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Chinese Cuisine, general and history
There are various features that make Chinese cooking unique; the most obvious is the use of stir-frying - where a small amount of oil is poured into a heated wok and a few condiments are first added, these to be followed by the main ingredients; the whole rapidly stirred and cooked for a short time. This cooking technique requires specially prepared ingredients, cut into uniform sizes, so their cooking time can be accurately judged.
The technique of stir-frying (chao) was certainly in use by the "Tang" dynasty (618-907 AD), probably developed as an easy method of cooking while working in the fields, without using much fuel - which was always in short supply.
Another unique feature is the use of dried ingredients. Long before the invention of canning or freezing, the Chinese were drying food. These products, when reconstituted, add an extra dimension to the taste of the finished dish. For instance, the flavour imparted by dried Chinese mushrooms is beyond the capabilities of fresh mushrooms. The same can be said for dried abalone, oysters, scallops and shrimps.
There is also a pronounced emphasis on texture - jellyfish or mushrooms perhaps contrasting with bamboo shoots and carrot batons. Textures might be crisp, elastic, firm or slippery. Vegetables always being crisp and noodles al dente.
A modern Chinese meal consists of two parts - the fan which is the staple grain, be it rice, noodles or dumplings, and the cai which covers the accompanying dishes; meat, fish, poultry and vegetables. The average meal consists of three or four cai dishes, one fan dish and generally soup. The cai dishes would be balanced so each would have a different main ingredient, if possible one meat, one fish and one vegetable.One dish might be spicy to balance another which would be mild. All these dishes would be put in the centre of the table and shared between the diners who would help themselves - a little of this and a little of that. The rule being that everything eaten should touch the diners fan (however briefly) before each mouthful. It is quite polite for two people to remove food from a plate at the same time, as long as their chop sticks don"t touch.
Although Chinese food has all the above attributes there are many regional variations. In a country so large and experiences such climatic extremes, this isn"t surprising; to simplify matters we have carved the country up into four main regions, and described their basic differences. See 'Chinese Food; 'Chinese Food, Cantonese cuisine'; 'Chinese Food, Peking cuisine'; 'Chinese Food, Shanghai Cuisine'; 'Chinese Food, Szechwan cuisine'