China: a country with thousands of years of human history that includes the days when ancient kingdoms fought for dominance, the rise and fall of the Silk Road which had secretive magic materials sold to Romans, and is now possibly one of the world’s strongest country with well over a billion people living in a gigantic communist regime.
Writing a post on that should be easy, right? Just to start off the bat there’s inherently a problem: ‘Chinese Cuisine’ is a loose term. There’s food eaten in modern-day China, which is more traditional, and then there’s North American Chinese food, which can range from relatively authentic cuisine that is toned down for American* palates, since a lot of people on this continent get squeamish about pretty much everything that other countries eat and feel safer eating preservative-pumped McDonald’s because that’s clearly healthy for you.
As I am Canadian, even the most Chinese destinations in Toronto [which are in no way hard to find, as there are literally five whole China Towns, and Chinese people make up 1.5% the population] will be missing: such as bird’s nest soup and fried honeybees [although I did glimpse a large bucket of chicken feet in a market once]. I’ll try and compare to make sure I know which type of Chinese I’m talking about, but I won’t bring any takeout crap into the equation. An interesting thing to add is that the West isn’t the only part of the world to drastically change Chinese cooking, it’s also been done in many other parts of Asia as well as the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and Peru.
*by American, I meant Anglo-American, which basically means Canada/USA, and not just the states. I didn’t say that because anglo means Caucasian, and there are tons of non-whites living in so-called Anglo-America I didn’t want to leave out.
To start, Chinese fortune cookies are not actually Chinese. Either you’re in total disbelief or you’re glad someone else knows this too. A study was done where people in China were shown fortune cookies and none of them knew what they were. It turns out they evolved from a dish made in Japan [I wonder who failed first-grade geography to get those two countries mixed up].
General Tso chicken originated from 70′s New York, which I don’t find surprising given the cheesy name which sounds like it was cooked up by an executive to sound ultra-foreign. Kung-Pao and sweet and sour* whatever’s are also not Chinese, for the record. There are even more foods that are based on Chinese foods but gone awry, such as soy sauce [made with water, salt, caramel colouring, corn syrup and hydrolyzed vegetable oil]. The traditional recipe uses wheat and rice flour. Egg rolls are eaten in China, but they are a completely different food: the one in China is far lighter and is a dessert, so they have the same name, but different origins. Spring rolls are authentic, put they’re smaller, and not the giant behemoths associated with the name Egg Roll.
*I admit to eating and being ignorant about sweet and sour chicken. I’ve never had General Tso or Kung-Pao to the best of my knowledge, good to know I wasn’t missing out on actual Chinese food!
This has nothing to do with food, but it is a misconception in CanadAmerica. To all those who think that Buddha is a fat, laughing Chinese man than you’re wrong. The actual Buddha has many different depictions depending on which country he’s worshipped in [he's not just worshipped by Chinese people either], but appears closer to the more classically divine-looking Krishna than an Asian Santa Claus. That actual jolly man is named Budhai, who appeared in many Chinese adventure tales and probably got his named confused with the other guy.
Here we go into the history of actual Chinese food, oh god the thousands of years of history. Well, Gastronomy–the art of good eats–was around since the ancient days of China, when new emperors would be swift to appoint head chefs who desperately fought to be top dog. Sometime after 2000 BCE, when rice was introduced from Western Asia, Confucianism started and developed along side even stricter Gastronomy.
Later on, the Han Chinese [who now make up 92% of all China and 20% the Earth's entire population] spread south and met other peoples who had been cultivating rice. The Han cultures, as you could probably tell by today’s demographics, had taken over China and unified its vast kingdoms through a network of canals. The food was closely linked with medicine, with beliefs around The Five Senses of Pungent, Sweet, Sour, Savoury and Salty as well as The Four Natures [temperatures] of hot, warm, cool and cold. Confucianism, which decided that people shouldn’t ‘eat with weapons at the table’ [I'm paraphrasing that a bit]–basically that included things you could use to kill someone like a knife or fork–made way for chopsticks and spoons and chefs had to make foods that were either bite-sized or easy to break up. This made the way for dim-sum.
Fast forward to the Song Dynasty, roughly between 960 and 1279 CE [yeah, the century-by-dynasty thing is a bit complicated, but that's how history was recorded that long ago], and foods start to look even more modern. Wars [I won't bother researching which war, that's probably a really complicated back-story no one needs to know] had made staple foods such as rice increase demand, and Muslim cultures had started moving into China which lead to other cultural ethnicities being developed, such as the Xinjiang and the Uyghur. Later on, just before they were preparing to kill out the Aztecs and destroy Incan culture for the good of a Christian colony, the Spanish had been trading with the Chinese and introduced to them chili peppers and corn. Chinese food today, which is now influenced by a communist regime [I'm not making assumptions here, the Chinese government fully admits to being a bit regime-ish the past couple centuries], and that makes the food heavily industrialized, which I can understand given the ridiculously large population.
