No other world culture is as food-centric as China’s. No world cuisine has spread around the world with such affectionate aggressiveness and wider popularity. And there are objective reasons for this. It’s not just that a huge number of Huaqiao immigrants have settled in the world, but rather, the high culinary standards and freshness of Chinese cuisine.
Chinese food is divided into “fan” and “cai” – two inseparable and opposite parts, complementing each other and class, and antagonistic. Fan is about the same as bread for us, that is, the basic food that makes it possible to live. And although the word “fan” means rice, it is customary to call them noodles, and any flour and grain products. Tsai, on the other hand, is everything else edible that has been in the hands of the cook: vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, nuts.
Taipei – The periodically held Chinese Food Festivals show that everything is edible, even silkworm larvae.
Mao Zedong pronounced a slogan that was radically different from the food program of King Henry IV, who dreamed that every peasant family in France could cook chicken for dinner at least once a week. The words spoken by the Great Pilot sounded more laconic and harsher: “An iron bowl of rice”. What does it mean? Of course, it’s not that beautiful Chinese porcelain bowls-wan should be replaced with metal ones, but that every resident of the PRC must consume a cup of rice a day, in other words, not to starve. As the prosperity increases, tsai can be added to the fan – from its most widespread type, Chinese cabbage, to the well-known, but few people have tasted, Sunhuadan – “centenary-egg”.
Ideally, the Chinese diet should be balanced in such a way that fan and tsai complement each other in the manner of the male and female yin and yang principles. And if the proportions of cereals, vegetables and animal protein are harmoniously correlated in the diet, then, according to Chinese concepts, there will be a correct tsan, that is, a table.
Guizhou Province, Zhaoxing Town. A well-scorched chicken paw invites you to taste the soup.
From the European point of view, the rules of traditional Chinese meals are turned inside out. This is very similar to how, before the writing reform, the Chinese wrote texts from right to left and top to bottom. In the same way, they eat. Still. The feast begins with tea, and ends with … soup. At first it seems wild: after all, we are used to finishing a hearty dinner with tea and are absolutely sure that we are doing the right thing. Although, from the point of view of modern nutritionists, such a sequence of dishes is quite consistent with the formula for healthy and proper nutrition.
In Chinese tradition, a cup of tea before dinner is a bit like an aperitif. Therefore, first “warming up”, then snacks, then hot and only at the end – soup. It is believed that the “hot spot”, which is put in the epilogue, is needed in order to quickly digest and assimilate the eaten. Having drunk a bowl of such a soup, you feel that all the dishes have “settled into place.”
Another value of Chinese cuisine is that no dish is cooked the day before or reheated the next day. Every day, food is bought, subjected to rapid heat treatment, absorbed, and tomorrow everything repeats itself all over again. It was the Chinese who invented the way of cooking, which in the West is called “stir-fry” – “fry while stirring.” Vitamins in food prepared in this way do not have time to “die”, which enhances its nutritional properties.
Although it should be noted that the orientation of Chinese cuisine to freshness does not negate the presence of food preparations in it. To survive the winter, the Chinese, just like us, dry, pickle, sugar, or pickle vegetables and plants. Freshness is freshness, and these preparations brighten up the scarcity of the menu. Hunger is not an aunt, and some principles may well be waived.
With a knock speed
Any dish of Chinese cuisine is suitable for eating with Kuaizi chopsticks, and probably no one will answer the question of what exactly the Chinese came up with before: cutting food into small pieces that Kuaizigrabbed, or shaving sticks out of wood for convenient transportation from a plate to a mouth “ergonomic” Pieces. Kuaizi found during archaeological excavations, and this is not surprising: the inhabitants of the Yellow He and Yangtze valleys have been using them for more than 3 thousand years. Zhu, as the sticks were called in ancient times, are mentioned in the treatise Li-tszi (Book of Ritual), and the father of Chinese historiography Sima Qian in his classic work Shi-tszi (Historical Notes) specified that the last ruler of the dynasty Shang (c. 1100 BC) used ivory chopsticks. Lacquered sticks from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE) were unearthed during excavations at Mawandui in Henan Province, and during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), gold and silver sticks became popular. The latter, according to legend, served as a kind of indicator – they were used to check whether food was poisoned or not. The first hieroglyph “kuai” in kuaizi formed from the hieroglyph “fast” by adding the hieroglyph “bamboo” above, which shows what material sticks are traditionally made of, in addition, the word “piece” has a similar etymology, which is read similarly – “kuai”. So it turns out that sticks are a device designed to accelerate the absorption of food pieces.
