04- Regional Variations: The Schools of Cooking

Serves: 5



When Europe began trading with the Orient, the seaport of Canton became the gateway to the West. The Cantonese readily absorbed these cosmopolitan influences and, being great travelers themselves, soon emigrated to Europe and America. They were the first to establish Chinese restaurants outside their own country and to make Chinese cooking known to the West. As a result, most Chinese restaurants in the United States and Europe are Cantonese.

Cantonese cooking is original and versatile, having been encouraged by a large leisure class and abetted by the region's rich natural resources. When the Ming dynasty was overthrown in the seventeenth century, many government officials moved south from Peking to Kwangtung province (of which Canton is the capital). They also brought their chefs with them. These chefs, trained in Peking's classical style, assimilated other regional styles in their southward travels. In Canton they took advantage of the area's rich produce to expand and enlarge their cuisine into what became known as Cantonese style. As the port prospered, more emphasis was placed on fine living and dining, and the cuisine was perfected.

The Cantonese style is characterized by its ability to bring out and enhance the original taste of each ingredient and to blend natural flavors together. It uses very few seasonings (soy sauce, ginger root, wine), specializes in the quick-cooking technique known as stir-frying, and uses chicken stock as a cooking medium. The Cantonese school is also noted for roast meat and poultry, lobster, steamed pork and fish dishes, fried rice and such delicacies as Bird's Nest Soup and Shark's Fin Soup.

Although the city of Peking and the province of Shantung are not geographically close, trade between them was active, and back-and-forth migration continual. For centuries the two exchanged chefs. Eventually their cooking styles became indistinguishable. Peking, however, being the site of the Imperial Palace and China's great intellectual and cultural center, exerted the stronger influence. Its concentration of wealth attracted the country's best chefs, who brought cooking to its highest level. (Peking, the gourmet capital of China until the seventeenth century, had a great reputation for mammoth feasts and gargantuan banquets. The repasts of the Imperial Court, held in palaces of magnificent splendor, were of a grandeur unrivaled in history. Some of the meals took three days to consume.)

The Peking-Shantung school is distinguished by light, elegant, mildly seasoned rather than rich foods, and the liberal use of garlic, scallions, leeks and chives. It is known also for the delicacy of Peking Duck and Chicken Velvet, soft -fried foods, the spring roll (forerunner of the egg roll), delicious roasts and wine-cooked meats.

NOTE: Most of northern China, including the vastness of Mongolia and Manchuria, is largely barren and sparsely populated. Its people are nomadic, noted for their use of lamb and mutton and for their chafing-dish cookery.

The climate of Szechwan province is hot, almost tropical. Its people like their food highly spiced, peppery and somewhat oily. Szechwanese specialties include deep-fried chicken wrapped in paper, vegetables prepared in chicken fat, chicken and hot peppers, and a variety of mushroom dishes. Although the Szechwanese home cooking was hot and peppery, its banquet dishes were usually bland and light: northerners from Peking who had migrated to Szechwan brought such dishes with them for their formal dining. Also reflecting this northern influence is Szechwan Duck, a favorite of the region, and a variation of Peking Duck.

Honan province (through which the Yellow River runs) is famous for its Yellow River carp. It's noted also for its spiced concoctions, sweet-and-sour dishes and rich seasonings.

Fukien province on China's east coast is famous for seafood and for clear, light soups. These soups are noteworthy not only for their quality but also for their quantity. At family meals, at least two such soups are served. At banquets, as many as one-fourth of all the dishes were often soups. (At one specific banquet, soup appeared for seven out of ten courses.) Fukien is noted also for its subtle use of cooking wine, its soy sauce, egg rolls and suckling pig.

NOTE: One often sees references to "Shanghai" and "Mandarin" cooking. These are not regional styles but rather restaurant designations. "Shanghai Cooking" has come to mean a menu of many regional styles, since Shanghai itself, being a great commercial center and a cosmopolitan city, reflected many influences. "Mandarin Cooking" relates to the Peking-Shantung school since it was in Peking that the mandarins or aristocrats of China lived. (The word "mandarin" means Chinese official.) The designation is a way of suggesting that the cooking is aristocratic, of the highest style, the best of its kind. It too, however, encompasses a number of styles.

Although all the regional styles are represented by the recipes in this book, no attempt has been made to indicate places of origin. In many cases this would be virtually impossible since the dishes have been adapted, varied and modified many times over the years.

The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. ©1994 by Gloria Bley Miller.

This 04- Regional Variations: The Schools of Cooking recipe is from the Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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