Discovering Authentic Chinese Food
By Madalina Hubert
Most of us want to eat better in order to enjoy a healthier and more satisfying life.
There are countless books with tips and strategies to achieve these goals. The majority are diet books with tasty low-fat recipes that don’t sit on the hips. The others are lifestyle guides that present cultural principles of food enjoyment with restraint, such as the bestseller “French Women Don’t Get Fat.”
At their core, these books are based on two underlying guidelines: enjoying food and keeping weight off. While the obsession with calories is a relatively recent phenomenon, philosophers and doctors have been studying the question of our relationship with food for millennia.
In ancient China, Confucius, one of the most influential Chinese thinkers, spoke extensively about food preparation methods and dietary principles. On the other side of the world, Greek philosophers also talked about the role of food in leading a good life.
In fact, both ancient Greek and Chinese medicine studied dietary therapy extensively because they realized the great degree to which food affected the body. Today, this branch is still an important aspect of Chinese medicine, rooted in the belief of achieving a balance between the mind, body and the environment.
According to Chinese medicine principles, we should not select food simply based on what we enjoy, but rather based on what is beneficial for our bodies. Chinese chefs must keep in mind seasonal principles, flavour and temperature combinations, and other factors, such as body types. By eating well-balanced meals that nurture the body, we can also more easily adhere to the principle of moderation, which most traditional culinary cultures have encouraged. Weight loss can thus be more naturally achieved. At the same time, food enjoyment also plays a role, and in fact, Chinese culinary traditions are some of the most sophisticated in the world.
A Look at Chinese Specialty Dishes
The extent to which traditional Chinese chefs are aware of the medicinal properties of food is often quite surprising, especially when they create dishes that are nutritious, balancing, and follow seasonal principles.
Through their series of food connoisseur events, the Toronto-based company, Dumpling Connection has set out to introduce delicious dishes with medicinal properties that encourage people to achieve dietary harmony in their lives.
Here are some examples of such dishes and their medicinal properties:
Stuffed Eggplants with Red Pepper — Both eggplants and red peppers are good for the digestive system. Eggplants are particularly beneficial in the summer to reduce heat in the body. Red peppers also alleviate swelling and promote circulation.
Shiitake Mushrooms with Tofu and Peas — Shiitake mushrooms are good for the stomach, blood, and circulation. Tofu can energize the body, clear heat and toxins, and moisturize the skin. Peas are an excellent toner for the spleen in spring. They also help the body’s life energy (qi) to move in the appropriate direction, thus easing hiccups and coughing.
Pearl Barley with Pine Nuts and Red Dates — Chinese pearl barley (also called Job’s tears or coix seed) have been proven to contain anti-cancer and anti-obesity properties. It is also very beneficial for skin and digestive issues. Chinese red dates (da zao or jujubes) also stimulate the digestive organs and boost the production of qi and blood.
Recognizing Authentic Chinese Food
The above are a few examples of authentic Chinese food that pay attention to both flavour and medicinal benefits. Yet other than attending Dumpling Connection’s events, how can one discover authentic Chinese food on other occasions?
There are many aspects to consider, but there are some essential guidelines to keep in mind. One is to remember that there is not one Chinese cuisine, but rather there are many regional variations, with five major cuisines dominating: Shandong, Northeastern, Sichuan, Cantonese, and Huaiyan.
There is an incredibly rich variety of foods to discover when experiencing Chinese food. People from different areas of China have their own favourite culinary styles, often associated with the places and dishes they grew up in. However, most Chinese people agree that these regional cuisines are quite different from the Americanized Chinese food in North America. These types of dishes (i.e. egg rolls, General Tso’s chicken) are more geared towards a fast food taste and do not have the refinement and attention to the flavour that one discovers in traditional Chinese cuisines. A similar comparison could be made between a McDonald’s meal and a gourmet restaurant dish. From the quality of the ingredients to the combinations of flavours and seasonings, the difference is obvious in terms of taste, texture and health benefits.
At the same time, if we find a Chinese restaurant whose chef applies dietary therapy, it is certainly a good spot to go back to. For greater quality meals, we can also follow Chinese wisdom and evaluate the character of the chef. While it may not be practical in many cases if one does meet the chef, remember the traditional Chinese saying that a good cook must first be a good person. Indeed this makes sense since the extent to which a chef pays attention to the quality of the ingredients, preparation techniques, and the dining experience reflects how much he or she cares for the customers.
This saying also speaks of the great respect that Chinese culture has for food. In fact, most traditional cultures, especially those with rich culinary traditions such as Italy, France, China, and India give food a central role in life. A meal is not just to satisfy hunger, but also to nourish body and mind, while strengthening family, friendships, and community—an attitude we can all certainly benefit from.
Madalina Hubert is a Toronto-based writer specializing in art, culture, travel, and culinary explorations.