Traditional Kuaizi of five types: wood, metal, bone, stone and combinations of these materials. Now in China the most popular sticks are made of durable plastic imitating bone, although ironwood sticks are preferred: they are truly immortal, they can be eaten by several generations of a family, but the “catering” loves disposable ones – made of inexpensive wood and bamboo quaiji. It is not difficult to eat with chopsticks. The Chinese expansion, which political scientists like to talk about so much, first of all touched on harmless things – the whole world gladly rushes to Chinese restaurants, orders take-out home and inevitably eats with chopsticks. To taste fan and cai with chopsticks, one must firmly rest one stick on the joint of the thumb and forefinger of the “working” hand, and take the other with the same hand as you hold, say, a pencil. Practice on small objects – wood chips, pieces of paper, crackers … When you can accurately and casually tap the tip of one stick against another, you have achieved perfection. True, one pattern is noticed: as soon as you start bragging about how well you are at Quaiji, an insidious piece of food or a dumpling immediately slips out and falls into a saucer of soy sauce. Chinese food has no fuss. People often ask: how can you eat rice with sticks? No miracles: Chinese rice is sticky, not crumbly. Therefore, taking a lump of rice with chopsticks from a bowl is not difficult. Eaten with quanzi and soup. First, they fish out the solid ingredients, and then scoop out the remaining liquid from the bowl-wan with a characteristic porcelain spoon with a short handle.
Beihai City in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is surrounded by sugarcane fields, home to fat and nutritious rats
It is not customary for the Chinese to eat alone. A company that comes to a restaurant or eatery (in traditional China, of course, there were no cafes – the culture here is tea, not coffee), orders a lot of dishes. According to the classic ordering scheme, the number of main courses (excluding soups and cold snacks) corresponds to the number of diners +1 (from the host). Table etiquette, which is no less important than all other Chinese ceremonies, dictates that the most honored guest make the choice first. In keeping with the traditions, he will order something meaty, say gu lao zhou pork. The next ranked participant in the meal will choose a poultry dish (for example, the imperial chicken or the lemon chicken, so popular in America, or the Guangdong steamed duck). The third is fish (“pine cones” from carp or pike perch in a sweet and sour sauce). The main backbone of the meal is outlined. The rest can be satisfied with ordering all sorts of little things – seafood, vegetables, candied fruits and more. The optimal number of participants in such a feast is four, preferably eight: it is insulting to try less than four dishes, and more than eight is difficult.
The brought dishes are placed in the center of the round table on a special rotating plate, which allows each participant in the meal to take any piece from the dish with chopsticks and put it on his plate.
Rice, soy, boiling water
Chinese ceremonies and hospitality are inseparable. A guest who has come even to the poor man’s hut cannot but be treated. And if there is no tea in the house, he will be offered simple boiling water – kaishui. In the end, any act of friendliness around the world boils down to giving the wanderer water. The inhabitants of the Middle Empire do not know the word “side dish”. The basis of a Chinese meal is a bowl of rice and a bowl of boiling water. If there is some tsai to the fan, it is placed on top of the rice. Perhaps, Chinese food cannot exist without one more component – soy sauce, as elsewhere in the Far East. Moreover, they cook in this sauce and use it to flavor ready-made dishes. Soy sauce is a supplier of salt. All of this is traditional Chinese food.
