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Cuisine of Northern China, The

by Huiping Zuo

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Summer Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(3) page(s): 7 and 8

Chinese cuisine, acclaimed for its substantial variety, has many aesthetic characteristics. To the Chinese, cooking is a kind of living philosophy that has occupied a lofty position in Chinese culture throughout its long history. As the great Chinese philosopher, Lao Zi, once said of the art: “Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish.” To Westerners, cooking a small fish may be simple, not so in China. There is need to select the best fish, understand how to cook it, think about its seasonings and when to add them, and more All this is necessary before the fish is even cooked. Lao Zi's meaning is clear, governing and cooking are very complicated projects.

China's culinary traditions have lasted hundreds upon hundreds of years. They reflect a country diverse in climate, ethnic groups, and subcultures. It is not surprising that there are many distinctive styles of cookery; however, they can very roughly be divided into Northern and Southern Chinese cuisines. One major difference between them is that wheat is the staple food of the North while rice is the staple of the South. Another difference is that Southern cuisine tends to emphasize the original flavors and aromas of ingredients while Northern cuisine uses more seasonings and spices to develop the aromas characteristic of distinct dishes.

The best known part of China, historically and archaeologically, is Northern China. This is the cradle of Chinese culture; after all, the earliest agricultural sites in China were discovered in this region. It is an area of little rain, almost all of it falling in the spring and fall months. Northern China is known for cold, bitter, dry and dusty winters. In spite of agricultural challenges, the North was the native home of many food plants domesticated by the Chinese including millet, soybeans, Chinese cabbages, oilseed (rapeseed), and peaches.

Today, however, the agriculture of Northern China is dominated by non-native plants: wheat, corn, sorghum, rice, cotton, and sesame seed. Wheat, this basic grain of the North, is made into a variety of products including noodles, steamed breads, pancakes, stuffed buns, and dumplings of various sizes and fillings.

The best-known regional cuisines of Northern China are those of Beijing, Tianjin, and Shandong. Beijing and Tianjin, both cities located in the northern province of Hebei, share culinary traditions with their northern neighbors because of proximity and similar ancient history. Shandong is a province with a long coast line bordering the Yellow Sea; it is rich in natural resources. These three cuisines, developed because of wealth and natural resources, are in contrast to the remainder of the North, which is poor.

Since ancient times, the capital city of China, now in Beijing, developed Imperial dishes which became legacies to the whole country. An example is Queen Mother's Cake, a pan-fried snack food made of white flour in a dough that is seasoned with cinnamon and star anise. These small cakes date back about two thousand years. They trace their origin to the time the Queen visited the countryside and the local people made her these special cakes. To show her appreciation, she gave them her name. Other Imperial dishes portray legends or mythical symbols in the cutting and arrangement of their ingredients.

Cold dishes designed to resemble roosters, chickens or peacocks, for example, symbolize the power of past Chinese kings. They are frequently made with shavings of black lime-preserved eggs and bright yellow shredded egg pancakes. When served at formal banquets, they are a symbol of power.

Mutton, a Mongolian and Muslim tradition, is also representative of Beijing dishes. A favorite, Sesame Seed Mutton, combines ground mutton with green onion, salt, ginger root, rice wine, and lotus root powder. It is shaped into a cake, dipped into an egg batter, deep-fried, rolled in toasted sesame seeds, and served.

Seasonings in Beijing are strong with the use of vinegar, garlic, coriander, leeks, and salt. An internationally famous dish is Beijing (Peking) Duck, a fattened, glazed and roasted duck eaten thinly sliced and wrapped in a wheat pancake together with scallions and hoisin or in some regions plum sauce.

Many famous Muslim and vegetarian dishes originated in Tianjin. The protein ingredients for vegetarian dishes are mainly soybean products such as dehydrated (dried) soybean curd or bean curd sheet or wheat gluten. Dishes made with these ingredients are made to look like chicken, duck, fish or meat, and also to taste like them. Stuffed Whole Duck is one example; it is made from bean curd sheets shaped to taste and look like a stuffed duck, including the head. Several specialities of Tianjin include Fried Twist of Eighteenth Street, a deep-fried wheat bread served as a snack, and Goubuli Bread Dumplings, steamed wheat dough with spicy meat fillings.

Seafood is an important part of Shandong dishes, especially shark's fin, sea cucumber, scallops, oysters, and conch. Shandong preparations emphasize freshness, tenderness, and the original taste of the ingredients. The main cooking techniques in Shandong include deep-frying, stir-frying, pan-frying and stewing, among others.