One thing that’s interesting is how much rice Chinese people eat. I know that may sounds stupid, but it’s more the creativity that shocks me. Rice is eaten just plain and steamed, in something, as a porridge, or as wine [Japanese call it Sake]. One of my sources described it as bread is to Westerners, which is a good way to put it [except I actually eat more rice and tortillas than I do bread].
As for the other staple foods, most of them are actually Chinese as opposed to something cooked up in The Americas or from Japan that was idiotically mistaken for China again[seriously, see that giant mass of a country roughly in the middle of Asia that you can see from the moon? That's China!] So it seems like you can get legitimate Asian food in
The West, except they do purposefully leave out some stuff like still-moving octopus tentacles*.
*no, I didn’t make that up, google it, yes, that is an extreme example.
China has a population of 1,360,720,000 people [for those of you wondering, only 3,000 are nationalized citizens that were born in another country], only a billion of which are Han Chinese, which means that there are 360 million other indigenous ethnic Chinese groups there, each with their own history, culture and food. So to all those who belong to those groups that are reading this [possibly none if this is banned in China, no joke], I’m sorry, but I have to stick to the what the majority of Chinese are eating. Fun fact, even if the People’s Republic had one billion less people, they’d still have 50 million more citizens than the USA.
To narrow things down painfully further, I do believe the only Chinese food I’ve actually had are the staples.
Fortunately, that includes noodle soup, dumplings, rice dishes and the like, and the basics are more or less the core of any cuisine, but if I actually were to go onto Chinese food for a long time [or any Asian cuisine really], I would probably discover new things even within my own city. I quite enjoy these staple foods, the quality of ingredients, the variety and the unique flavours make it one of my favourite cuisines.
Now let’s compare with North American ‘Chinese’ foods, of which there are two: American and Canadian. The northern version evolved from abused slaves–er, I mean, immigrants who in no way were harmed in the making of the railroad–[I say 'no way were harmed' with maximum sarcasm active] who started to cook altered versions of their indigenous foods, so the same result happened in two different countries for different reasons.
CanadAmerica [I'll say AmeriCanadian when the States win a war against Canada and don't go all 1812 on us again] has an emphasis on making things ten times unhealthier, turning central vegetable dishes into sides and generally getting rid of innovative, balanced flavours in exchange for crap loads of salt, sugar and fat. They also add MSG, which I don’t think was used in ancient China unless those damn aliens were mucking about with history again. Personally, I find that the take-out variety of Chinese, and by some extent other Asian foods, is greasier, fattier and just sloppier, the philosopher/chefs of the Dynasty days would probably be appalled.
The traditional cuisine focuses on perfect harmony between flavours and states, as I noted earlier, and has a better ratio of ingredients [as opposed to the disproportionate takeaway version]. It is also, in my book, far more complex, even excluding all the other ethnic Chinese cuisines/cultures, there is a lot in the main, Han version that has been around for thousands of years. I enjoy how it can be healthy but delicious at the same time, and the variety is quite impressive, but we get so little of the full picture here in Canada. Modern Chinese food is industrialized, starting with the in-no-way-like-out-of-the-novel-1984 start of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, which ended in starvation and famine [it's evened out more now], and this modern version of the cuisine is another blind spot to me.
The only traditional version of this cuisine that I’ve had are basic, staple recipes, or completely bastardized greasy insults that they call Chinese, and I haven’t even had one single Chinese dessert. But, I guess I have to rate this stuff anyway.
Taste: The flavours have been worked on for thousands of years, and it shows. The meats, vegetables, and grains are prepared in perfect ratios and several tastes are unique to this cuisine, even including some other Asian styles of cooking as well. Plus, there are several different regional variations that offer their own ingredients.
Health: While it unfortunately isn’t the healthiest thing to eat in CanadAmerica, the old Chinese cuisine actually has many vegetables and rices in it, with more meat and salt being added to the Westernized versions. As for the modernized foods that are actually being eaten in China in the 21st century [I could have said 'right now' but things never disappear from the web, they just disappear into the Deep Web after decades], I could easily imagine it’s nutritional value is somewhere around the same industrialized foods we eat here: with artificial chemicals added, meats raised in factories and not farms, that sort of deal. Chinese cuisine could be selectively eaten to get the healthiest or unhealthiest foods into your diet.
Variety: Well, China, and I’m talking about the country here, is kind of funny in a certain way. It has incredible diversity in terms of different cultures, sub-cultures, and ethnicities, but that’s all self-contained, and doesn’t really mix often with foreign cultures. I don’t know if that’s because of the Orwellian government [not that I'm saying NSA, Homeland Security and the Canadian government aren't spying on people like they're trying to take over the world] or the proud society, maybe both, but if offers enough by itself to not need much outside influence. The country is huge but in a habitable region to allow changes across the area [you know why Russia and Canada are the two largest countries? Because we're both too bloody cold for anyone to want to steal our territory that's why!], so I would say the variety is quite high.
Will this cuisine reign supreme? I haven’t decided, but I believe it’s far better than what we see in the West, as Chinese food here has been put through a filter of sorts. The next one I’m doing is Mediterranean, which for reasons I’ll explain later, is divided into two categories: Persian and Greek.