Guangzhou. “There is everything”: scorpions under caramel crunch pleasantly on the teeth, and taste like nuts
“Xiaochi” for every taste
For a busy or walking person, the problem of where to eat in Beijing simply does not exist. At the same time, in China, you can get enough without even going to the “wall” public catering points. Street vendors offer different types of “xiaochi” – “small snack food”. Let’s start with a sweet potato or yam baked in a barrel – a perfectly digestible food that, thanks to the starch contained in the tubers, fills the eater for a good half day, combining the tenderness of baked potatoes and the delicate sweetness of Mu-Mu candy. And if you wanted meat? You are welcome! Chinese Muslims run a barbecue business (meat fried on hairpins is called “kaorouchuan”). The pieces will be small, the hairpins will be thin, the meat on them is very different. Lamb, beef, tiny quails … Want something sweet? You will immediately be offered sticks with festive-looking large scarlet hawthorn berries or any other candied fruit, which is especially famous for the main Beijing shopping street Wangfujing.
There are no problems with flour. Jianbing vendors bake pancakes right there on the brazier. You can eat only one such crepe with an egg and a spicy sauce – it is too large and nutritious. Further south, in Xian, on the street you can even find dumplings, which are actually eaten indoors. True, the further south we move, the less meat will be on the streets, so you can run into dumplings with only greens. There are also more exotic things: for example, Hangzhou is famous for baked snails, giant silkworm larvae (also on a stick), chicken legs and hooves of pigs, duck heads right with their beaks … There is everything, you would have the courage to try it.
A real miracle of national cuisine is the “Chinese samovar”, “huǒ guō” 火锅. In fact, this dish came to the Celestial Empire from Mongolia together with the Borjigin conquerors. It is not for nothing that foreigners call it “Mongolian” and sometimes “Muslim” samovar, because it is popular among Dungan Muslims. Huoguo clearly demonstrates the adaptability of the Chinese food culture, which absorbs and assimilates any suitable food and methods of their preparation. If initially lamb was cooked in a samovar, the Chinese did not stop there. We have already mentioned: the true taste of a product for a local chef is not imperative. You understand this especially clearly when you participate in a meal that includes a huoguo. Everything that is edible in the house is cooked in a large iron saucepan with legs in front of the eaters.
Probably, the philosophy of this kind of dishes is familiar to most cultures, and among the people such prefabricated hodgepodge are collectively called “Irish stew”, but the Chinese samovar is a different thing, although it can be considered something like a fondue. Water boils inside the boiler. Then they start bringing you ingredients to load inside: for example, three-day-old mice. The cook holds the newborn rodent in his fist and hits the nose with a wooden mallet. It remains to take the stunned, but live mice by the tail, scorch them over a candle (the dish is called “Mice on Candles”) and dip them in boiling water for half a minute. Then the mouse is dipped in the sauce and eaten whole. The superstitious Chinese throw the remaining raw mouse tail over the left shoulder. But still more traditionally they serve thinly sliced meat (various), long Chinese cabbage (we sell it under the name “Chinese salad”), shrimp, noodles (including “glass” rice funchose), vegetable chips – carrots, legumes ( soy) shoots, Chinese mushrooms – dungu (known in the West under the Japanese name shitake), black muer mushrooms (“tree ear”), in general, everything that has not disappeared. The ingredients should be put into the water with chopsticks (it is clear that after the first immersion in the cauldron of animal ingredients, it is the broth that is obtained), and then, after a very short time, when they boil once or twice, quickly snatch them out of the broth and rinse in soy sauce. Amazing thing! Among other things, it very rallies the feasts and revives the atmosphere. The samovar is the quintessence of the Chinese pursuit of the freshness of the prepared product. It is not possible to subject food to cooking less and more intensely than in it.
Buy a toad! This will not suffocate: cooked, it is known to look like chicken.
