Developed over a period of more than 5000 years, Chinese cuisine is not only the product of the nation's resources but the mindset of its people. Food plays a crucial role in Chinese culture, and the simple sharing of meals binds families and communities. One of the most common Chinese greetings (Chi le fan mei you?) translates not to "Hello" or "How are you?" but to "Have you eaten yet?"
The Chinese believe there is a natural order and balance to everything. This belief is applied to their cooking in the sense that the individual ingredients of any dish must complement and balance each other.
The five elements of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot) have been recognized and incorporated into Chinese cooking since the beginning of the Han dynasty in 206 B.C.
China is a large country with a variety of climates, hence a diversity of resources. There are essentially four regional cuisines, and each region has a number of dishes that have gained popularity outside of their native areas. The Chinese food we know in the Western world often features these popular recipes.
The Guangdong province in the south of China enjoys rich agricultural resources and its capital, Guangzhou (Canton), is a thriving seaport. The cuisine here, known as Cantonese, relies on the freshness of the area's ingredients to provide its essential flavors. Condiments and sauces are used with a light touch in Cantonese cooking. Exotic fruits such as longans and lychees, as well as citrus fruits, melons and bananas abound in this region, as does fresh seafood. Dim Sum, a wide selection of small dishes served from early morning until mid-afternoon, is said to have originated in the teahouses of Canton. Typical dim sum dishes include dumplings, steamed meat-filled buns, chicken wings and spring rolls.
The cuisine originating from the inland provinces of Sichuan (Szechuan) and Hunan is characteristically spicy. Hunan is directly north of Guangdong, and Sichuan is just northwest of Hunan. The terrain of Hunan is relatively good for farming, but Sichuan is quite rocky. The cuisine of both provinces share a focus on the artful blending of sweet, sour, hot and salty flavors. The use of ingredients like sichuan peppercorns, star anise, chili peppers, vinegar, sugar, sesame seeds, peanuts and cashews produce exciting and flavorful dishes. Mu Shu Pork and Kung Pao Chicken are familiar favorites from this region.
As the center of Chinese government and the home of the Imperial Court for hundreds of years, the cuisine of Beijing, most commonly called Peking-style, is sophisticated and indulgent. This area suffers from harsh winters and is unsuitable for growing rice. Staple crops in the region include wheat, soybeans and other grains, and as a result, Peking-style cuisine features a variety of dumpling and noodle dishes. Garlic, ginger, scallions, leeks and cabbage are prominent ingredients in Peking-style cooking. Because of Beijing's close proximity to Mongolia and Shandong, it draws a number of culinary influences from those regions. Mongolian Hot Pot, a kind of Chinese fondue and Mongolian Beef are a couple of well-known examples. Some other familiar dishes from the region include Sweet and Sour Pork, Peking Duck and Hot and Sour Soup.
Situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, Shanghai is a bustling seaport and China's largest city. Both fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish are plentiful, and the mild climate is ideal for growing rice and tea in addition to a wide selection of produce. This abundance of resources has made Shanghai the culinary capital of China. The dishes of Shanghai feature complex, slightly sweet sauces flavored with dark soy and black vinegar, slow-simmered stews, and an abundance of seafood delicacies. "Red Cooking" is a technique that originated in the city of Suzhou but is most often associated with Shaghai cuisine. Foods are slowly braised in dark soy sauce with a bit of rock sugar, which gives them a rich red-brown color and a tender, delicate sweetness. Another ingredient frequently used in Shaghai-style cooking is the rice wine from Shao Hsing. Drunken Chicken is a popular cold dish prepared by marinating chicken in Shao Hsing wine, soy sauce and sugar, then steaming it with green onions and ginger and chilling for a day before serving.
Most Americans probably aren't aware of the diverse and complex nature of Chinese cuisine. However, each region of China contributes an incredible flavor experience, and the variety of ingredients and cooking techniques combine to create a cuisine unparalleled by any other.