losing their dominance due to recent logging shortfalls in China and East Asia; many Chinese eating establishments are considering a switch to a more environmentally sustainable eating utensil, such as plastic or bamboo chopsticks. More expensive materials used in the past included ivory and silver. On the other hand, disposable chopsticks made of wood/bamboo have all but replaced reusable ones in small restaurants. In most dishes in Chinese cuisine, food is prepared in smaller pieces (e.g. vegetable, meat, doufu), ready for direct picking up and eating. Traditionally, Chinese culture considered using knives and forks at the table "barbaric" due to fact that these implements are regarded as weapons. Fish are usually cooked and served whole, with diners directly pulling pieces from the fish with chopsticks to eat, unlike in some other cuisines where they are first filleted. This is because it is desired for fish to be served as fresh as possible. A common Chinese saying "including head and tail" refers to the wholeness and completion of a certain task or, in this case, the display of food.
In a Chinese meal, each individual diner is given their own bowl of rice while the accompanying dishes are served in communal plates (or bowls) which are shared by everyone sitting at the table, a communal service known as "family style" in Western nations. In the Chinese meal, each diner picks food out of the communal plates on a bite-by-bite basis with their chopsticks. This is in contrast to western meals where it is customary to dole out individual servings of the dishes at the beginning of the meal. Many non-Chinese are uncomfortable with allowing a person's individual utensils (which might have traces of saliva) to touch the communal plates; for this hygienic reason, additional serving spoons or chopsticks (公筷, lit. common/public/shared chopsticks) may be made available. The food selected is often eaten together with a mouthful of rice.
Vegetarianism is not uncommon or unusual in China, though, as is the case in the West, is still only practiced by a relatively small proportion of the population. The Chinese vegetarian does not eat a lot of tofu, unlike the stereotypical impression in the West. Most Chinese vegetarians are Buddhists. Non-Chinese eating Chinese cuisine will note that a large number of vegetable dishes may actually contain meat, as meat chunks or bits have been traditionally used to flavor dishes. Chinese Buddhist cuisine has many true vegetarian dishes (no meat at all).
For much of China's history, human manure has been used as fertilizer due to the large human population and the relative scarcity of farm animals in China. For this reason, raw food (especially raw vegetables such as salad) has not been part of the traditional Chinese diet.
Desserts as such are less typical in Chinese culture than in the West. Chinese meals do not typically end with a dessert or dessert course as is common in Western cuisine. Instead, sweet foods are often introduced during the course of the meal with no firm distinction made. For instance, the basi fruit dishes (sizzling sugar syrup coated fruits such as banana or apple) are eaten alongside other savory dishes that would be considered main course items in the West. However, many sweet foods and dessert snacks do exist in Chinese cuisine. Many are fried, and several incorporate red bean paste (dousha). The matuan and the doushabao is filled with dousha; it is often eaten for breakfast. Some steamed bun items are filled with dousha; some of these are in the shape of peaches, an important Chinese cultural symbol. Another dessert is Babao Fan (八寶飯) or "Eight Treasure Rice Pudding".
If dessert is served at the end of the meal, by far the most typical choice is fresh fruit, such as sliced oranges. The second most popular choice is a type of sweet soup, typically made with red beans and sugar. This soup is served warm.
In Chinese culture, cold beverages are believed to be harmful to digestion of hot food, so items like ice-cold water or soft drinks are traditionally not served at meal-time. Besides soup, if any other beverages are served, they would most likely be hot tea or hot water. Tea is believed to help in the digestion of greasy foods.
