Chinese Culture trough Foreign Languages: Chinese Food Culture
A Short Introduction to Chinese Food Culture
The food culture of any region in the world can express the characteristics of that region. One such food culture, Chinese food culture, has become popular all over the world. It seems that no matter which country you find yourself in, you can always find a Chinese restaurant. This article will give a simple introduction to the characteristics of Chinese food culture.
1. Concepts and Ingredients
When it comes to food, Chinese people tend to stress the concepts “balance” and “harmony.” This means that the properties of the food, like its wetness or dryness, its traditional classification (hot, warm, cool, cold; more on this below), its color (including the color of the meat, vegetables, beans, grains, etc.) all require balance and harmony. Food also needs to be prepared to harmonize the season with the human body. For example, a human body will be rather weak during a cold winter season and thus will need to be strengthened by taking in extra nutritious food.
The ingredients used in Chinese food culture come from a wide variety of sources. In the past, Chinese food tended to use rare ingredients to indicate wealth or that a person lived a luxurious life. In addition to exotic and high-class ingredients like bear’s paw, shark’s fin, and bird’s nest, Chinese cooks used common meats like beef, lamb, pork, chicken, duck, and fish along with many types of fruit and vegetables. From this wide variety of eatables in Chinese food culture, we have the saying, “We eat everything with four-legs: except the kitchen table, we eat everything that flies: except airplanes, and we eat everything that swims: except submarines.” Concerning grains and carbohydrate rich food, people in northern China tend to eat more noodle-based dishes, while those in the south tend to eat more rice-based dishes. Cooking method is another important area of Chinese food culture. The traditional judgment was that only cooked foods were suitable to be eaten; raw foods were not allowed on the dinner table. Nowadays, however, Chinese food culture has taken on some of the habits of other cultures and has become used to eating raw foods like sushi and salad.
2. Regional Food Culture
The food culture of a place is affected by the climate and the people that live there; this is true no matter where you go. When it comes to developing a food culture that reflects the ‘terroir’ (the characteristics) of a region, Chinese food culture is a perfect example. Just look at Mainland China; each region has its own style of food. The so-called “Eight Regional Cooking Styles of Mainland China”: Shandong, Sichuang, Cantonese, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Anhui. Each cuisine comes with its own distinguishing characteristics.
Along with the cuisine of Mainland China, Taiwan’s own food culture is also fairly diverse. Taiwan is populated ethnically by the Han (including those that came to Taiwan long ago from the Fukien province on the Mainland, the Hakka people, people from other provinces that arrived after the World War II), and of course by the native peoples of Taiwan. Ethnically, Han Chinese cover the largest percentage of the total population of Taiwan, and so it is no surprise that the Han food culture has become the basis of Taiwan’s entire food culture, this is especially true of the food culture from Fukien province. After World War II, people from all over China brought their regional food culture with them to Taiwan. This is why Shanghai and Cantonese cuisine are two of the easiest styles to find in Taiwan outside of Taiwan-specific foods and snacks.
3. Etiquette and Taboo in Food Culture
It has been common practice in Chinese history that meals are eaten with the family seated around a round table set with many large dishes of food. This setting is now only found in restaurants, banquets, or in family gatherings. In the past, each person would use their own pair of chopsticks to eat directly from the large family-style dishes. Now, in public banquets or other large occasions, the diners will use a pair of ‘public-use’ chopsticks to pick the food they want to eat, and then use their own pair of chopsticks for eating. This is the common practice for events like wedding banquets and birthday parties, while in the West a separate serving is given to each person. In Chinese etiquette, the seating arrangement carries with it a very specific meaning; this is especially true for formal occasions. The seat furthest from the entrance is reserved for the guest; seated directly in front of the guest is the host.
Chinese food culture has far fewer rules of etiquette and taboos than western food culture, though Chinese medicine brings along many superstitions and taboos surrounding food and health. A good example is the forbiddance of a pregnant woman from eating cold foods like watermelon, bitter-melon and mung bean jelly. On the other hand, a woman is encouraged to take in tofu, milk, and other white-colored foods if she wants her child to have whiter skin. These superstitions are not grounded in science, though they do allow us to better understand what people in China think about the things they eat.
1. What are the important concepts of Chinese food culture?
2. What types of food are included in Chinese food culture?
3. Please give and explain the characteristic food of each region.
4. What kind of Chinese food can you find in Taiwan?
5. What kinds of etiquette and taboo exist in Chinese food culture?
6. What foreign foods have you eaten?
7. Please compare and contrast Chinese food and Western food.
8. Please compare and contrast etiquette and taboo in Chinese and Western food culture.
9. The Chinese language has many sayings and idioms dealing with food. Please give three examples and explain them.
10. Please give an example of a common superstition in Chinese food culture. Also, try to think of similar superstitions in Western food culture.
Many people have a general concept of which foods are ‘hot,’ and which foods are ‘cool.’ The reason for these concepts comes from the ancients. They believed that food was medicine and was separated into four properties: ‘hot,’ ‘warm,’ ‘cool’ and ‘cold.’ Chinese medicine calls these properties the ‘four energies’ or the ‘four properties.’ This separation of food into ‘energies’ or ‘properties’ is unique to China; Western food culture does not have such concepts.