Eat, Drink and Be Merry in China

Confucius once said: “Eating is the utmost important part of life,” and I think anyone who spends even a short amount of time in China will see that food is central to this complex culture. According to author K.C. Chang in Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives (Yale University Press, 1977) Chinese cuisine has been influenced by three main factors: famine and hardship, energy-saving, and health. We might add weather, geography, and religious beliefs.

Development of Chinese Cusisine

Famine and hardship played a large role in the development of the cuisine. During lean years, people would try anything to see if it was edible. Some expats today, when faced with the more exotic Chinese dishes may still wonder HOW hungry would someone have to be before they considered that something that smells like durian might actually taste good? During hard times, many unusual ingredients were added to the Chinese cooking repertoire – things never even considered in other parts of the world – such as sharks’ fins, birds’ nests, sea slugs and durian. People learned not to waste anything. (I have, for example, heard expats wonder where, amongst all the pig-snout, pig liver, pig tongue, pig’s trotters,… is the pork chop!)

Shortages of cooking fuel prompted cooks to chop food into small pieces and stir-fry it quickly over searing heat. The result is that many Chinese dishes need lengthy chopping and marinating, but only go over the fire for a few minutes. Stir-frying keeps veggies bright and crisp, and retains more of their vitamins.

Regional Chinese Cuisines

Generally, Chinese food is divided into eight regional cuisines or “Eight Great Traditions” from Anhui, Canton, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shangdong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. Sometimes the Beijing and Shanghai cuisines are also included, leading to “Ten Great Traditions.” There are also specific Buddhist and Muslim cuisines within the Chinese spectrum, including vegetarian or halal preparations.

the diners and the occasion. The Chinese principles of yin and yang are also present in Chinese cuisine. Cooks believe that achieving a yin-yang balance will lead to good health. A balanced diet is one that contains appropriate proportions of grains and veggies, without too many meat products. Some dishes are meant to improve your qi; sometimes, specific animal foods are used to create a mirroring effect in the diner: “try duck brain for more intelligence, ox tongue for eloquence, and bull’s testicles for greater sexual potency.” (Eyewitness Travel Guide for China)

For now, I think I’ll pass on the bull’s testicles, but I would like to be invited to a traditional Chinese banquet. Until the invitation arrives in the post, I ‘ll have to make-do with the “Description of a Chinese Banquet” written by Jules Verne for the magazine Littell’s Living Age in1864:

As a substitute for table-napkins, every one was supplied with a considerable number of squares of paper figured over in various devices. The chairs arranged round the table were made with marble backs, not so luxurious, perhaps, but more suitable to the climate than the padded lounges in general use elsewhere. The bignon of the district, as if aware that he was catering for connoisseurs, seemed to have been anxious to surpass himself in the preparation of the many dishes that crowded the menu. For the first course were handed sugared cakes, caviar, fried grasshoppers, dried fruits, and Ning-Po oysters. Then followed successively, at short intervals, ducks’, pigeons’, and peewits’ eggs poached, swallows’ nests with mashed eggs, fricassees of ginseng, stewed sturgeons’ gills, whales’ sinews with sweet sauce, fresh-water tadpoles, fried crabs’ spawn, sparrows’ gizzards, sheep’s eyes stuffed with garlic, radishes in milk flavored with apricot-kernels, bamboo sprouts in syrup, and sweet salads. The last course consisted of pineapples from Singapore, earth-nuts, salted almonds, savory mangoes, the white, fleshy fruits of the long-yen, the pulpy fruits of the lit-chee, chestnuts, and preserved oranges from Canton. After the dessert rice was served, which the guests raised to their mouths with little chop-sticks according to the custom of their country. Three hours were spent over the banquet. When it was ended, the waiting-maids brought napkins steeped in warm water, which all the company rubbed over their faces apparently with great satisfaction. The next stage of the entertainment was an hour’s lounge, to be occupied in listening to music. A group of players and singers entered, all pretty young girls, neatly and modestly attired. Their performance, however, could scarcely have been more inharmonious; it was hardly better than a series of yells, howls, and screeches, without rhythm and without time. The instruments were a worthy accompaniment to the chorus: wretched violins, of which the strings kept entangling the bows; harsh guitars covered with snake-skins; shrill clarinets, and harmoniums all out of tune, like diminutive portable pianos. The girls had been conducted into the room by a man who acted as leader of the Charivari. Having handed a programmed to the host, and received in return a permission to perform what he chose, he made his orchestra strike up, “The Bouquet of Ten Flowers,” a piece at that time enjoying a vast popularity in the fashionable world. This was followed by other pieces of similar character, and at the close of the performances the troop, already handsomely paid, were enthusiastically applauded, and allowed to depart and gain fresh laurels from other audiences. After the concert was over the party rose from their seats and passed to another table. Here were laid six covered cups, each embossed with a portrait of Bôdhid-harama, the celebrated Buddhist monk, standing on his legendary wheel. The cups were already full of boiling water, and each member of the party was provided with a pinch of tea, which he put into the cup, without sugar, and at once drank off the infusion. And what tea it was! Europeans would have exclaimed in wonder at its flavor, but these connoisseurs sipped it slowly, with the air of men who duly appreciated its quality. They were all men of the upper class, handsomely attired in hunchaols, a kind of thin shirt, macooals, or short tunics, and haols, long coats buttoned at the side. On their feet were yellow slippers, and openwork socks, met by silk breeches that were fastened round the waist by tasseled scarves; on their chests they wore a kind of stomacher, elaborately embroidered in silk. Elegant fans dangled from their girdles.

