The Art of Chinese Cooking
In China, cooking is an art. Quite different from Western cooking where recipes are followed strictly like laboratory instructions, Chinese cooking always allows for a creative and stylistic touch to it. While in the Western cooking the recipe is the key to success in any culinary attempt, in Chinese cooking the experienced and well-seasoned chef is the guarantee. That is why restaurants, big or small, would always boast of their chefs as well as advertise their dishes.
"Colorful," "varied," "delicious," and "complex" are often used to describe Chinese food. Great attention is paid to aesthetic appreciation of the food because the food should be good not only in flavor and smell, but also in color and appearance.
The following are the principal aspects of Chinese culinary art:
1. SELECTION OF RAW MATERIAL
Chinese cuisine uses a rich variety of raw materials, which may include chicken, duck, fish, pork, seafood, game, eggs, vegetables, soybean products, and fruits and nuts. Chefs are very particular about the selection and preparation of the ingredients used. For example, ?the Beijing Roast Duck can be considered the best only if the chefs have available the force-fed ducks raised on a particular duck farm near Beijing.
2. COMBINATION OF INGREDIENTS
Besides selection, Chinese chefs also pay attention to the combination of main ingredients and auxiliary materials. They see to it that the combination appeals to the eye as well as to the palate. Shrimps, for example, are often stir-fried with cucumber so that the color combinations are pleasing to the eye. Similarly, bean curd and greens, fish fillet and tomato sauce, chicken and mushroom all make good combinations. In Chinese cooking, meat and vegetables are often cooked together so that they not only look good and taste delicious but are nutritious as well.
Cutting has always been a distinctive feature of Chinese culinary art. The ingredients of a given dish can be cut into slices, strips, shreds, cubes, segments, dices, grains, or minces. Some materials like turnip, radish, and potato can be carved into the shapes of flowers and animals. Chinese characters of an auspicious nature can also be carved into food or vegetables.
Seasoning is very important in Chinese cooking. The number of spices and herbs used is estimated at more than one hundred. Those used in various geographical regions have helped to shape the different styles of Chinese cooking, and all kinds of salty, sweet, sour, and pungent flavors can be found in those cuisines. Chinese chefs see to it that seasonings are added at the right time in the right amount to ensure the right flavor.
In Chinese cooking, time and temperature are decisive factors. Different ingredients require different cooking times and temperatures so that they can be hard, soft, crisp, or tender. They can be cooked over high, moderate, or low temperatures. Dongpo Braised Pork, a famous Hangzhou dish named after a distinguished Song Dynasty poet and painter Su Shi, better known in the West as Su Tungpo, is a good example. According to Su's recipe, the pork is simmered slowly over low heat in a covered pot. When done, the meat is tender and delicious but not greasy at all. On the other hand, the Fried Sliced Chicken and the Chicken Liver is stir-fried at a high temperature for only a few seconds. The cooked meat turns out to be tender and tasty. But low temperature would make the meat tough and hard.
6. COOKING TECHNIQUES
There are over thirty techniques in Chinese cuisine, including deep-frying, quick-frying, stir-frying, roasting, sauteing, simmering, braising, smoking, steaming, and stewing in soy sauce and syrup. Different materials require different flavorings.