In the mythology of ancient China, Han, the Chinese man, is distinguished from savages and barbarians by two features of his eating habit: he eats cereals and uses fire to process his food.
China is a vast country whose terrain, people, climate and natural resources vary greatly from region to region. Chinese cooking reflects this regionality with almost as many cooking styles as regions. Cooking methods vary, as does the use of spices, seasonings and sauces. The division of China by regional styles of cooking is based on historical evolution dating from the 12th Century. At that time the little town of Hangzhou, situated to the south of the mouth of the Yangtze River, was transformed into the capital after the court took refuge there as the result of pressure from the Mongols. It became a place for exchanges and intense mixing of peoples who had emigrated from the north, tradespeople from the west and the local inhabitants. Restaurants representing the tastes of the four horizons prospered and thus was born the concept of regional culinary style. Nowadays, the culinary division of China most often recognised distinguishes five great cooking styles. The northeastern style with Beijing and the Yellow River valley, stretching to the east up to the Shandong, the central style concentrating on Shanghai, western style, concentrated around Szechuan but also including Ghuizou, Yunnan, Hunan and Hubei, the south eastern style from Canton and Guangdong (including TeCheow) and finally the Fujian (Fukien) style to the east.
In short, there are five predominate cooking schools:
The Southeastern – Canton (Guangdong, TeCheow)
Western – Szechuan (sometimes called Chungking)
Northeastern – Peking (or Shantung)
Central – Honan (and Shanghai) and
East Coast – Fukien (Fujian)
Let’s examine each of these regions a little closer:
The seaport of Canton became the gateway to the West when Europe started trading with the Orient. The Cantonese readily absorbed these cosmopolitan influences, and being great travellers, soon emigrated to Europe and the Americas. They were the first to establish restaurants outside China and introduce the world to Chinese food. This is why the majority of restaurants in Australia, Europe and America are still Cantonese. Cantonese cooking is versatile and original, encouraged by the region’s rich natural resources. When the Ming dynasty was overthrown in the 7th Century, many government officials migrated south from Peking to Kwangtung province, of which Canton is the capital. They also brought their chefs with them. These chefs, trained in classical Peking-style, assimilated other regional styles in their southward travels and once in Canton, took advantage of the area’s rich produce to expand and enlarge their cuisine into what became known as Cantonese-style. This style is characterised by its ability to enhance the original taste of each ingredient and to blend natural flavours together. It uses very few seasonings (soy, ginger, wine) and specialises in the quick-cooking technique known as stir-frying, using chicken stock as a cooking medium. Cantonese cuisine is also noted for roast meats, poultry, steamed pork, lobster and fish dishes, fried rice and such delicacies as Bird’s Nest Soup and Shark’s Fin Soup.
Although the city of Peking and the province of Shantung are not geographically close, trade between them has always been active and back and forth migration continual. For centuries the two exchanged cultural ideas and chefs. Eventually their cooking styles became indistinguishable. Peking, however, being the site of the Imperial Palace and China’s great intellectual and cultural centre, exerted a much stronger influence. Due to its wealth Peking attracted the country’s best chefs who in turn brought cooking to its highest level. Peking was considered the gourmet capital of China until the 17th century and was well known for mammoth feasts and gargantuan banquets, (some of the meals took three days to consume).
The Peking – Shantung school is distinguished by light, elegant, mildly spiced rather than rich foods and the liberal use of garlic, green shallots, leeks and chives, soy sauce and vinegar. It is known also for the delicacy of Peking Duck and Chicken Velvet, soft-fried foods, the spring roll, delicious roasts, wine-cooked meats and a wonderful array of delicious dumplings. Most of Northern China, including the vast regions of Mongolia and Manchuria, are largely barren and sparsely populated. Its people are mainly nomadic, noted for their use of lamb and mutton with”balsamic” vinegar and for their chafing-dish cookery. The Mongolian Hot Pot is one of the more well-known dishes of this remote area.
The Szechuan Province is hot and humid, almost tropical. Consequently the food is highly spiced, peppery and somewhat oily. Szechuan's specialities include deep-fried chicken wrapped in paper, vegetables prepared in chicken fat, chicken and hot peppers and a variety of mushroom dishes. The use of dried chilli, Szechuan pepper, sesame seed oil and fermented bean curd paste produce the typical flavours for this school. It is interesting to note that although home cooking is hot and spicy, Szechuan banquet dishes are rather bland and quite light, due to a migration of Peking trained banquet chefs who brought such dishes with them for formal dining. The Northern influence is also obvious in Szechuan Duck, a variation on Peking Duck.
