Traditional Table: A Chinese Food Primer
In places like America, Chinese food has developed its own distinct flavor that is markedly different from that of its homeland. In fact, North American Chinese dishes, heavy with thick, sweet sauces, are not what you’d encounter in the countryside and cities of China. China is a diverse place with multiple cultural influences, so the ways in which the cuisine is treated as a conglomerate entirely misses the point. There are 23 Chinese provinces, and depending on their location, the food in that region may enjoy influence from Mongolia, Russia, India, or Korea. For example, Sichuan cuisine is spicy, Shandong cuisine is generally salty and crispy, and Cantonese cuisine is sweet.
Much of what the world knows as Chinese food can be traced back to immigrants to California, specifically Chinatown in San Francisco. These Chinese immigrants were mostly from the southern province of Guangdong, so Americanized Chinese food tends to reflect the cuisine of that region. Even fortune cookies, so ubiquitous in every Chinese restaurant, are an American invention. One of the significant differences between authentic Chinese food and popularized stateside versions is the cooking methods and the spice level. There aren’t many fried foods in authentic Chinese recipes, which rely instead upon simple, lean meats and poultry or tofu accompanied by noodles or rice and flavored with fragrant ingredients like garlic, scallions, and ginger.
Chinese food also relies heavily upon elements they consider medicinal, embracing five components of wellness that include metal (金), wood (木), water (水), fire (火), and earth (土). Fire foods, like tomatoes and apples, are considered good for your heart and brain while metal foods like garlic and onions are believed to promote respiratory health. This kind of yin and yang philosophy about food is reflected in many Chinese dishes, which focus on a balance of ingredients.
A traditional Chinese table will, of course, vary from region to region. Colder provinces enjoy soups, while warmer places by the sea incorporate more fish into their diet. Some provinces are known for growing superior soybeans or rice, so that food features prominently in the cuisine of the area.
Here are a few of the dishes you’ll find crowding tables across China:
1. Soups (noodle or dumpling soups)
3. Tofu or chicken
4. Rice (sticky varieties, usually white)
Starches like rice or noodles make up the backbone of most meals, which are served family style in big bowls in the center of the table. Tea accompanies every meal and, of course, there are rules about chopsticks. Chinese culture reflects a rich lexicon of tradition handed down through centuries of civilizations. This means that small things like sticking your chopsticks upright in your bowl can have significant meaning. In Chinese culture, this is frowned upon because it’s something you might see on an altar to honor dead ancestors. Pointing chopsticks while talking is also considered rude, akin to pointing fingers at someone in public. And where you are seated at the table matters and is a reflection of your importance among the group, which is a custom handed down from older times when Chinese families were large and included several wives.
With so much to remember, it can be easy to forget that the point of eating authentic Chinese cuisine is to absorb as much of the culture as possible and to enjoy the colorful tapestry of tastes that is emblematic of one of the largest, most populated places on the planet.
Chinese Cuisine Reflects Rich Cultural Traditions
Mimi Zhang came to the United States in 2009 on a work visa, teaching Chinese to American schoolchildren. She wanted to see the world and soak up some other cultures, but she met the man who was to become her husband while in the States and fell in love. They had a daughter, and now Mimi’s applying for American citizenship while her husband works at a local military base. Mimi spends her days caring for her daughter and husband and cooking up authentic Chinese food in her kitchen.
Mimi’s family is from the northeast province of Liáoníng, sometimes referred to as the Golden Triangle because of its unique shape and geographic location along the Yellow Sea. She describes it as similar to the climate of Massachusetts, with humid, cold winters and warm summers. Mimi and her family grew up in a densely populated city, close to North Korea and Russia and she grew up speaking Mandarin, the national language of China.
“When you turn on the TV, everyone is speaking Mandarin. Everybody understands it, but not everyone can speak it. People from the south of China have their own dialect. For me, it’s like another language. When they speak, I have no idea what they are talking about because their pronunciation is totally different. When we write, though, we write the same characters.”
In northeast China where Mimi is from, it was traditionally hard to get fresh fruit or vegetables in the wintertime, so they often enjoyed picked vegetables instead that would last longer. And the dishes of her home province reflect the colder climate, with plenty of soups and heartier fare than southern Chinese regions prefer.
“I still remember my daddy had a big jar… it would hold 30 or 40 heads of cabbage. He would put everything inside without even washing it. That’s the way you do it—if you wash it, you ruin it. And he’d put bags of salt and then add water and let it sit for months before we’d eat it. It tastes like sauerkraut. I’m so happy I found it here… here they call it ‘German-style.’ It’s so funny. Sometimes we share the same technique to make food.”
