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China's Influential Cuisines--Part I
Food in History
Winter Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(4) page(s): 31, 32, 33, 34, and 37
China has much diversity in climate and customs, in people and place, and of course, in its cuisines. Be they great historical culinary traditions, lovely literary ones, regional or religious cuisines, or those of China's many capital locations, the Chinese tout their food culture and its diversity. Some adore the number eight and believe it lucky, so they speak of the country's eight great culinary traditions. Others call these or other ones, China's eight influential cuisines. Still others use other numbers and other names to speak about other culinary traditions.
We have read generalizations that say Chinese foods are sweet in the south, salty in the north, sour in the west, and spicy in the southwest. There are others who disagree and tout China's foods as spicy in the east, etc. And there are other delineated differences. Aside from these disagreements, in this country with a long history, there is the question of does one mean cuisines past or present, culinary traditions by single location or single population, or some other differentiation?
Folks in the know about Chinese food speak about four cuisines; those of Guandong (Canton), Huaiyang, Shandong, and Sichuan; others use four and speak of cuisines north, south, east, and west. Are either of these the most popular or the most important ones? How often are they mentioned in China's voluminous literature? Many believe the number '4' is too low.
There are more than four or eight discussed in a book titled: Chinese Imperial Cuisines and Eating Secrets. It speaks of nine cuisines that influenced Chinese cookery. Elsewhere in that volume they talk of other cuisines not included in these nine or in other delineated groups. They say the nine most influential ones in their list are those whose influences impacted the country's overall cuisine are: Beijing, Shandong, Huaiyang, Jiangsu/Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Sichuan, Hubei, and the cuisine of the province of Hunan.
So how many and which ones should this magazine's editor report? This article's author debated long and hard as to how many and which ones to begin reporting about. What was most important when selecting some of China's most important cuisines in this first article about the famous ones. Was it the most important, or the most influential culinary traditions, their modern cuisines, or something else? And, how much space should be given to any one of them? What about telling why a cuisine is important? Then, which food cultures should be included in follow-up articles?
In the end, not to flout nor favor any popular listings, nor be in conflict with them or the many others who consider themselves experts, eight culinary traditions that many consider influential are where we decided to begin this magazine's explorations of China's great culinary traditions that Flavor and Fortune's readers need to know about.
We determined readers need understand why they are great, where they are, a bit about their history, what are some of their best known dishes are, etc. Future articles will explore more of these eight, other important cuisines, some in and near Beijing, some in other areas, cuisines of some well-known and influential ethnic minority and religious groups, and some representing Chinese foods overseas.
Therefore, what begins this exploration are five of the eight great influential Chinese cuisines that are not the only ones, but are the first five of the most influential eight to be shared with our readers. Why five, space determied how many. They are presented in alphabetic order and are the city and/or the provincial foods of: Anhui, Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu. Part II will continue with Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang; and then go on to explore other important cuisines.
ANHUI CUISINE, also known as Hui cuisine, is named after foods of two prefectures of its name-sake land-locked province. They are Anqing and Huizhou. The province itself borders on the provinces of Henan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shandong, and Zhejiang. This cuisine, as do many others, has many different/other names. Some of them are: Huaibei, Huicai, Huizhou, Huangshan, Yanhui, and still others. Therefore, it was not only difficult to select which cuisines to begin with, but also difficult to name and therefore order them in this initial article.
With almost sixty-two million people living in the Anhui Province, most Han Chinese, the cuisine does have input from Hui and She peoples, also Manchu, Miao (Hmong), and Zhuang minority populations.
The cuisine, like the region, is divided in sections. There are three of them with river-related differences. There is Huaibei which is north of the Huai River, Jianghuai which is between the Huai and Yangzi rivers, and Jiangnan which is south of the Yangzi River. This cuisine is also related to that of Huizhou which is located in the south in this province.
Sometimes called one of China's granaries, Anhui has semi-humid monsoon climate, is the birthplace of much of China's ancient food culture, and is known for its rice, wheat, and other fine agricultural products. It is also known for its soft-shelled turtle, ham, its Huangshan braised pigeon, steamed frog, stewed fish, and bamboo shoots; the latter are often cooked with sausage.
During the Southern Dynasty (420 - 589 CE) when businessmen from Huizhou traveled, they wanted foods from their home region. To get them, they had their servants bring bamboo shoots and other foods and then cook them for them. One of these dishes was Wen Zheng Bamboo Shoots. Laozi, a famous philosopher, when in the capital city of Hefei, helped make this and other dishes famous.
Another well-known dish, called a hodgepodge, is named after a top official and known as Lihongzhang Hotchpotch. It is loaded with fish, fish maw, squid, sea cucumber, tripe, bamboo shoots, bean curd skin, chicken, ham, salted egg yolks, pork liver, spinach, scallops, and dried mushrooms.