Everything but the moon
For all the feng shui of their culture, the Chinese have no sacred awe of nature when it comes to survival and nutrition. As the Chinese themselves say, a good cook will cook everything except the Moon, everything that has four legs, except a chair, and everything that has no legs at all. No sentimentality with regard to animals: here cute chubby puppies are sold not as pets, but for meat. And no one will shyly look away. In the south you will be treated to a cat and cobra dish called Dragon Tiger Fight.
Chinese people who are patient with physical pain, if necessary, without hesitation, inflict it on others. What nerves do you need to keep calm at the sight of a man squatting in front of a live chicken and melancholy plucking feathers from it? .. “Quite a difficult task – plucking a bird, especially a duck, – the Zhogolev’s wife, the authors of one of the first Chinese cookbooks in Russian. “If you give it a dessert spoon of alcohol or vinegar 10-20 minutes before slaughtering a bird, it will be much easier to remove the feathers.” It seems that the man I met was unfamiliar with these intricacies of the art of cooking.
The tragic fate of the Peking duck
A dish that I have never been able to taste anywhere in its true Chinese splendor is the famous Peking duck, “beijing kaoi”. This dish entered the national cuisine after the Xinhai Revolution, when China ceased to be imperial and the people were able to join the most accessible aspects of aristocratic life. Everyone knows that the ducks are rubbed with powdered sugar for color, the poultry is boiled from the inside (water is poured inside), and the outside is baked (the duck hangs on a hook in a special oven), there are several “deliveries” of slices of duck skin and meat, they eat it with cucumber straws, with leek shavings, in a plum sauce, wrapped in a special thin pancake, and at the end of the duck meal it is supposed to wash it down with broth, cooked from the bones left from the poultry. True, not everyone knows that the duck, which is destined to become a delicacy, is ideally tied to two pegs or put in a cramped cage, does not drink water and is abundantly fed with oversalted food. Roast the duck on a peach wood that is curved in a special way so that you can place the bird in the center for even roasting. The most famous restaurant in Beijing serving duck, Quanjuide, on the same Wangfujing. However, each of the special restaurants has its own recipe for cooking duck, and the duck-maker is never released from the establishment, because he is associated with the owner by close clan ties.
For someone with a sudden attack of hunger, a nightlife restaurant in Shanghai offers convenience foods and fresh produce that will immediately create a meal.
Chinese cuisine in exile
It is widely believed that authentic Chinese food can only be enjoyed in China, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. This is both true and false. The Chinese themselves believe that authentic fan and tsai can be made anywhere in the world, if there were only a wok-pan, a sharp knife, a cutting board and a “high fire”. Basically, the main characteristics of Chinese food – the small pieces that the tsai are sliced into and the quick cooking – do not change depending on the geographic location and nationality of the slicer. Anyone who decides to play a Chinese chef can buy soy or even plum sauce, sesame oil, star anise (star anise), ginger, galgant (galangal in Russia), fennel, leeks, eggs at Tony’s Basics or Seventh Continent. or rice noodles, dough petals for dumplings … or even trepangs!
It’s even easier to go to Chinatown. There you can buy “native” Chinese products, eat a couple of dozen real jiaozi dumplings, steamed and served on a bamboo net, take home frozen durian and smoked duck, feeling yourself for an hour or two in real little China. After all, Chinatowns are arranged by the Chinese huaqiao not for the residents of San Francisco or Toronto, but primarily for themselves.
And yet the tongue and palate cannot be fooled: the taste of Chinese food outside the Great Wall is not quite the same. The national cuisine, losing touch with native land, flexibly adapts to local tastes. Shades are rougher, sweet and sour sauce is too sour or too sweet, vegetables are harsh, pieces are too large, portions are too large. This difference is especially noticeable to those who have been to the Celestial Empire.
Describing food in words is like talking about singing. It is better to hear singing once, food – at least once to taste. Where to taste it? Of course, in China.
Magazine “Around the World”: Daily Fan