Mimi recalls her mom’s parenting style was one of empowerment, and it taught her at an early age to be comfortable with learning new things and to challenge herself. While she didn’t learn a lot of traditional recipes handed down through her family, Mimi’s mom did teach her basic techniques of steaming and preparation so she could cook and eat the foods she loved
“I like to eat. My mom said she wasn’t a good cook, but she said she would tell me how to cook and take me to restaurants so I could see other people cook. So that’s the good thing about my mom. She not only gave me the fish, she taught me how to fish.”
One of the things that puzzled Mimi when she first arrived in the U.S. was the extensive collection of tools and implements in the kitchen. She says in China, there is a saying that you need to have the right tool for the job but in the kitchens of her homeland, they didn’t have ten or fifteen different knives. Chinese cooks typically have a broad flat knife that resembles a cleaver and allows for quick, precise chopping but also serves as a spatula to sweep up cut veggies. It was one of the first things she bought when she started cooking in her own stateside kitchen.
And it wasn’t just differences the cooking techniques, ingredients, and preparation that Mimi had to adjust to. It was also the style of consuming food and the ways in which it reflects the culture in America. For instance, in China, it’s considered common courtesy to always wait until the head of the family begins eating before you dig in. Mimi says she’s inadvertently handed down some of these traditions to her three-year-old daughter, who adorably insists that the entire family is seated before she begins to eat no matter how informal the meal.
“When you eat, you can see the differences in the way people think, the different thinking in the culture. In China, we’re a whole family, and we share everything but here it’s ‘this is your dish and this is mine,’ and everyone eats their own. When I first came here, I had to adjust to only ordering for yourself. In China, we would order four dishes and then all share.”
This intersection of customs and cuisine often reflects the values of a culture and can get beyond the barriers of language to communicate something vital about a country’s sense of community and family.
A Classic Bowl of Chinese Comfort
Wonton, otherwise known as 馄饨 (húntún) in Chinese, has many different varieties depending on the region. In some provinces, the dumplings have thin skins and are filled with shrimp, while other areas enjoy thicker-skinned, heartier dumplings that make soup into a more filling meal. Our wonton soup is Cantonese, with a broth seasoned with seaweed, scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds
This fragrant soup is a favorite not only in the colder climates of northern China but also when illness strikes. The inclusion of copious amounts of ginger to aid digestion, as well as scallions and invigorating broth, is believed to clear the sinuses and rejuvenate the body. Wonton soup isn’t just regulated to the Chinese dinner table. It’s often eaten as a quick lunch meal or even for breakfast.
Most of the ingredients you’ll need for the wontons and soup can be found at a standard grocery store, although Asian markets may have the thicker wrappers you’ll want to use and the larger pieces of ginger necessary to flavor the broth. Accomplished Chinese cooks make and cut their own wonton wrappers and prepare the broth from scratch with sparerib bones, but it’s also perfectly fine to take a few shortcuts and still get to the heart of this classic Cantonese recipe.
Shrimp & Pork Wonton Soup
For the wonton filling:
2 green onions/scallions
½ lb shrimp (about 8 pieces) (shelled and deveined)
½ lb ground pork
1-inch ginger, finely chopped
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. honey
2 tsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. honey
1 package of wonton wrappers (about 40 to 50 wrappers)
For the broth:
1 green onion (scallion)
6 cups chicken stock or broth
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp salt
Directions: To make the wonton filling, chop 2 green onions. Save some chopped green onions or scallions to serve with the soup. Chop cilantro and set aside to serve with the soup. Cut the shrimp into small pieces to fit in the wonton wrapper. In a large bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, and chopped green onion. Add chopped fresh ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and honey to the mixture. Toss and let marinate for several hours if possible.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Separate the wonton wrappers from one another and fan them out on a plate. Put a small dish of water nearby where you’ll be working to fill the wontons. Place a wrapper on your hand and a teaspoon of the filling in the center of the wrapper. Start with a small amount of filling, then use your finger to moisten the edges of the wrapper with water
When the edges have been moistened, fold the wrapper in half to create a rectangular shape, pressing any air that might be trapped around the filling. Fold the corners toward each other until they touch and overlap. Wet your fingertips and seal them closed, then set the wonton aside and a plate or baking sheet.
Once you’ve wrapped the wontons, put 5-8 wrapping wontons in the boiling pot of water. Cook 5 minutes, or until wontons float on the surface of the water. Use a slotted spoon to remove them from the water. You can freeze any wontons you don’t need and use them later.
Assemble a bowl with a piece or two of seaweed, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, some sesame oil, and a generous helping of scallions and cilantro. Add warmed broth. Serve immediately and savor the smell of your bowl of Chinese comfort.