‘Eating is the utmost important thing in life’, Confucius once proclaimed and it was not just this sixth century Chinese philosopher for whom the aesthetic and social aspects of cooking and eating were central concerns. Food was an essential enquiry in Taoism too, the nutritional value and healing and therapeutic powers of different ingredients in particular, for it was a firm belief that diet - and the amount of qi in it - was critical for mental and spiritual well-being.
Like almost every other aspect of life in China, Chinese cuisine too is deeply informed by philosophy. It is said that chopsticks taking precedence over the knife and fork at the table, a practise that originated as early as the Shang dynasty, signifies that the scholar is held in higher esteem than the warrior as a cultural hero is. Other culinary precepts that inform Chinese cuisine, extremely contemporary and in currency but devised ages ago, emphasise eating seasonally, drinking in moderation and the proper manner of preparing, serving and eating food.
Like most other Asian cuisines, meals are communal, enjoyed with family and friends, and this culture of shared meal times is about finding a balance between the many dishes, textures and flavours at the table: in every meal, a balance is sought between Fan (starch), Tsai (meat) and the flavours of bitter, sour, hot, salty, sweet, smoky, aromatic and pungent. This is in keeping with the Daoism ideal of balancing the yin and the yang in every aspect of life. It is no wonder that Chinese cuisine is such a sophisticated art (and a pleasure to partake).
Diversity of geography, climate and ethnicity too have shaped the flavours and textures of Chinese cuisine, giving rise to distinctive expressions of a unique food culture: where historically there were great eight culinary traditions - Hunan, Szechuan, Guangdong, Fujian, Anhui, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang - there are now four principal regional styles, namely, Cantonese, Beijing, Hunan and Szechuan. While a meal usually consists of two basic components - a main food grain, which is a source of carbohydrates or starch, typically noodles (predominant in northern parts) or rice (predominant in southern parts) and accompanying dishes of vegetables, seafood, fish, meat and poultry - its preparation varies according to the terroir.
Beijing aka Mandarin cuisine, made famous by the Peking Duck (roast duck and strips of crispy duck skin wrapped in thin pancakes), features wheat-based dishes such as thin pancakes, dumplings, noodles and a variety of baked and steamed bread, flavoured principally with vinegar and garlic. The spicy or sweet and sour preparations and smoked and cured food that are distinctive to Hunan cuisine includes fish, shellfish, chicken and pork abundantly available in the Xiangjiang River area, Dongting Lake area and Western Hunan mountain area. Curing, simmering, steaming and stewing are the main cooking methods of Hunan cuisine.
Lightly seasoned, subtle sauces and stir-fried dishes are the hallmark of Cantonese cuisine, from the southeastern Guangdong province of China. Freshness of ingredients is the principal flavour in the colourful meal bouquets that are stir-fried to preserve the freshly plucked flavour and texture of the ingredients. Lunch-hour treats include ‘dim sum’. This nugget of trivia I picked up the other day fascinated me - to begin with, ‘dim sum’ was a verb that merely meant ‘to eat a little something.’ Its other appellations ‘yum cha’ in Cantonese meaning ‘drink tea’ and ‘dian xin’ in Mandarin meaning ‘touch the heart’ hint at the dim sum culture of tea rooms that began in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the city of Guangzhou, possibly because of the recent ban of opium dens.
As the unforgettable taste of Kung Pao or Gongbao chicken will make apparent, Szechuan food from the fertile ‘Four Rivers’ basin in the south-western region of China is distinguished by the liberal use of garlic, leeks, ginger, spring onion, peanuts and, of course, chili. The region and its cuisine derive their name from the Sichuan peppercorns ‘huajiao’ (literally, flower pepper), the dried berries from the prickly ash tree, which, by all accounts, have a sharp, slightly numbing effect on the tongue and taste ofa clean, lemony spiciness. While fiery is a distinctive flavour of Schezuan cuisine, it is not the only one, for the cuisine is really a symphony of complex flavours ranging from smoky, sour, flowery, salty, sweet and bitter, which are combined in one delicious preparation. Water-poaching, dry-frying before oil and seasoning are added to obtain a toasty, fragrant effect, reducing the sauce in a wok, so that ingredients are coated in seasoning and smoking meat, duck in particular, using tea leaves and camphor twigs, are among the distinctive procedures of Szechuan cooking. Recognising the sophistication of its food, UNESCO declared Chengdu, the heart of cultural life in Szechuan, a city of gastronomy in 2011.
So, armed with this bit of trivia, come and sample the Duck Delights from the new Chef’s exciting repertoire at ITC Grand Central. Then, there is also the Spicy World of Sichuan and Hunan by Chef Liang at ITC Maratha from 25 to 31 May, so make those reservations quickly and indulge yourself!