China is a country with 5,000 years of rich history and culture. It also offers a varied cuisine comprising of eight culinary traditions, each with their distinctive approaches and dishes:
- Anhui – spicy & salty, with liberal use of local produce like bamboo and mushrooms.
- Guangdong – includes dim sum, which means “touch your heart” in Cantonese.
- Hunan – very hot and spicy dishes, even more so than its closely related style, Szechuan.
- Fujian – emphasis on seafood presented in broths and soups.
- Huai-Yang/Jiangsu – where dishes are cooked long and slow over a low fire.
- Shandong – characterized by quick frying over a hot fire.
- Szechuan – similar to Hunan, this style is hot, with liberal use of chili peppers.
- Zhejiang – here the emphasis is on elegant presentation.
Before my first trip to Hong Kong in 1989 – yes, that’s me in the bottom right hand corner of this picture, taken at a business dinner with executives from a major Chinese corporation – I was only familiar with the similar Szechuan and Hunan styles of cooking. My palate was expanded considerably as I experienced new tastes and textures.
Sharon Schweitzer in China at Business Dinner
During that trip I also learned a number of things I didn’t know about Chinese dining etiquette, including how to properly handle chopsticks. This made eating Chinese food in China a very different experience from how I did so in the US. I quickly discovered, too, that there are some specific taboos in China (and here are just a few that may surprise you – there are many more!):
- Never mix your rice with the rest of your food.
- Use sauces for dipping; don’t pour them over your food and rice.
- Avoid touching food and your face with your bare hands, which the Chinese consider to be disgusting habits.
- Food will be displayed on a Lazy Susan in the center of the table for everyone to enjoy. When filling your own bowl, avoid picking up any of the serving dishes.
- Be sure to leave something in your bowl to indicate that you are full. Failing to do so implies that you have not had enough to eat, which could offend your Chinese host.
- Be sensitive to the fact that some guests may adhere to food restrictions related to their religious beliefs. Avoid insisting someone try a dish that they have obviously avoided.
Depending on where in China you are visiting you could be served scorpions or grasshoppers. The tip I was given for getting the unpleasantness over with? Avoid chewing; swallow quickly!
This month I am making a return visit to China and look forward to sampling more of the delicious cuisine.
The first of many stops is Beijing – formerly known as Peking — where perhaps the most famous regional dish is the aptly named Peking Duck. This delicious blend of sweet-tasting duck with crispy skin, sliced cucumber, green onions, hoisin sauce, and thin pancakes in which to wrap everything, was first crafted for the Chinese Emperor during the 14th century Ming Dynasty. Beijing kaoya, as Peking Duck is known in Mandarin, gets its distinctive sweet and smoky taste – at least in Beijing – from the local fruit trees that fuel the brick ovens in which the duck is baked.
Next up on my 2012 tour of China will be the city of Shanghai, where apparently people love to snack. I have been told to expect no end of tempting “mini-meals.” Many of these inexpensive and flavorful classics – like Xiaolongbao, red bean pastries and fried niurou baozi – are available from street vendors. Although I’m an adventurous world traveler, I think I will stick to sampling the local specialties in recommended restaurants!
The final leg of my tour is Hong Kong where I will be feeling right at home because many of the most popular local dishes sound similar to ones we enjoy here in Austin, Texas – but with a twist: Honey Spare Ribs; Deep Fried Chicken and BBQ Pork, all offered “Hong Kong style,” involving the use of honey, peanut oil, plums and special sauces.
My mouth is watering already at the prospect of enjoying meals that most of us think we know, because we are familiar with them in Chinese restaurants across the US, but which offer taste experiences only possible to visitors to China itself.
Believe me, there is so much to share with you about discovering and delighting in authentic Chinese cooking. Stay tuned for my upcoming reports from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.