In Northern China, the concept of yin and yang imbue choice of food, combinations of ingredients, and timing and order of each dish prepared in Northern China. Yin and yang refer to an interplay between the dark, cool, soft and feminine form of energy with the white, hot, rough and masculine source of energy in the universe. In the cuisines of the North, the interaction of four major components share equal importance in the preparation of each dish: color, aroma, flavor and nutrition. Intertwined with these elements are the principles of yin and yang.

Color has an aesthetic function and is used to stimulate the appetite and affect the diner's emotions psychologically. Normally, any one entre combines three to five colors selected from ingredients that are light green, dark green, red, yellow, white, and/or black or caramel-colored. Usually, meat and vegetable dishes are prepared with one main ingredient and two to three secondary ingredients of contrasting or similar colors. The combination of colors decided upon includes the raw ingredients. It takes into account their color after heating and with seasonings. Selected ingredients are cooked appropriately, incorporating proper seasonings and sauce to create an aesthetically attractive dish. White Fungus Stew, an example from the Beijing cuisine of the Official Family, combines white tree fungus with black sea cucumber, orange mushrooms, a green vegetable, and white lotus seeds. A beautiful contrast in colors, this dish also expresses two yin and yang opposites, black and white, and orange and green; both keep the dish in balance.

Aroma in any dish will most certainly whet the appetite. Ingredients that contribute to mouth-watering aromas are scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic and chili peppers, also wine, star anise, stick cinnamon, pepper, sesame oil, and dried Chinese black mushrooms. Of foremost importance in the cooking of any dish is preserving the fresh natural flavors and aromas of its ingredients along with removing any undesirable fishy or gamey ones. In Western cooking, lemon is often used to remove fishy flavors while in Chinese cooking, scallions and ginger root serve a similar function. In Northern China we create distinctive dishes with the same ingredients and cooking methods. We make a sour-and-hot dish adding black pepper and vinegar; a tender fried dish using salt, white pepper, parsley, and a little bit of vinegar; or a salty and hot one adding sugar and a soybean chili sauce.

Flavor is important in Northern dishes and is enhanced by use of seasonings and spices. Soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and other seasonings add richness to a dish without covering up the natural flavor of the ingredients. A well-prepared dish should taste rich to those who like strong flavors, but not over-spiced to those who seek a milder taste. It should seem sweet to anyone who has a sweet preference, and hot to those who like piquant flavor. A dish that is all of these things to all people is a truly successful dish.

Color, aroma, and flavor are not the only principles to be followed in Chinese cooking. Nutrition is also an important concern. The principle of harmonization of foods can be traced back thousands of years. Chinese ancestors related the five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant, and salty to the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems of the body: Heart, Liver, Spleen/pancreas, Lungs, and Kidneys. (See the Food and Medicine article in this issue.) They stressed their role in maintaining good physical health. In fact, many plants used in Chinese cooking, including scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, dried lily buds, tree fungus, and others, have properties of preventing and alleviating various illnesses.

The Chinese have a traditional belief in the medicinal value of food, and that food and medicine share the same origin. This view is considered a forerunner of nutritional science in China. Notable in this theory, is the concept that the correct proportion of meat to vegetable ingredients should be maintained: one-third of meat-based dishes should be vegetable ingredients, and one-third of vegetable dishes should be meat. In preparing soups, the quantity of water used should total seven-tenths the volume of the serving bowl. In short, the correct proportion of ingredients must be carried out in the preparation of each dish or soup in order to ensure full nutritional value.

In general, Northern dishes can be somewhat oily, and the use of vinegar and garlic in them is popular. Northern foods are usually boiled, braised, stewed, steamed, roasted, glazed, deep-fried, or stir-fried. Boiling is most important, not only because it is the usual method of preparing noodles, but also because soups from thin and clear to stew-like are universal and a key part of virtually every meal; they are even parts of snacks. Cooking in covered, slatted bamboo steamers over a water-filled vessel is perhaps the next most common method. The most famous Chinese method, however, is zhao or stir-frying. Thinly cut ingredients are stirred rapidly in very hot oil, searing them quickly. Sometimes the ingredients were blanched briefly first, other times stir-fried first, then water added to the pan. Cooking is finished by stewing. While more oil is used in stir-frying in Northern than Southern cuisine, it is always nutritious, flavorful, colorful, and with wonderful aroma.
Dr. Huiping Zuo, Associate Professor at Xian Jiaotong University in China, was Visiting Professor at the University of Guelph's School of Hotel and Food Administration in Guelph, Ontario, Canada in 1997. She has co-authored four books including China's Tourism Economy: Sustainable Development Strategy, and written numerous articles. This article is an adaptation of: From Cathay to Canada: Chinese Cuisine in Transition. It was presented at and published in Toronto by the Ontario Historical Society in 1998.

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