Honan province (the home of the Yellow River) is famous for its Yellow River carp and it is often referred to as the Kingdom of Fish and Rice. Tender vegetables, accompanied by freshwater fish and crustaceans are prepared with subtle flavours mainly using ginger and Shao Xing wine. It’s noted also for its spiced concoctions, and rich seasonings. It is the only region where sweet and sour dishes are really appreciated.
Fukien province on China’s east coast is famous for seafood and for clear, light soups. These soups are noteworthy not only for their quality but also for their quantity. At most family meals at least two such soups are served. At banquets it is not unusual to encounter a quarter of all dishes as soups. Fukien is also noted for its subtle use of cooking wine, its soy sauce, egg rolls and suckling pig.
“Shanghai” and “Mandarin” cooking are not regional styles but rather restaurant designations. Shanghai cooking has come to mean a menu of many regional styles, since Shanghai itself, being a great commercial centre and cosmopolitan city, reflected many influences. Mandarin Cooking relates to the Peking – Shantung school since it was in Peking that the mandarins or aristocrats of China lived. (Mandarin means “government official”)
“Cantonese people spend all day thinking about food. Peking people spend all day thinking about power. That’s why Cantonese food is better.”
(Sang Ye, famous Peking resident writer)
Chinese food has been called the diet of the future because it is high in nutrients, low in calories and invariably well-balanced. Meat does not predominate. Vegetables, particularly the non-starchy varieties, do. The meats used are moderate in their fat content. High protein seafood plays an important role. There are no dairy products. Animal fats are rare. Grains are plentiful, sweets negligible. Crisp, delicate foods are preferred to heavy, oily ones. As for the meals themselves, breakfast in South China consists of a hot rice porridge called “congee”, accompanied by several salty side dishes, while in the North noodles are eaten. Lunch and dinner consist of soup, vegetables, some meat and fish, lunch being the lighter meal of the two. Chinese are great snackers and nibblers. They don’t snack at regular hours (as in the case of Western coffee breaks) but whenever not eating becomes too monotonous. At such times they will eat various fruits, biscuits, small cakes, nuts and savouries. Here again, the preference is always for light foods with subtle flavours, rather than rich sweets or heavy snacks. Although the combination of good eating and health may seem like a paradox, the Chinese diet makes this happy arrangement possible. It simultaneously satisfies the palate while improving one's sense of well-being.
In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are the forces of nature, which should be balanced in order to attain harmony. They are seen as complementary rather than conflicting.
Yin is seen as feminine, soft, dark and negative. Yin foods are said to nourish the body to help it conserve energy. Highly regarded Yin foods include Chinese yams, sweet potatoes and unpolished grains.
Yang is masculine, hard, bright and positive. Yang foods stimulate the body to expand energy, and include ginger, garlic, chilli, tobacco and alcohol.
Regional Chinese Restaurants in Sydney:
Guang Zhou, 346 Pacific Hwy, Crows Nest 02 9439 8466
BBQ King, 18-20 Goulburn Street, Sydney 02 9267 2586
Sea Treasure, 46 Willoughby Road, Crows Nest 02 9906 6388
Kam Fook Shark’s Fin Restaurant, 9 Hay Street, Haymarket 02 9211 8388
Golden Century, 393 Sussex Street, Sydney 9281 1598
Flavours of Peking, Shop 7, 100 Edinburgh Rd, Castlecrag 02 9958 3288
Chinese Dumpling Restaurant, 372 Pitt Street, Sydney 02 9267 4855
Lao Zhao Jiu Jia, 182 Liverpool Street, Ashfield 02 9747 4625
Yin Li, 1sr floor, 71 Dixon Street, Chinatown 9211 9590
Red Pepper, Phillip Mall, Kendall Street, West Pymble 02 9418 1328
Szechuan Garden Restaurant, 56 Chandos Street, St. Leonards 02 9438 2568
Ye Shanghai, 275 Liverpool Road, Ashfield 02 9796 8437
Chen Wang Miao, 267C Liverpool Road, Ashfield 02 9798 7721
Ying’s Seafood Restaurant, 270 Pacific Hwy, Crows Nest 02 9966 9182
Bliss, 353a Barrenjoey Road, Newport 02 9997 2256