Due to the large and varied characteristics of China itself, a multitude of different regional and other (e.g. religious) styles can be identified in the larger complex of Chinese cuisine:
Regions of Mainland China
Cuisine name derives from province or region except where indicated
- Northwestern Chinese cuisine
- Mandarin cuisine
- Jiang-Huai cuisine
- Northeastern Chinese cuisine
- Cantonese cuisine (Guangdong province)
- Chiuchow cuisine (Chaozhou region, Guangdong)
- Hakka cuisine (Hakka ethnic group)
- Hunan cuisine
- Shanghai cuisine
- Sichuan cuisine
- Fujian cuisine
- Yunnan cuisine
- Hainan cuisine
- Hong Kong cuisine
- Macanese cuisine
- Taiwanese cuisine
- Nanyang Chinese cuisine (cuisine of the Nanyang region or Southeast Asia Chinese diaspora)
- Historical Chinese cuisine
- Chinese Islamic cuisine
- Chinese Buddhist cuisine
A Chinese meal in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, with bowls of white rice, shrimp, eggplant, fermented tofu, vegetable stir-fries, vegetarian duck, and a central dish with meat and bamboo. There are 6 bowls of rice, one for each person.
- Fried rice
- Jiaozi (filled dumplings, guotie)
- Potsticker (shallow fried jiaozi)
- Fried noodles
- Noodle soup
- Kung Pao chicken
- Fried pancakes (including green onion pancakes)
- Zongzi (rice balls, wrapped in leaves)
- Peking Duck - the trademark dish of Beijing
- Baozi (filled steamed buns)
- Dim sum - originated in Guangzhou (Canton) and Hong Kong
- Steamed fish
- Tofu dishes
- Century egg (皮蛋; pi2 dan4; lit. leather egg): hundred-day old egg, or preserved egg
- Tea egg (茶葉蛋; cha2 ye4 dan4): hard boiled egg soaked or stewed in tea
- Congee (粥; zhou1): rice porridge
- Pickled vegetables (醬菜; jiang4 cai4; lit. sauced vegetables)
- Soy milk (豆奶; dou4 nai3 or 豆漿; dou4 jiang1) in either sweet or "salty" form
- Youtiao (油條), "Cow tongue pastry" (牛脷酥), or other fried Chinese doughfoods
- Shaobing (燒餅): a flaky baked or pan-seared dough pastry.
- Rice balls (飯糰; fan4 tuan2) with savory fillings or coatings
- Mantou (steamed bread)
- White rice
Chinese Cuisine in Diaspora
See American Chinese cuisine and Canadian Chinese cuisine for the development of Chinese cuisine in North America. Chinese cuisine is also highly developed in Western Europe. Within the United States, the cuisine of Hawaii contains many Chinese foods and Chinese influences, due to the high number of Chinese and Asian immigrants. However, Chinese-originated or -inspired foods are often combined with those of other cuisines in novel ways.
Contemporary Health Trends
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates for 2000- 02, 11% of the population of the People's Republic of China were undernourished. The number of undernourished people in the country has fallen from 386.6 million in 1969- 71 to 142.1 million in 2000- 02. The country still receives international food aid, but the World Food Program notes that the country achieved its goal of national agricultural self-sufficiency in the mid 1990s. The WFP says hunger is concentrated in rural, resource-poor areas of northern, northwestern, and southwestern China.
A typical Chinese peasant before industrialization would have eaten meat rarely and most meals would have consisted of rice accompanied with green vegetables, with protein coming from foods like peanuts. Fats and sugar were luxuries not eaten on a regular basis by most of the population. In Chinese traditional culture, being overweight was a sign of prosperity and wealth as only the wealthy could afford fatty or sweet foods or even buy enough food to become fat. In the early 1900's, there were many wealthy areas in China, along with the Emperor's throne, and the number of poor villages was low, but they continued to exist. As income levels have increased, Chinese diets have become richer with more meats, fats, and sugar being consumed.
While economic change has significantly reduced undernourishment, new health problems related to overconsumption and poor dietary choices have increased significantly. The incidence of nutrition-related disease and overweightness, including obesity (especially among children) has risen dramatically in mainland China over the last 10-15 years. Health advocates put some of the blame on the increased popularity of Western foods, especially fast food, and other culinary products and habits. Many Western, especially American, fast food chains have appeared in China, and are highly successful economically. These include McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
1- In most varieties or dialects of Chinese, the verb for consuming soup is actually translatable literally as "drink".
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Introduction | History | Regional Cuisine