Despite its popularity, Chinese cuisine hasn’t developed the kind of culinary respect and following usually reserved for, say, French and Japanese food.
This kind of gastronomic snobbery fails to account that Chinese cuisine has had a far longer history.
Not counting the Peking man—who may have discovered fire, and thereby, cooking—the legend of Chinese cuisine is said to originate in the fifteenth century BC during the Shang dynasty with the kitchen exploits of Yi Yin, who was born into a slave family. Yi Yin so impressed the ruler Tang with his cooking that he was appointed China’s first prime minister.
Food is equally important in the Chinese philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. Confucius is credited with establishing the symbolisms that rule Chinese table etiquette and with the idea of creating harmony in food and emphasizing the importance of presentation. Taoists were more interested in nourishment, which led to the development of ingredients with high medicinal value, as well as the healthy cooking techniques that continue to thrive in today’s modern kitchens.
The height of Chinese cuisine is usually represented by imperial food, which has been served mainly to the emperors, their wives and concubines, and the royal families. Emperors have used their power to collect the best delicacies and employed the best cooks to make food for them.
Indeed, the best of Chinese food features highly prized ingredients, like abalone, shark's fin, sea cucumber, and bird's nest, which continues to be the hallmark of today's Chinese banquets.
In the Chinese capital of Beijing, cuisine done in the nobleman's style has become the ultimate treat for visiting dignitaries and wealthy travelers. This might feature an exquisite dish featuring abalone and sea cucumber-- the kind of dish one makes for an emperor.
It's really about using the best ingredients—the best that money can buy.
Probably the most known—and expensive—Chinese soup is the Monk (or Buddha) Jumps Over the Wall, which uses abalone, fish maw, dried scallop, black mushroom, sea cucumber, chicken, pork stomach, duck, Chinese ham, and Shao Shing wine. If you're ordering this from a restaurant, this has to be ordered in advance.
According to an executive Chinese chef we spoke to, the legend behind the dish centers on a rich family who lived in a house with a high wall. When the wife cooked the dish for the first time, a monk was so taken by its aroma that he jumped over the wall to see what the dish was. "In the olden days, they put all the ingredients in a barrel of aging Shao Shing wine, which produced a very aromatic smell," the chef told us. "Today, Chinese chefs double boil all ingredients together for at least eight hours to intensify the flavors."
It must be noted that the cooks and commoners were the ones who made imperial food, which history books note were really "improved dishes" created by the people. Take, for instance, one of the classic Chinese dishes: the Beggar's Chicken, which originated in Hangzhou, close to Shanghai. The story behind it, according to Yeung, is that a beggar stole a chicken—prized among the Chinese—from the market. To hide it, he wrapped the bird in clay, dug a hole and placed the chicken in it, then set a fire over it.
Like many Chinese delicacies, Beggar's Chicken undergoes a laborious process. The chicken is stuffed with shredded black mushroom, shredded pork fat, and pickled vegetable. The chicken is wrapped with pork innards, then wrapped in lotus leaves. To replace the clay, the dough now covers the chicken. This is oven-baked for three hours, similar to the beggar's way where there is heat from the top. (Some restaurants still bake it in clay, and part of the ceremony is cracking it and releasing the flavorful aroma of the dish.)
Another classic Chinese dish that had humble beginnings is the braised traditional duck. The dish, which originates from Guangdong province, also takes a lot of prep time. The duck is flavored with star anise, bay leaves, cinnamon bark, Chinese yellow wine, onion leeks, caramel, and light soy sauce, and is cooked for two-and-a-half hours. When there was no dark soy sauce yet in Chinese cooking, caramel and light soy sauce were used to cook the duck for hours until very tender.
Is Cantonese the best?
When China's dynasty era ended in the early part of the twentieth century, many of these cooks fled, bringing with them the skills and recipes that have made Chinese cuisine into a global culinary force.
The greatness of Cantonese cuisine, exemplified by Hong Kong's most highly rated restaurants, lies in the diversity of its ingredients. Canton (now Guangzhou) has long been a trading port, bringing with it many imported foods and ingredients. The Cantonese are also known for preparing lavish banquets, as there is an emphasis on presentation and color.
The preferred cooking methods of Cantonese chefs, like steaming and stir-frying, are used to coax the flavor of these fresh ingredients, most especially live seafood, which are placed in aquariums. Spices are also used in modest amounts for the same reason. A prime example is the steamed fish with shredded ginger and scallions. The premium placed on freshness explains why Cantonese restaurants tend to be more expensive than the usual Chinese eatery.
There are also other styles of Chinese food that have found a niche among gourmets, including Szechuan cuisine, which is characterized by the use of spices and heavier textures and flavors.
Shanghai cuisine has recently grown popular thanks to the xiao long bao, a type of steamed bun traditionally filled with pork—served piping hot and dipped in vinegar with ginger—and eaten with extra care as the dumplings are very delicate.
There are even kitschy Mao Tse Tung-inspired restaurants, which serve romanticized versions of peasant food, recalling the hardships during the revolution.
So how do you know if a Chinese restaurant is good? Most of the chefs we interviewed mention that ambiance is a good tell-tale sign. Looking for Chinese customers is also an easy indicator. The cliché, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," is a rule that applies to Chinese restaurants as well.
Lastly, when it comes to Chinese food, it is more appropriate to think like an emperor, act like an emperor, and feast like an emperor. So do your duty to check the menu because the ingredients say everything you need to know.
Photographs by Jar Concengco
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2 2011.