Thursday, November 17, 2011



When Chinese people meet they ask, "Have you eaten yet?"  ()(chī)(fàn)(le)(ma) This question, parallel to "How are you?" in English, originated in times when the common people, living in poverty, were occupied in a daily struggle for survival.

Chinese people, when invited to a meal, will usually discuss the ingredients and the flavors of the portions served. Every region in China has its own way of preparing food. There are four main regions: northern, eastern, southern and western. In the northern, or Beijing region, cooking is much influenced by Moslem, Mongolian and Manchurian kitchens, which introduced spicy and oily mutton and beef dishes to the Chinese. In this region it has been customary to eat wheat-based dishes like rolls and noodles, more than rice, as the northern plateaus are more suitable to growing wheat. Noodles have been eaten since the Tang dynasty period (618-907 AD), and they symbolize long life.

Cooking in eastern China, including Shanghai (shàng)(hǎi), is rich in seafood, shrimps, crabs and many other sea dishes, which are plentiful in this region. The fertile earth, the moderate climate and abundance of water from the Yang Zi River, are suitable for growing rice, which is more common than wheat here. The typical flavor is sweet and sour and there is generous use of soy sauce and oil.

The food from western China comes mainly from Sichuan  ()(chuān) and Hunan        ()(nán). Here the main dishes feature pork, beef, fish, poultry and noodles, spiced with red pepper, ginger and garlic. The most popular meat is pork. Vegetables too take a significant part in Chinese cooking.

The southern region food, especially the Cantonese from the capital of Guangdong 广(guǎng)(dōng)  region, is well known throughout China. The main dish here is rice, which grows mostly in central and southern China. In the Canton region, a lot of tropical fruit and seafood dishes are eaten. Vegetables are cooked only slightly in order to maintain their crispness. 

Rice became China's national food in the 2nd  millennium BCE. A legend told by the Lisu  ()()  , a minority ethnic group from Yunan  (yún)(nán), narrates that a dog brought rice to humanity; while in southern China the bringing of rice to China is ascribed to a mouse. On the border with Tibet, rice is replaced by millet in this legend. 

In ancient times rice was the food of the high-class. Wasteful uses of rice, throwing it out or leaving it on the plate, were considered unacceptable. Those who did so, it was believed, would fall ill with the plague or be struck by lightning.

In addition to rice, the soy bean is one of the most important foods in China. Bean curd (tofu (dòu)()), which has been widely consumed in China since ancient times, is made from it. 

The Chinese people viewed food as a means to prevent disease. According to Chinese tradition, there are five tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy. Maintaining a balance among these tastes would prevent disease. The first reference to the five tastes is attributed to Yi Yin ()(yǐn), who was a cook in the emperor's court during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) and was considered an herbal expert. His contribution to the culinary knowledge is described in the Annals of Spring and Autumn of Lu ()(shì)(chūn)(qiū), an encyclopedic summation of the entire knowledge of the period. The author of the annals, Lu Buwei ()()(wéi)(died in 235 BCE), wrote that when mixing ingredients, a balance should be kept among the five tastes.

In order to protect themselves against famine, the Chinese learnt to conserve food by drying it, salting, adding sugar, pickling, soaking in oil or smoking. They conserved all kinds of cereals, vegetables, fruits, poultry, eggs and seafood.       

Unlike Westerners, the Chinese people are not used to drinking milk; although milk has long been used in cooking in China, mainly for flavoring. Only recently have the Chinese started drinking milk. Yogurt made of sheep milk was drunk in various periods in the Middle Ages.

At breakfast, the Chinese people usually eat congee (zhōu) (rice porridge), and at lunch they usually eat rice or noodles with vegetables, pork, chicken or goose.

The way the Chinese eat is different from the Western way. Unlike Westerners, who use a fork and knife, the Chinese use chopsticks (kuài)(). As early as in the 11th century BCE they began using chopsticks made of wood, bamboo, silver, gold, ivory, jade or coral. Chopsticks are now being made of plastic too.

After finishing eating with chopsticks it is customary not to leave them on the plate, because doing so is considered to bring bad luck. As opposed to Western customs, using the chopsticks with the rice bowl raised to the mouth is not considered bad manners. On the other hand, it is not customary to lift a plate from the table to the mouth.

Meals are a family matter. At major meals, women and men sit separately. All the dishes are put in the middle of the table and each of the diners gets a bowl of soup. After finishing the soup, each diner fills his bowl with rice and from the other dishes that are on the table. When a man is invited to a meal at his friends' house, he is expected to eat at least two bowls of rice and a little of every dish.  Usually tea is the only drink that is served with the meal.

Tea arrived in China together with Buddhism in the third century CE. During that period people started to grow tea in Sichuan ()(chuān)in western China. The trade value of tea increased from the 8th century on and the government held a monopoly in the tea trade.

In the past, it was customary to drink tea as a soup. Only from the 15th century did the Chinese begin to drink tea as a drink in itself.  The word "tea" in English derives from the word "ti" in the dialect of Fujian ()(jiàn) province. In Mandarin, tea is pronounced "cha" (chá).

During the Ming dynasty, the discovery of the New World brought to China such new foods as corn, potatoes and peanuts.



When eating good food [at someone's table] one says good things about them

In Italian they say:

Bocca unta non può dir di no

Literally: An oiled mouth cannot say no.



When eating a little – taste is good; when eating much - health is harmed  

On the damage caused by eating too much, in French they say:

La gourmandise a tué plus de gens que l'épée

Literally: Gluttony has killed more people than has the sword.

Eating too much diminishes the taste
Addiction to pleasure diminishes the enjoyment.
For the hungry one, [every food is] sweet as honey; for the satiated [even] honey is not sweet
In English, they say: 
Hunger is the best sauce.
In French they say: 
Il n'y a sauce que l'appetit.
 Literally: There is no sauce like appetite.
Without a chicken, there would be no banquet  

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