The Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish.” He meant that governing a country required just the right “seasonings” and adjustments for successful results. This metaphor clearly illustrates the significance that diet occupies in Chinese culture.
Though there are approximately 32 famous styles of cuisine, Chinese food can be roughly divided into the Northern and Southern styles of cooking. In general, Northern dishes are oily without being cloying and the flavors of vinegar and garlic tend to be more pronounced. Pasta also plays an important role in Northern cooking; noodles, ravioli-like dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, fried meat dumplings, and steamed bread are the favored flour-based treats. The cooking styles of Beijing, Tianjin, and Shandong are probably the best known styles of Northern Chinese cuisine. On the other hand, Southern cooking is in particular renowned by its elaborate and dainty flavor. Representative of the Southern cooking styles are: Sichuan and Hunan cuisine which are famous for their liberal use of chili peppers; the Jiangsu and Suzhou styles which emphasize freshness and tenderness; and Cantonese food which tends to be somewhat sweet and full of variety. Rice and rice products such as rice noodles, rice cakes, and rice congee are the usual accompaniments to Southern style cooking.
In Chinese cooking, color, aroma, and flavor share equal importance satisfying the gustatory, olfactory, and visual senses, comprehensively. An entree will combine three to five colors, selected from ingredients that are light green, dark green, red, yellow, white, black, or caramel-colored. Usually, a meat and vegetable dish is prepared from one main ingredient and two to three secondary ingredients of contrasting colors. It is then cooked with the appropriate method, seasonings, and sauces so as to be aesthetically attractive. The primary methods of preparation include stir-frying, stewing, steaming, deep-frying, flash-frying, and pan-frying. A dish with a fragrant aroma will whet the appetite. Among many others, some ingredients that contribute to a mouth-watering aroma are scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, chili peppers, wine, star anise, stick cinnamon, pepper, sesame oil, and dried black Chinese mushrooms. Of utmost importance in cooking any dish is preserving the fresh, natural flavor of the ingredients while removing undesirable odors. Soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and other seasonings add richness to a dish without covering up the natural flavor of the ingredients. A well-prepared dish will be rich to those who like strong flavors, not over-spiced to those who like a blander taste, sweet to those who like a sweet flavor, and hot to those who like a piquancy. A dish that is all of these things to all of these people is a truly successful one.