Most hui cai or Huizhou foods, Anhui foods, too, are slightly spicy and salty, and often braised or stewed. They can be made with tea leaves, xiang gu mushrooms, dates, stone frog, pangolin, and other game found in the Huangshan Mountains.
Foods from other mountain areas are also well known in this Hui cuisine. Bean Curd from the Bagong Mountain is one, as is Cocoon Dog Stew, and Wild Chicken Soup. Delicacies from mountains and rivers include soft-shelled turtle cooked with ham, a dish called Grape Carp that is prepared looking like grapes on top of a fish. A duck dish made with scallions, pork, and the xiang gu or black mushrooms and enhanced with soy sauce, bamboo shoots, and ham. This dish is loved, as is their popular mountain taro made with honey.
FUJIAN CUISINE, another one of the eight great cuisines, uses many river fish, shrimp, and sea foods from its southern coastal provincial areas. Directly across from Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits, known as Min Cuisine, the food of this cuisine comes from mountainous, hilly, and fertile flat lands, and from beyond its sea coast. Foods here originated in and around the Min River during Qin and Han Dynasty times (221 - 206 and 206 BCE and 220 CE, respectively).
Climate in this region is mild with much rainfall, some say too much in this land of many delicacies. Bounded on the East by the Sea and the West by mountains, the center of the cuisine sits in the Minhou County. This multi-lingual region has the provincial capital of Fuzhou on an inlet, and the city of Xiamen, further south and on the sea. Both were and are shipping off points for those seeking food and fortune by sea.
Many folk from the mountains and low lands have migrated and returned, or gone south to Taiwan and Southeast Asia. They went looking for new foods, a better life, and a less-hassled way to live. More than thirty-six million remained and have increased their investments and their culinary capital.
On the culinary perspective, this cuisine is a latecomer among those recognizing China's important and influential food cultures. Min foods are slightly sweet and sour, and loaded with fermented distillers grain known as wine lees, particularly red wine lees.
Popular Fujianese foods are Pickled Snails, Litchi Pork, Pipa Shrimp, Dragon Shrimp with Phoenix, Wine-soaked Spare Ribs, Razor Clams stir-fried with Bamboo Shoots without soy sauce, Mussels in Chicken Soup, and many other soups. This cuisine is known for two or more soups consumed at every main meal. No meal without several of them is even considered a meal. Here they say, 'One Soup Has Ten Variations¡' and they do make many of them for lunch and dinner. Fujian cuisine practitioners also prepare many stewed and braised dishes, cook with tea leaves, bamboo shoots, many kinds of fish and with other foods of the sea. When bragging, they say the cuisine uses more than two hundred fifty different kinds of sea foods prepared alone or with chicken, duck, and pork. They make many of them with red or white wine lees.
With sea foods so central to the Fujianese cuisine, one unique food is their fish balls; they make them with their center part filled with meat. They also stir-fry them in many of their dishes and they are found in their soups and stews. They and the rest of this cuisine is slightly sweet and sour and not very salty.
This province grows a lot of tea, and processes and sells most of it as oolong tea. They also grow many tropical fruits and use both in many of their dishes. One of the most famous among them is very aromatic and called Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, so-named because any religious person would do just that to have some of this dish. It not only smells great, but tastes terrific as it is made with more than twenty different kinds of food, and usually made in a large rice-wine jar. Long-simmered over a low fire, and loaded with many different meats, sea foods, and vegetables, it is more than any Buddha would want to eat.
Spring Rolls are a traditional snack food, somewhat like jiao zi, they are eaten during Spring Festival, hence their name. In Xiamen, they like their spring rolls with bamboo shoot jelly and yu bao or lightly fried taro buns. Peanut Soup, vegetarian dishes, and ancient medicinal foods are adored items in this cuisine's larder, as are almost every meat or fish dish, many made with crabs and/or squid.
GUANGDONG CUISINE, also called Yue cuisine, is touted by some to be the best in all of China. Many in the United States believe that, perhaps because more people know more about Cantonese foods than about the foods of any other Chinese cuisine. These foods are from a province of nearly one hundred million people and come from the capital city of Guangzhou, known in the past to westerners as Canton. Here, some ten plus million people live who savor foods from many delicious restaurants serving items from virtually everywhere in China.
This southern Chinese Pearl River cuisine is one of the four cuisines first mentioned and one of the eight great traditional cuisines. Famous for tea houses serving every kind of snack food imaginable including cha shao bao, the steamed sweetened pork-filled leavened-dough delights; they are called the 'treasure' of this delta city.
Also known as Yue cuisine, foods from here include dishes from Chaoxhou, Guangzhou, and Dongjian. They are characterized by fresh ingredients, wild animals, local tree fruits, slithering snakes called 'dragons' and cats called 'tigers.' Here they cook in salt or in wine, in milk, or in soft-fried eggs, and they are known for making foods velvet, and for preparing their foods less cooked than most of the rest of China.