If you’re not quite ready for the “fresh-water tadpoles, and sheep’s eyes stuffed with garlic,” you might like to try the recipes here: three cold dishes – perfect for summer – that make use of familiar ingredients, but are prepared with a delightful Asian flavor. Enjoy!

Cecilia Chiang’s Tea Eggs (cha ye dan)

Makes 10 eggs

These pretty eggs look like glossy marbles – a perfect summer snack.


10 large eggs

4 black tea bags

1 TBS kosher salt

¼ cup soy sauce

(Some recipes call for a star anise or two to be added to the brew.)

Put the eggs in a large saucepan with enough water to cover them by two inches and bring to a boil over high heat.

Reduce the heat to medium, add the tea bags and salt, and cook 15 minutes. Using a metal spoon with a long handle, make cracks in the shell of each egg by gently tapping the surface several times, trying to keep the shells intact. (Or lift each egg out on a slotted spoon and crack it with a teaspoon.)

Pour in the soy sauce and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the pan and continue to cook for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, leave the cover on, and let the eggs soak in the liquid for about an hour, or until they are darkly colored. You can test them for color by carefully removing one of the eggs from the pan and peeling off a bit of the eggshell. If they’re too light, let them sit longer, testing again after 30 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the eggs to a plate and discard the liquid.

The eggs can be peeled and served right away, or refrigerated in a covered container in their shells for up to 4 days.

Cecilia Chiang’s Eggplant in Garlic Sauce (da suan ban qie zi)

Serves 4-6


3 Asian eggplants (about 1 lb.)

3 TBS premium soy sauce

11/2 tsp chili oil

1 TBS black Chinkiang black vinegar or good-quality balsamic vinegar

1 TBS minced fresh ginger

11/2 TBS minced garlic

1 green onion, white and green parts thinly sliced

Trim the eggplants. Cut them lengthwise into thirds and then again lengthwise in 2- to 3-inch ‘fingers’

Fill the bottom of a steamer with water, bring the water to a boil over high heat, and set the eggplant pieces on a steamer tier over the boiling water.

Cover and steam 4 minutes or until soft when pressed with a chopstick. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

To make the dressing: Whisk the soy sauce, chili oil, vinegar, ginger, and garlic in a small bowl until combined.

To serve: Toss the cooled eggplant in half of the dressing and arrange it on a platter. Pour over the remaining dressing. Garnish with green onion.

Ken Hom’s Cold Peppers with Black Bean Sauce

Serves 4


11/2 TBS vegetable oil

3 TBS finely chopped shallots

2 TBS black beans, rinsed and coarsely chopped

(*I used black bean and garlic sauce, didn’t chop, and omitted the garlic.)

11/2 TBS finely minced garlic

1 TBS finely minced fresh ginger

175g/6 oz. each red, green and yellow bell peppers (paprikas), seeds and pith removed, cut into 1-inch squares or chunks

2 TBS Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

1 TBS chili bean sauce (*I used a tsp of chili oil.)

1 TBS light soy sauce

2 TBS dark soy sauce

2 tsp sugar

150 ml/1/4 pint chicken stock or water

2 tsp sesame oil

Heat a wok or large frying pan until it is very hot. Add the oil and when it’s hot ad slightly smoking, and add the shallots, black beans, garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 1 minute.

Then add the peppers and stir-fry for 1 more minute. Finally, add the rice wind or sherry, chili bean sauce, soy sauces, sugar and stock or water.

Cook over high heat for 5 minutes or until the peppers are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated.

Stir in the sesame oil, turn the peppers onto a platter and let them cool to room temperature before serving.

The eggplant and tea egg recipes are taken from Cecilia Chiang’s book The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco. Ten Speed Press, California: 2007. The pepper recipe comes from Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery. BBC Worldwide Limited, London: 2001. Both books, Chiang’s representing the Beijing style, and Hom’s representing Cantonese style, are highly recommended for cooks who are just starting to learn about Chinese food.

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