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Foodways of Northern China
Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan
Summer Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(2) page(s): 9
The Chinese have rules and customs associated with eating. Family meals in the North, for example, are set with chopsticks, a soup spoon and a small plate or rice bowl. There is also a set order of seating at the table. The eldest man is always seated first followed by the eldest woman. Then the rest of the family take their place and take the food wanted from communal plates using the serving chopsticks provided. If there are guests, the host serves them choice morsels to show that they are respected.
A Northern Chinese family meal, usually cooked and served by the mother, is fairly standard in its presentation. Family members are seated around the table and begin by drinking tea, jasmine green tea the most popular. This indicates that they are ready to start the meal. During this tea drinking, appetizers are placed on the table. The appetizers are most often cold seasoned meat, seafood or vegetables. The meat can be smoked, stewed with special sauces, or pickled with salt, rice wine, or white wine. Vegetables can be seasoned and served raw.
When the appetizers are finished, four to six main dishes (a combination of meat, vegetarian, and vegetable dishes) are placed on the table at one time. With them is served a dish made from wheat, most commonly a noodle dish. Dumplings or steamed bread may be served instead or with the noodles. The main dishes are eaten separately and in any order, but the last dish consumed is the noodle dish; it is consumed in a bowl provided for it.
Unlike eating pattterns in the South, the vegetable and meat dishes are not eaten on top of the grain dish. Rather, they are eaten on their own. The last course is sometimes soup, signifying that the main dishes are finished. One or more desserts are uncommon at a family meal.
In my own family, I would begin with jasmine tea, of course. There could be cold sliced jellyfish simply seasoned with chopped green onion, salt and sesame oil along with sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar or thinly sliced cucumbers seasoned with soy sauce, white pepper, hot chili sauce and sesame oil.
Following these appetizers I would serve four dishes, perhaps sliced White Boiled Pork, stir-fried green peppers and sliced pork, Stir-fried Bok Choy (we usually have this every day) and ground pork fried With tofu. After my family finishes these, I would serve noodles topped with stir-fried ground pork and yard-long green beans. Sometimes I do serve soup, but in the North we do not have soup every day but do like it after dumplings. This fills everyone up.
The number of dishes may seem like a lot to eat, but the platters of entrées are small by Western standards. For example, when I go to Chinatown in Toronto and order two dishes for two people, it is far too much; but in China, two people can order three or four dishes and easily eat all of them.
Banquet meals follow the same pattern as family meals, but with some differences, mostly elaboration. Banquets are arranged with round tables seating ten to twelve persons. A typical banquet begins with tea and four appetizer dishes, a combination of cold-cut platters and/or hot hors d'oeuvres. At a formal banquet, there may be as many as ten or twelve main dishes served one at a time accompanied by wine and soft drinks; we do have grape wine made in China. Sculpted garnishes, made from vegetables such as tomatoes, Chinese white radishes, or cucumbers are often created by the chefs to add to the visual appeal of the banquet dishes. The chefs are almost all male and the gorgeous garnishes are not usually eaten.
In the home, it is acceptable for the cook to be a woman. The home cook prepares all the main dishes and lets them become a little cool; however, this is not acceptable at a banquet meal where the food is expected to be served hot and immediately after it is prepared. While the banquet guests are eating an entrée, the next one is being cooked.
In the north, at banquets there is always a chicken dish, a symbol of the king's power, and a fish dish, signifying prosperity. The last main course is a fancy noodle dish followed by soup. Decorative sweet pastries are then served such as woutou (a sweet steamed corn bread flavored with fragrant osmanthus flower paste) or special fluffy baked cakes shaped like baby chickens. The banquet is finished with a dessert, usually fresh fruit or fresh fruits cooked together, sweetened, and slightly thickened with cornstarch or another starch such as lotus root.
While there are similarities, many Northern foods and foodways are quite different from those in the South of China. It has been my experience while in Canada that most Chinese-Canadians, since they come from Hong Kong and Taiwan, do not know much about Northern Chinese cookery. The two cuisines are quite distinct, both in the type of ingredients chosen, the seasonings, the preparations, and manner of serving and eating the dishes. I have also observed that most Chinese restaurants catering to non-Chinese do not serve the Chinese food that Chinese people prefer to eat. Instead, they serve an adaptation of Chinese food not satisfying to their Chinese patrons; food changed to suit non-Chinese preferences. The main differences are that these adaped dishes contain much more meat and fat. In my experience in Canada, I would call them Canadian-Chinese foods.
Huiping Zuo, Associate Professor at China's Xian Jiaotong University, 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 from one of them in: From Cathay to Canada: Chinese Cuisine in Transition, Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1998.