by: Jenica Villanueva
Chinese people love to eat. It is then proven that their country boasts one of the world’s greatest cuisines. Having its unique style of cooking and preparing, Chinese cooking has been renowned throughout the centuries. Being one of the oldest existing countries, a long history of ritual and etiquette and eating is highly important feature in their culture.
Each nation has their own set of food culture. China, being known as a state of etiquette and ceremonies, follows many underlying principles especially when it comes to eating as they value the importance of food in their culture. As Confucius once said, “Eating is the utmost important thing in life.”
The Chinese Style
The main difference between Chinese and Western eating habits is that unlike the West where everyone has their own plate of food, in China, the dishes are placed on the table and everybody shares. –Alberta China Office
A Chinese meal is typically seen as consisting of two general components:
- Main food – a carbohydrate source or starch, typically rice, noodles, or buns, and
- Accompanying dishes – of vegetables, fish, meat, or other items.
- Dim Sum: A traditional Chinese meal that consists of lots of small dishes of a bunch of different kinds of foods, including steamed or fried dumplings.
The world of Chinese food consists of more variety than most Americans realize. There are many different types of food in China that can be categorized roughly by four regions: Southern, Northern, Eastern and Western. Some information about each:
- Southern, or Cantonese – The cuisine from this area is perhaps the most well-known to many. Cantonese cuisine uses a large variety of vegetables and meats. Rice is the staple, and the familiar Fried Rice recipes are Cantonese in origin. Many of the dishes of this area are prepared very quickly by stir-frying. Usually Cantonese cuisine is lightly flavored, but there are a large variety of tastes used. Sweet and sour dishes originated in this region.
- Northern, or Beijing – Also known as Mandarin cuisine, this type of food originated in the area of China that has very severed winters. The climate of this region does not allow for the growing of rice, so wheat is the staple. Wheat is made into noodles, pancakes and dumplings. The flavors of Northern China are more robust, with plenty of onion, garlic, cabbage, bean pastes, dark soy sauce and oyster flavored sauce. With influences from Mongolian and Muslim invaders in the past, Northern cuisine is hearty fare. Beijing (Peking) Duck, Mongolian Hot Pot and Mongolian Beef are some of the more familiar types of this cuisine.
- Eastern, or Shanghai – This cuisine uses a combination of wheat and rice as its staples. Rice and wheat noodles are very popular. This region has a lot of rivers and other bodies of water, so fish and seafood are a very large part of the cuisine. Sugar is also grown in this area, and Shanghai cuisine uses more of it than the other regions. The cooking style of this region can be delicate and refined, with a large variety of sweet and savory pastries being made using the thinnest of pastry skin. Meatballs made from finely minced pork are also part of this cuisine. This area also produces a type of cured ham.
- Western, or Szechwan – Szechwan cuisine is famous for its use of tongue-blistering chili peppers in a variety of dishes. But there’s more to this cuisine than just heat. There are subtle dishes, such as smoked Chicken that is smoked with tea leaves. Szechwan pepper is also a spice used in this cuisine. Five-spice powder is another spice that is used in this cuisine. Hot and Sour soup and Twice Cooked Pork are familiar dishes from this area.
Being surrounded by much loud talking and laughing is a typical ambience at a Chinese culture. Chinese people likes noisy and upbeat atmosphere when having a gathering and meals are no exception.
Table etiquette is very important to Chinese people. In Chinese culture, using correct table manners is believed to bring “luck” while incorrect use will bring shame. Similarly, table etiquette indicates children’s educational status: holding chopsticks incorrectly leaves a bad impression and shames the parents, who have the responsibility of teaching them.
The following are one of few examples of proper table manners:
- Never stick your chopsticks upright in the rice bowl, since that usually appears on the funeral and is deemed extremely impolite to the host and seniors present.
- Make sure the spout of the teapot is not facing anyone. The proper way is make it direct outward from the table.
- Don’t tap on your bowl with your chopsticks, since that will be deemed insult to the host or the chef.
- Never try to turn a fish over and debone it yourself, since the separation of the fish skeleton from the lower half of the flesh will usually be performed by the host or a waiter. Superstitious people will deem bad luck will ensue and a fishing boat will capsize otherwise.
Chopsticks: Chop Tips
China is the hometown of chopsticks. The culture of chopsticks has a long history on them.