The foods of this southeastern coastline include lots of foods of the sea, tropical fruits, sugar cane, every kind of vegetable under the sun. and all types of cultivated and captured fish for the folks in this very heavily populated region.
Hong Kong was seceded to the British in 1842,after the Treaty of Nanking. Many people moved to Shanghai and Beijing, but left the strength of their culinary. Many more foreigners poured in, and then more deep-frying, stir-frying, stewing, broiling, boiling, and roasting took hold. These and boasting they had the best Roast Goose in the country took over. They brag about local shark's fin and bird's nest soups, Dong Jiang Chicken, marvelous Mutton Balls, crisp Carp, super soy sauce chicken, and many dishes from the Manchu-Han banquet repertoire that are still served in Beihai Park at its famous Fangshan Restaurant.
Guangdong cuisine seasons its foods with onion, garlic, ginger, dried tangerine peel, spiced salt, licorice root, cloves, and anise. These and oyster sauce, fermented black beans, and even curry gives this cuisine great depth and breadth.
HUNAN CUISINE, also called Xiang Cuisine, is said to have originated in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BCE). Now this cuisine is of some sixty-five million living in this province whose capital is Changsha. There are about seven million people living in this port city on the Xiang River. Most are Han Chinese, but some fifty minorities also live here, and over the years, they have influenced Hunan cuisine giving it many sour and hot tasting foods.
Named hu meaning 'lake' and nan meaning 'south,' many people live near Lake Dong Ting, the second largest freshwater lake in the country. They consider themselves living in the 'land of fish and rice.' Many foods grown here are said to be the best in the country including local barley, buckwheat, rice, corn, sweet potatoes, and tea.
This province is the largest producer of rice, the second largest producer of tea, and before pollution ran rampant, their freshwater lake was an important source of their fish. Foods here use lots of chili peppers, the above-mentioned grains, much bean curd, mushrooms, and meats, and lots of mountain-grown foods.
Hunan Cuisine loves its Steamed Spare Ribs in Bamboo Tube, Grilled Roast Duck, Green Bamboo Steamed Fish, Steamed Pumpkin, smelly bean curd, Dongan Chicken, Candy Lotus, Roasted Fin, dried meat cooked with eel, their restaurant-popular gan guo, which is a pot of many different ingredients boiling away until ordered and eaten. They also adore Soy Sauce Pig's Trotters, and Candied Lotus, and more than four thousand other different Hunanese dishes.
This cuisine uses its many hot peppers, they say, to help remove dampness and cold. Others visit here to eat the local dishes and see the almost one thousand historic sites including Mawangdui where an aristocratic Han Dynasty family are entombed, Mount Heng which is one of five sacred Taoist mountains, and the town of Shaoshan where Mao Zedong was born.
They also come to eat the many stewed, simmered, steamed, cured, stir-fried, and fragrantly prepared dishes of this cuisine. That and enjoy game, frogs legs, and other wild foods from the many mountainous regions. Adored by these visitors are Xiao Xiang Turtle, Wu Ling Snake Soup, and Shrimp in Lotus Pad.
JIANGSU CUISINE, also known as Su Cuisine,includes many foods from China's eastern seacoast. In the Jiangsu Province, more than seventy-seven million people live with Nanjing, the provincial capital, where ten percent of the people of this province reside. Around here is the one of the most densely populated regions in the country. This province borders on Shandong, Anhui, and Zhejiang, and on the city of Shanghai.
Foods here are salty and slightly sweet, many more soft than made in other cuisines. Su Cuisine is also known as Jin Su, Jin Long, simply Jing Su, and Yang Cuisine. The latter is named after Huaiyan Cuisine. Foods here include Nanjing-, Suzhou-, and Wuxi-style foods, many include some sugar, and many are often red-braised, that is in soy sauce. The Wuxi-style dishes can be called: Three Whites for their extensive use of whitebait, white fish, and white shrimp.
Featured in Su Cuisine are Braised Spareribs, Fried Gluten Balls, Fu Rong Dan, a whitebait omelette. Squirrel Mandarin Fish, Crab Meat Balls, Nanjing Pressed Duck, Eight Delicacies Soup, Longchi Carp, Ca fish from the Grand Canal, and Eight Wild Vegetables with items from local inland mountains. This cuisine has and loves many snacks including Jellied Bean Curd, Glutinous Rice Dumplings stuffed with osmanthus flowers, Silvery Noodles with Shredded Chicken plain or in a dough, cakes baked with duck fat, and dumplings stuffed with shredded dried bean curd. People here also enjoy many variations of foods from Hangzhou, Yangzhou, Suzhou, Lingpo, and Shanghai.
Lots of agriculture and aquaculture enable foods of this cuisine to include many land and sea foods. Overall, the cuisine is recognized as being slightly sweet with dishes made stir-frying, deep-frying, dry-frying, red cooking, simmering, and/or stewing them.
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