Back in the 1980s, a genial Chinese cook named Stephen Yan entertained TV audiences worldwide via his syndicated Chinese cooking show “Wok With Yan”
He skillfully cooked up one tasty-looking dish after another, contributing to the popularity of one of the world’s most recognizable dishes — Chinese cuisine.
Each Chinese dish must have a good balance of the elements through a proper amount of fan (grain and other starchy food, consisting of steamed wheat-, millet-, or cornflour-based bread, pancakes, and noodles) and ts’ai (cut meats and vegetables).
When presented, each half must be distinguishable from the other. But Chinese cuisine does lend itself to some flexibility since China went through periods of affluence (which allowed for more expensive ingredients) and through periods of scarcity (when omitting ingredients are permissible).
No matter how many variations we have today, Chinese cuisine is essentially divided into four general categories, each with a character of its own largely dictated by that region’s climate, geography, and availability of ingredients. These four categories are Northern or Beijing cuisine, Shanghai or Eastern cuisine, Western or Szechuan cuisine, and Southern or Cantonese cuisine.
Northern or Beijing (also known as Peking) cuisine includes dishes originating from Beijing and the provinces of Shantung, Hopei, Honon, Shansu, Shensi, and Inner Mongolia. Hot summers, harsh winters, Shangdong province cuisine, Mongol invaders in the 14th century, and chefs from the Imperial Court shaped the character of this region’s cuisine.
Garlic and green onion make frequent appearances here, and wheat is the most common grain. Beijing’s most popular dish is Peking duck — roast duck with green onions and Hoisin (Haixian) sauce, a dipping sauce traditionally made from sweet potato.
Shanghai or Eastern cuisine comes from Kiangsu, Chekiang, Anhwei, and Fukien provinces. These areas Peking Duck use more soy sauce, sugar, rice wine, and rice vinegar with their food than any other region. They cook their food slowly. The red-cooking method originated here, where food is cooked in soy sauce-based liquid with some spices and sugars. Shanghai cuisine boasts of Xiao Long Bao, Hairy Crab, century eggs, and Yang-chow Fried Rice.
Spicy foods reign supreme in Western or Szechuan cuisine, which encompasses the provinces of Szechuan, Hunan, and Yunnan. Many dishes here include Szechuan peppercorn with hot chili peppers. Its climate dictates its preference for spicy foods, such as Deviled Eggs, Eggplant in Garlic Sauce, and Kung Pao Chicken.
Southern or Cantonese cuisine includes the province of Jangxi and Guangdong (or Canton). Among the four categories, it is Cantonese cuisine that is regarded as fine dining. Many of us are familiar with dishes like Beef With Oyster Sauce, Barbecued Spareribs, Sweet and Sour Pork, and Salt & Pepper Shrimp.
In the Philippines, noodles or pancit (from the Hokkien word pian i sit) has taken on various forms. One Philippine noodle dish is Pancit Habhab (sauteed and served in a banana-leaf cone and eaten without utensils). Habhab may have come from the sound you make as you eat the meal. There is also Pancit Molo (clear chicken broth with wantons, garlic, and chorizo), Canton (deep-fried noodle basket), and Luglog (made with toppings of pork cracklings, kamias [averrhoa bilimbi], wansoy, shrimp, and smoked fish).
Chinese food ingredients can easily be substituted with the meat or vegetables, and its condiments adjusted to its adopted land’s preference. It is this versatility that makes Chinese cuisine one of the world’s most popular.
CHINESE DINING TIP. Chinese dining wouldn’t be complete without chopsticks, the preferred utensil since around 200 BC. Chopsticks are the best way to pick up strings of rice- or wheat-based noodles and morsels of meat and vegetables. But a fork is acceptable too. If you do use chopsticks, just remember not to stab your food like you’re eating a kebab as this is considered bad table manners.
Print ed: 10/07