On a Chinese food trail

Chinese noodles. Source: Clipart Fox
Chinese noodles. Source: Clipart Fox

When I think about Chinese cuisine two things pop to my head – fried rice and noodles.They are the most popular of the Chinese cuisine and has become a part of most of the country’s food culture.

But is that all there is to Chinese cuisine? Of course not. History of Chinese cuisine spans centuries and probably as old as any of the ancient cuisine like the Greek, Egyptians or Indian.

In fact according to archaeologist scholar KC Chang: “Chinese people are especially preoccupied with food” and “food is at the center of, or at least it accompanies or symbolizes, many social interactions.” There are many research and archaeological excavations done to understand Chinese cuisine. In one such excavation carried out in October 2005, it was found that the oldest noodle made using foxtail and broomtail millet was found near Yellow River, in Chinese province of Qinghai and it was at least 4000 years old, belonging to the Neolithic period. That is one just example.

If you have come across literature related to Chinese cuisine, you will realise that it has evolved and changed over time. Food culture is probably influenced by factors like modernisation and change in consumer preference among many others. Western culture in the country could not ruled out either. Regardless, Chinese cuisine continues to remain one of the favourites and has pervaded most countries including India, Europe and the US. It has spread so much that no matter what place you are in, it is impossible not to spot a Chinese restaurant.

But before all this, what was the indigenous Chinese cuisine like? You can go through all the trouble of reading books or research findings that run into pages. Alternatively, you can watch the anime called Chuko Ichiban!, which is set in 19th Century China during Qing Dynasty. The anime is based on the manga of the same name and follows the story of 13-year-old cooking genius Mao and his journey around China in an attempt to learn about different cuisine and become a better chef. It has 52 episodes and covers four major regional cuisine of China–Canton, Sichuan, Peking and Shanghai. Mao is from Sichuan province.

Each region is characterised by definite style of cooking. For example, cooking styles in Sichuan and Canton are different. For one water in Canton region is muddier than the water in Sichuan. So cooking style should take into account this factor to remove the muddiness. Any Chinese dish is judged based on four main characteristics – colour, aroma, taste and texture and is expected to balance four natures – hot, cold warm and cold. These are basics of Chinese cuisine.

All these tidbits about the country’s cooking history and styles are revealed through cooking contests, usually between Mao and other chefs.

First comes noodles. Though I have always been partial to noodle, I never really paid attention as to how they are made. (Well, I hope it is obvious I’m not talking about the 2-minute-maggi here.) As in how do you make noodle from scratch. I’m sure many would already have tried making it from scratch and for some like me, who do not like to get their hands dirty yet want to know technicalities, here is how it is done. It is usually made by kneading wheat flour and stretching it out over a flat surface. It is then folded and cut. This is something you will find just by browsing. But that is not the only kind of noodle variety the country has to offer.

In Shanxi province in China, you have a rather unusual variety of noodle called Cat Ear Noodles. These noodles are made from wheat flour and is shaped using thumb and then baked (The noodle is named cat ear because it resembles a ear of a cat.) This is not probably something you could find just by searching internet and that is when this anime comes in handy.

Cat Ear noodles from Shanxi Province.
Cat Ear noodles from Shanxi Province.

After fried rice and noodles, an indigenous dish I came across was Mapo Tofu. This is a very common and simple Chinese dish made of meat and tofu. The meat in some cases could be replaced by soya beans. It is a traditional Sichuan province cuisine and its basic ingredients include chili bean paste, chili oil, garlic, green onions and rice wine apart from grounded meat and tofu. In addition to the four characteristics mentioned before, when it comes to mapo tofu spiciness and numbing quality of the dish are very important.

Mapo Tofu. Source: Dishmaps
Mapo Tofu. Source: Dishmaps

I do not know if anyone has heard of black silkie, but I have not. It is a black chicken, which is considered a gourmet food in China. In the anime Mao enters a chicken cooking contest in a small village using black silkie, which was considered a bad omen. Well of course, he won the contest by cooking rice inside the silkie. Researching a bit told me that origins of cooking using black silkie could be found in China.

A black silkie
A black silkie

Hot pot cooking, which is a common feature in Japanese cuisine, has apparently originated in China. The 1000-year-old dish is nothing but a stew with variety of ingredients. It is usually served in a huge bowl and eaten directly from it. Just thinking about it warms me.

A typical hotpot. Source: Toronto star
A typical hotpot. Source: Toronto star

Sizzling rice soup is another dish that took me by surprise. Soup and sizzling rice, seriously? Like the name suggests crispy rice is put in the hot soup, which creates a sizzling sound. Does it not make you want to taste? As for me, I cannot wait to taste this interesting dish.

These are just few dishes I got to know by watching few anime episodes. I have already realised how much I have missed during my visit to Hong Kong. Watching all these cooking anime could me making me a foodie (pseudo-foodie at least), but they also help me identify not so famous dishes and unique ones like cat ear noodles. These sure make me want to travel more and this time explore a country’s food culture as well, one I have never felt necessary.

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