The Flavours of Fine Dining in Chinese Cuisine
By Madalina Hubert
You walk into an elegant restaurant where the waiter, dressed in a tuxedo, greets you with a white napkin upon his arm. The lights are dimmed, the decor is stylish, and the ambience sophisticated.
You sit down, order a glass of wine and peruse over the beautiful menu. The names are fancy and the prices high, but this is a special dinner and you deserve the treat. You order an elaborately-designed meal whose description seems to have rolled from a poet’s imagination.
The dishes arrive and they are tastefully arranged. A delicate purple flower on the plate, herbs scattered over the tenderloin, and a salad on the side with a vinaigrette so refined that your taste buds are thrilled.
You have a light conversation, enjoy the food, and the classical music in the background. You are perhaps at a French restaurant, the epitome of Western dining elegance, and you leave with a refined taste of joie de vivre.
A few days later, you go to an elegant Chinese restaurant, and the experience is quite different.
You enter, and an intricately-designed decor meets your eyes. The atmosphere is welcoming and open. The friendly waiter greets you, ushering you to the round table where you join a group of friends. One person places the order for the whole table, and you politely offer some suggestions. The menu is several pages long and you wonder how they can have such a wide selection available.
You drink warm tea and the dishes start arriving. The aromas are rich and the food is colourful. There are small plates with appetizers, large plates with main courses. You have beef, chicken, seafood, vegetables, and tofu to choose from—your friend has ordered for everyone’s taste buds. The food is tender and light, the vegetables juicy, the flavours dance in your mouth. The lazy susan turntable turns and you select a dish of another type and colour. You have never tried this combination before, but the flavours are rich and satisfying. The dishes keep coming, but the portions are small, and you don’t seem to get full. The conversation is light, the atmosphere friendly, the food is prepared with care and authenticity. You leave with a warm, lighthearted feeling.
A Sophisticated History
About 2,500 years ago, the great philosopher Confucius made food an important part of his teachings. He advised people to eat fresh ingredients seasonally and to pay attention to the manner in which the food is cut and prepared.
Confucius also talked about the importance of harmony in dishes—the different ingredients must be compatible, the sauces and seasonings correctly prepared, and the meals eaten in moderation.
In China today, as in many traditional cultures, food is a very important part of life, an opportunity to celebrate, honour, and strengthen social bonds.
While there is an incredible culinary variety across the country, there are five major cuisines that dominate the Chinese landscape: Sichuan, Shandong, Cantonese, Huaiyang, and Northeastern. Each one has its own unique flavours, preparation methods and ingredients. Each is also connected to particular regions of China.
Chinese Cuisine Types
This cuisine originates from Sichuan province in southwestern China and features a wide variety of food preparation techniques, including braising, dry-steaming, and different frying methods. Sichuan is best known for its spicy flavours, especially its hot chilli peppers. However, Sichuan cuisine also emphasizes balance and has 24 basic flavours, categorized into 3 types: spicy, savoury, and fresh sweet-sour.
This is the oldest and the largest cuisine with a wide variety of dishes and preparation methods. It originates from Shandong province, which has four seasons, and a large selection of ingredients available, so chefs are skilled in a variety of skills and techniques. This cuisine favours pungent tastes, such as onion and garlic. Soup is also a beloved staple of Shandong, often used as a flavour enhancer.
This cuisine originates from Guangdong, which is a subtropical area rich in a variety of ingredients available year-round, including seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables. Cantonese chefs are praised for their creativity, adaptability and attention to texture and flavour. The dishes generally have a light taste with well-balanced flavours.
Based in Jiangsu province, Huaiyang cuisine is known for its meticulously prepared elegant dishes. Chefs are well-versed in intricate knife skills because they are well-aware that cutting methods affect the taste. Huaiyang cuisine favours slightly sweet flavours and uses cooking methods that preserve the original flavours of the ingredients as much as possible. Most of the dishes also have stories behind them.
This cuisine is used in the Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang provinces and has been influenced by neighbouring countries, such as Russia, Mongolia and Korea. People in the Northeastern regions endure cold winters, so they tend to eat hot foods, prepared with a casserole, hot-pot, and roasting techniques. While southern cuisines primarily use rice, Northern cuisine favours wheat-based dishes such as noodles, dumplings, and buns since wheat is the primary crop in this region. Northeastern dishes are also flavourful, filling and aromatic.
At the same, traditional chefs and cooks across all cuisines are aware of the medicinal function of foods and try to balance flavours, temperatures and ingredients according to seasons and other local conditions.
Today, as Chinese cuisine becomes more well-known in the West, people are increasingly getting the chance to experience the incredibly rich Chinese culinary arts and realizing their diversity, sophistication and appeal.
There are more and more authentic Chinese restaurants, as well as events that showcase the artistry of this cuisine. In recent years, New Tang Dynasty Television, the New-York based independent Chinese-language TV station, has brought Chinese culinary traditions to the forefront through several international competitions that have attracted top Chinese chefs. Its mission has been to showcase China’s gourmet traditions, which have been refined for thousands of years into the ultimate fine dining experience. Discovering them presents an opportunity to enrich our own lives as well.
Madalina Hubert is a Toronto-based writer specializing in art, culture, travel, and culinary explorations.