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Food in Shinese culture

by Wendy Peng, Arts & Entertainment editor


In western countries, people are used to takeout Chinese food, such as fried rice, chow mein, chicken balls, sweet and sour pork, or a variety of soups, which are only few small samples of Chinese food, and usually they are quite westernized. Actually, there is an enormous variety of Chinese food that differs greatly from region to region.


Food and its preparation are one of the primary aspects of the Chinese culture. The Chinese people through all levels of society love eating and enjoy eating good food, so cooking has developed into a sophisticated fine art. Chinese cooking techniques include stir-frying, stewing, steaming, deep-frying, flash-frying, pan-frying, and so forth.


Famine and hardship played a vital role in the development of Chinese cuisine. For thousands of years, the Chinese people lived in an agricultural civilization. Often, they suffered from poor harvests. As a result, people were forced to explore and discover edible things in their environment to survive. This is also why strange ingredients, such as agarics and lily buds were added to Chinese recipes. Because the Chinese people used to suffer from famine and living hardship, they were flexible about selecting food and adjusting ways of cooking in order to stay alive. “The Chinese way of eating is characterized by a notable flexibility and adaptability,” said K.C. Chang, the author of Food in Chinese Culture.


Chang added that it is amazing the knowledge the Chinese people have acquired about their wild plant resources. The Chinese peasants apparently know every edible plant in their environment. Thus, most plants that do not ordinarily belong on the dining table may be adapted for consumption during the time of famine.


In addition to that, Chinese people preserve food by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying and soaking in many kinds of soy sauces, so that food would not go rotten. With preserved food, they were ever ready in the time of hardship and scarcity.

Few people know that food in specific regions usually has its own cultural significance. Among all kinds of regional cuisines, Chinese food is one of the best examples to illustrate this principle.


The Chinese people believe that a delightful and delicious meal creates happiness, harmony, mental and physical well being. Confucius, the greatest philosopher in Chinese history, once said: “Eating is the utmost important part of life.” Therefore, people cannot understand Chinese culture without learning the significance of Chinese food.

In Chinese culture, a meal is composed of two main parts: fan (grains) and ts’ai (meat and vegetable). Fan refers to rice and ts’ai refers to foods prepared to go with rice. Preparing food from raw ingredients to morsels ready for the mouth involves a complex process. Meats and vegetables are cut up and mixed in various ways, and become individual dishes to constitute ts’ai itself.

To prepare the ts’ai, people use many kinds of ingredients and flavors. For instance, pork may be ground, sliced, or diced, and then combined with vegetables and various spices. Spices are one of the most essential parts of Chinese food because Chinese people evaluate whether or not a dish is delicious based on its shapes, flavors, colors, tastes, and aromas.

Beijing food is particularly known for Beijing Duck. Because Beijing is located in northern China, a cold climate is not suitable to grow rice. Thus, wheat is the primary diet for people living in the northern China. On the other hand, Guangdong is a southern province of China. Known for Cantonese food, the food is typically steamed, boiled, or stir-fried. In this region, seafood, pork, chicken, and vegetables are the main ingredients; rice is the main grain consumed. Sichuan, a southwestern province of China, is famous for its spicy tasting food. Nearly every Sichuan dish is prepared using chili pepper oil. Kung Pao Chicken, for instance, which is one famous Sichuan dish, is fried with peanuts and chili pepper.

Furthermore, the Chinese people place value on eating because they deem food as natural medicine. A theory of the “harmonization of food” created by an ancient scholar Yin Yi (16-11 century B.C.) relates the five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant, and salty to the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems of a human’s body (the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys).

Chang mentioned in his book that the regulation of diet as a disease preventive or cure is certainly as Western as it is Chinese, but the Chinese case is distinctive for its underlying —yin-yang principles. Food is classifiable into those possessing yin attributes and those possessing yang. Yin means cold while yang means hot. Yin-yang forces exists in everyone’s body, according to ancient Chinese knowledge and belief.

People select food to eat based on their physical conditions, because the kinds of food and how much food they eat affect the yin-yang equilibrium. The Chinese people believe disequilibrium is why people get sick. For instance, a female should avoid eating food or fruits like celery, tomato, lettuce, cucumber, or watermelon while she is having her period. In the Chinese view, these foods have yin qualities, and make the body cold, while remaining warm during the period is very important for females.

The most important aspect of the Chinese food culture is to Chinese culture itself. Today, Chinese are again enjoying stability and the good life after a century of suffering.





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