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The Chinese Art of Food and Drink

The great Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu once said: "Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish." What he meant is that in governing a country, just the right "seasonings" and adjustments need to be made for successful results. This metaphor clearly points up the important position that food occupies in the Chinese mind!

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 plays an important role in Northern cooking; noodles, ravioli-like dumplings, steamed stuffed buns, fried meat dumplings, and steamed bread are favored flour-based treats. The cooking of Peking, Tientsin, and Shantung are perhaps the best known area styles of Northern Chinese cuisine. Representative of the Southern cooking styles are Szechwan and Hunan cuisine, famous for their liberal use of chili peppers; the Kiangsu and Chekiang 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 in the preparation of each dish. Normally, any one 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 sauce to result in an aesthetically attractive dish.

A dish with a fragrant aroma will whet the appetite. Ingredients that contribute to a mouthwatering aroma are scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, chili peppers, wine, star anise, stick cinnamon, pepper, sesame oil, dried Chinese black mushrooms, and so forth. Of foremost importance in cooking any dish is preserving the fresh, natural flavor of the ingredients, and removing any undesirable fishy or gamey odors.

In Western cooking, lemon is often used to remove fishy flavors; in Chinese cooking, scallions and ginger serve a similar func tion. 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 overspiced to those who like a blander taste, sweet to those who like a sweet flavor, and hot to those who like a piquant flavor. A dish that is all of these things to all of these people is a truly successful dish.

Color, aroma, and flavor are not the only principles to be followed in Chinese cooking; nutrition is of course the first concern. A theory of the "harmonization of foods" can be traced back to the Shang dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.) scholar Yi Yin (ft X). He relates the five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant, and salty to the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems of the body (the heart, liver, spleen/pancreas, lungs, and kidneys), and stresses their role in maintaining good physical health.

In fact, many of the plants used in Chinese cooking, such as scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, dried lily buds, tree fungus, and so forth, have properties of preventing and alleviating various illnesses. The Chinese have a traditional belief in the medicinal value of food, and that food and medicine share the same origin. This view could be considered a forerunner of nutritional science in China. Notable in this theory is the concept that a correct proportion of meat to vegetable ingredients should be maintained; one-third of meat-based dishes should be vegetable ingredients, and one-third of vegetable dishes should be meat. In preparing soups, the quantity of water used should total seven-tenths the volume of the serving bowl. In short, the correct ingredient proportions must be adhered to in the preparation of each dish or soup in order to ensure full nutritional value.

The Chinese have a number of rules and customs associated with eating. For example, meals must be taken while seated; there is a set order of who may be seated first among men, women, old and young; and the main courses must be eaten with chopsticks, and soup with a spoon. Chinese banquets are arranged on a per table basis, with each table usually seating ten to twelve persons. A typical banquet consists of four appetizer dishes, such as cold cut platters or hot hors d'oeuvres; six to eight main courses; then one savory snack-type dish and a dessert. The methods of preparation include stir-frying, stewing, steaming, deep-frying, flash-frying, pan-frying, and so forth. A dish may be savory, sweet, tart, or piquant. The main colors of a dish may include red, yellow, green, white and caramel color. Food garnishes, such as cut or sculptured tomatoes, Chinese white radishes, cucumbers, and so forth, may be used to add to the visual appeal of a dish. All of these elements contribute to making Chinese food a true feast for the eyes and nostrils as well as the tastebuds.

In this cosmopolitan world, Chinese food is available in practically all majorand many not-so-majorcities of the globe. However, experts tend to agree that Taipei is the one place in the world where you can find the "genuine" version of just about any kind of Chinese food imaginable. In fact, in any large city or little village in Taiwan, you do not have to walk very far to find a small restaurant; a few more steps will take you to a large and elaborate one. Even in home cooking. Whether for everyday family meals or entertaining guests, food is prepared with sophistication and variety. Northern style dishes may include Peking duck, smoked chicken, chafing dish with sliced lamb, fish slices in sauce, beef with green pepper, and dried scallops with Chinese white radish balls. Representative of the Southern style of cooking are duck smoked with camphor and tea, chicken baked in salt, honey glazed ham, flash-fried shrimp, eggplant in soy sauce, Szechwan style beancurd . the variety is endless. With the rapid expansion of industry and commerce, a new twist has been added to traditional Chinese food: Chinese fast food franchises. At the same time, restaurants serving foods from all over the world have been springing up everywhere in Taipei: American hamburgers, Italian pizza, Japanese X sashimi, German beer, and Swiss cheese . are easily found in practically any part of the city. A visit to Taipei is a culinary experience not easily forgotten!

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