Chinese Food and Culture


I wrote this piece on Chinese Food and Culture after visiting China and 2008 and researching and writing a number of articles on this theme. I’m grateful to my Chinese friends for their constant love and care in my learning about their culture. My number one learning? Food is equal parts necessity, art and enjoyment in this culture. 

China has always had a large population to feed and Chinese cuisine is filled with imaginative ways to preserve food during years of abundant harvests. This practice prepares the population for the lean years that might follow.  

I once attended a talk by the famous chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain. When asked if he could only eat one cuisine what would it be? he replied, “I would choose Chinese food because the Chinese know more ways to preserve, cook and present food than any other culture.”

So what’s Chinese food anyway? This post will answer that question and explore the vital link between food and Chinese culture.

Sneak Peak into an ancient Chinese restaurant’s kitchen in Lijiang, China – photo credit – Karen Anderson

What’s Chinese Food?

The food of a culture is mostly determined by geography and the natural resources available. China is a vast country with great variety of terrain and climate. Indigenous species of edible plants include the following:

  • Starch staples – millet, rice, kaoliang(sorghum), wheat, maize, buckwheat, yam and sweet potato
  • Legumes – soybean, broad bean, peas and mung bean
  • Vegetables – malva, amaranth, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, turnip, radish, mushrooms
  • Fruits – peaches, apricots, plums, apples, jujube dates, pear, crab apples, mountain haw, longan, litchi and oranges
  • Proteins – pork, dog, beef, mutton, venison, chicken , duck, goose, pheasant, insects and many fish
  • Spices – red pepper, ginger, garlic, spring onion, cinnamon
Insects are an important protein source and sought-after delicacy in street and night markets around China – photo credit – Karen Anderson

Foundations of EAting and Cooking

When it comes to food preparation, ancient Chinese medicine divides food into fan – grains and starches and ts’ai – meats and vegetables and strives for a balance between these. There are utensils for each and the rice cooker and wok are modern complements to fan and ts’ai. Chopsticks evolved as a means for sweeping the fan (grains) and picking up the chopped morsels of ts’ai (meat).

Mushroom forager in Kunming, China – photo credit – Karen Anderson

Chinese cuisine is noted for adaptability and flexibility. Since ts’ai is made up of a mix of ingredients, its appearance, taste and flavor do not depend on a single item and if times are abundant or scarce the dish can be altered without losing its basic principles. Adaptability is also shown in the Chinese people’s knowledge of wild plant resources (famine plants) and their ability to preserve a large number of foods by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, and soaking in sauces so that they would be ready in event of hardship.

The overriding idea about food in China is that it is intimately connected to ones’ health. And, that there are foods for yin and yang (the balance of male and female, cold and hot energies in the body). Appropriate amounts of fan and ts’ai should be taken with fan being more fundamental and indispensable.

Another concept is frugality. Overindulgence in food and drink is a sin of great proportion and though overindulgence is a health based taboo, both it and the value of frugality relate also to China’s long-standing history of poverty in food resources.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Chinese food and culture is the importance of food itself in the culture. Our everyday greeting of How are you? is Ni hoa ma – pronounced nee how mah in Chinese. Though it is used as How are you? it speaks of the importance of food to the culture because it’s actual translation is “have you eaten” or “is your tummy full”. Few other cultures are as food-oriented and few have shown such inventiveness and creativity.

Now here’s a little collection of fun facts so you can wow your friends with the next time you go out for Dim Sum.

Dim Sum Etiquette 101

Tables in China are usually round because the Chinese are a collectivist culture rather than individualist. Eating is a social gathering. The round table facilitates sharing and coming together and symbolizes reunion and success (rounded and complete).

Instead of “Cheers”, say gum bai or gun bei. It means dry the cup or bottoms up.

If you are the guest of a Chinese friend or business associate you might be seated opposite the host and facing the door. The host will be closest to the kitchen. If fish is served, the head will be facing you and you will be offered the fish head as it is believed to be the most nutritious. You can decline by turning it in the direction of your host. No one will leave the table until you are done. You can signify this by turning your tea cup over.

If your mouth is full at the meal and someone fills your tea cup you can tap with 3 fingers to say thank you.

When it come to chopsticks, keep them uncrossed. And, don’t stand them up in your rice bowl. Also don’t tap your chopsticks against your bowl. Crossing chopsticks brings bad luck. Chop sticks standing in a bowl means a funeral. And tapping your chopsticks is an insult to the service. Now go out and join is some Chinese New Year’s fun, find or make some great food and savour it all.

(Note – Much of the above information was adapted from an article by KC Chang, Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, New Haven, CT. Yale University Press, 1977)

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