The invention of chopsticks reflects the wisdom of Chinese ancient people. A pair of chopsticks, though they look simple, can nip, pick, rip and stir food. Nowadays, chopsticks are considered to be lucky gifts for marriage and other important ceremonies.
Chinese simply choose chopsticks as their tableware rather than knife and fork since Chinese people, under cultivation of Confucianism, consider knife and fork bearing sort of violence, like cold weapons. However, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence, the main moral teaching of Confucianism.
There are superstitions associated with chopsticks too.
- If you find an uneven pair at your table setting, it means you are going to miss a boat, plane or train.
- Dropping chopsticks will inevitably bring bad luck.
- Crossed chopsticks are, however, permissible in a dim sum restaurant. The waiter will cross them to show that your bill has been settled, or you can do the same to show the waiter that you have finished and are ready to pay the bill.
- Never waive the chopsticks over food when having a meal because it is considered poor manners.
- Never spear or poke food with the tips of the chopsticks because it is bad manners. Certain things may be more difficult to pick up with chopsticks, but chopsticks are designed to pick up food, not to spear and stab it. Equally forbidden is using chopsticks to pull a dish forward. Use only hands.
- If you need to rest your chopsticks, leave them on the chopsticks rest or by the side of your bowl or plate. Do not stick them into a bowl of rice because it resembles ancestral offerings and is frowned upon.
- If the table settings include serving spoons or chopsticks, use them instead of your own set to get yourself food.
- Do not suck on the tip of the chopsticks.
“The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” –Confucius
How to Use Chopsticks
There are two important things to remember for effective use of chopsticks. One is that the two lower ends must be even, that is, one must not protrude over the other. The other condition is that the two chopsticks must be in the same plane.
Hold the other (upper) chopstick between the tips of the index and middle fingers, steady its upper half against the base of the index finger, and use the tips of the thumb to keep it in place.
With a little practice, you will be able to use chopsticks with ease.
In China, foods are given particular meanings, so that a type of food can only be eaten by some specific individuals in certain occasion, or must be eaten in specific occasion.
Eggs hold a special symbolic significance in many cultures, and China is no exception. The Chinese believe eggs symbolize fertility. After a baby is born, parents may hold a “red egg and ginger party,” where they pass out hard boiled eggs to announce the birth. (In some regions of China the number of eggs presented depends on the sex of the child: an even number for a girl, and an odd number if a boy has been born).
Noodles are a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. They are as much a part of a Chinese birthday celebration as a birthday cake with lit candles is in many countries. Since noodles do symbolize long life, it is considered very unlucky to cut up a strand.
Although westerners sometimes balk at the sight of a entire fish lying on a plate, in China a fish served whole is a symbol of prosperity. In fact, at a banquet it is customary to serve the whole fish last, pointed toward the guest of honor. Fish also has symbolic significance because the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for riches or abundance, and it is believed that eating fish will help your wishes come true in the year to come.
If you are ever invited to a Chinese wedding banquet, don’t be surprised to spot a mouthwatering platter of Peking duck on the banquet table. Ducks represent fidelity in Chinese culture. Also, red dishes are featured at weddings as red is the color of happiness. (You’ll find them served at New Year’s banquets for the same reason.)
In Chinese culture, chicken forms part of the symbolism of the dragon and phoenix. At a Chinese wedding, chicken’s feet (sometimes referred to as phoenix feet) are often served with dragon foods such as lobster. Chicken is also popular at Chinese New Year, symbolizing a good marriage and the coming together of families (serving the bird whole emphasizes family unity).
6. Seeds (lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc)
Visit an Asian bakery during the Chinese New Year, and you’re likely to find a wide assortment of snacks with different types of seeds in them. The seed-filled treats represent bearing many children in Chinese culture.
7. Fruit – Tangerines, Oranges and Pomelos
Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth, respectively. As for pomelos, this large ancestor of the grapefruit signifies abundance, as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for “to have.”
And what about the sweet, steamed cakes that are so popular during the Chinese New Year season? Cakes such as Sticky Rice Cake have symbolic significance on many levels. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Finally, the round shape signifies family reunion.
9. Don’t Forget the Vegetables!
Chinese garlic chives symbolize eternity, while cone-shaped winter bamboo shoots are a symbol of wealth.
“Do not dismiss the dish saying that it is just, simply food. The blessed thing is an entire civilization in itself.” -Abdulhak Sinasi