When you cook a Chinese meal you become part of the fascinating expression of the oldest enduring culture in the history of the world. No other people have exhibited such creativity, ingenuity, sense of taste and feeling for harmony in the preparation of their food. It is, therefore, both fitting and appropriate that Chinese cooking is described as an art. Cooking and eating are so inextricably entwined that together they become not only an art, but also a recreation and a social activity for the Chinese people.
Throughout her history, China has been highly dependent on the results of each year crops to save them from starvation. Season after season the Chinese have had to struggle to produce enough food on which to live. To guard against natural disasters, the Chinese people developed techniques for preserving and storing food very early in their history.
The first method of keeping fish, vegetables and fruit was by drying them in the sun and the air. Later it was discovered that many foods could be preserved by packing them in salt. Occasionally both fresh and dried ingredients began to appear in the same dish, producing sophisticated contrasts of flavors as well as stretching a small quantity of a fresh ingredient to feed a larger number of people.
Because the quality of the soil is so poor in many regions of China, part of the inventiveness of the cooking can be attributed to necessity as much as to choice. The people were forced to find new sources of food to give some variety to their diet. The Chinese discovered that they could use many apparently unappetizing ingredients such as roots and bulbs, fungi, seaweed, marine fauna and even flowers, as well as many
other naturally growing foods for the unusual variety of interesting and exciting tastes in Chinese cooking.
Rice and noodles form the base of the Chinese diet and it is rare for the accent to be placed on one specific dish. The dishes are all served together. Soup is not necessarily considered as the first course, but may be served at any time during the meal or even to conclude the dinner. In China, all the food is seasoned and cut into small pieces by the cook so that they can be lifted easily from the bowl with chopsticks.
Vegetables play a more important role than meat. Milk and milk products are almost completely absent. Vegetable oils, particularly peanut oil, are used as the principal cooking agents. Lard is used occasionally, but butter is unknown in China. Wine is used extensively in Chinese cooking. Now let us move from generalities and look at each region of China more closely.