The Nature of Chinese Cuisine
With its irresistible treatment of crisp-tender vegetables, emphasis on flash-cooking, and characteristically light hand with meats, Chinese is a notably healthy cuisine. At the same time, it is anything but natural. The art of cooking is more transformative in China than elsewhere: one tries not so much to capture the unadulterated real flavor of a primary ingredient, as to craft a more powerful, more evocative version of that flavor, to wrestle a new texture out of an ingredient, rather than preserve its original one. Chinese chefs go to considerable lengths to correct flaws in ingredients, not just celebrate their strengths. Everything is concocted.
The pleasure of cooking and eating is different, on account of this ingenuity, whether one is chef or diner. This is true whether the dish is an all-out feat of artifice, such as the vegetarian ‘duck’, or a simple stir-fry of seasonal vegetables. With a few exceptions (like Shanghai hairy crab, simply boiled), Chinese cuisine does not set out to showcase an ingredient’s original nature; rather, food is almost always thoughtfully, deliberately transformed into a more interesting and appetizing incarnation of itself.
After thousands of years of development, this transformative approach to food has evolved into systems for manipulating flavor and texture that are intuitively understood by accomplished Chinese cooks. Ideals of excellence light the way; tried-and-true techniques and methods make the reincarnation possible. Carried to its playful extreme, this philosophy of cooking and eating has produced a fascinating sub-school of artifice dishes, mock dishes in which one sort of food masquerades as another, a tradition that encompasses everything from temple cuisine, with its mock meats and fish, to the outrageously fanciful banquet creations meant to please the mind as much as the palate. Imagine a whole, fragrant roast chicken brought to the table, only the chef has removed the skin of a chicken intact, and stuffed it the whole skin with everything but chicken before roasting it. The non-chicken is cut into wedges to be served. A new, almost intellectual level of enjoyment has been added to the meal.
Related transformative traditions in Chinese cuisine include the mosaic arrangement of cold meats and vegetables on a platter to convey a theme or narrative, and using carved vegetables as part of presentation.
Benchmarks of Excellence: Flavor
Chinese cuisine seeks to blend flavors in pursuit of a created taste, rather than to simply accent an existing one. Each flavor profile defined below represents the ideal of its type. Its attainment is often the result of much tinkering, and occasions considerable praise from discerning diners.
Xiān, 鲜, the fresh, natural flavor, like fresh fish or prawns, young bamboo shoots, perfect clear chicken broth. Xiān can be boosted by the addition of specific ingredients, usually sugar, less often brown bean sauce and oyster sauce. Xiān can also be made to shine a bit brighter by controlling rank flavors in meat and chicken (wine, pepper), and by suppressing fishiness in seafood (sesame oil). Among techniques, steaming is one way to retain the xiān in seafood, poultry, and vegetables. Xiān is usually concocted, but must appear effortless. Anything added to create it should be undetectable.
Xiāng, 香, fragrant. A whole class of flavors delivers pleasure to the diner through simultaneous taste and aroma. Roasted meat, sautéed mushrooms, fried onions, and perfectly prepared pork are xiāng. True xiāng must arise naturally, since the aroma comes from the ingredient, but shortcuts include sesame oil (added lightly at the end of cooking), seasoning mixes like five-spice powder (wŭ xiāng, 五香, lit. five fragrances), and toppings such as green onion and cilantro—the latter aptly named xiāngcài, 香菜, fragrant vegetable.
Nóng, 浓, the strong, rich, concentrated flavor. Nóng is always created or concocted, and does not even try to appear natural; rich, heady meat essences and strong seasonings are anything but discreet. The complex, anise-scented beef broth that cradles hand-pulled Lanzhou noodles is a typical nóng flavor. But unlike xiān, which is always positive, nóng can be critical, as of smelly Western cheese, or of overripe chao ma doufu (fermented mung bean curd, a delightful but tricky specialty of Beijing). A big, complex broth made from multiple meats and many blended flavors nails the classic notion of nóng.
Yóu ér bu nì, 油而不膩, to taste of fat without seeming oily or greasy. Ripe avocado, farm-fresh sweet butter, fish roe, and perfect pork belly exemplify yóu ér bu nì, but it is not a quality Westerners are accustomed to idealizing on its own. Chinese cuisine includes many dishes that celebrate the perfection of solid fat, while Western cuisine, with a few exceptions like Italian lardo (which is cured fat, not fresh) does not. The appreciation of solid fat, and its traditional importance in Chinese food, may rest partly on the fact that central heating was not widespread in China until the mid to late twentieth century.
Benchmarks of Excellence: Texture
Chinese ideals of texture are all about transformation. They do not describe any natural state, but rather successful acts of alchemy—for example, making hard, inedible ingredients succulent and toothsome. This may have been one of the earliest motivations to manipulate texture—since food preservation was a necessity, chefs had to become adept at deliciously reconstituting all manner of hard, dried provisions, from meat, to vegetables, to every kind of seafood.
In time, the manipulation of texture became an end in itself, playful and creative. Now, some of the cuisine’s classic dishes are tours-de-force of texture, especially sea cucumber, jellyfish, bird’s nest, tree fungus, fish maw, and shark’s fin. These are only a few of China’s texture-foods, but the most popular, showcasing as they do the ability to create the resilient and crunchy (tree fungus, bird’s nest), the crisp and elastic (jellyfish), the smooth and rich (sea cucumber), the smooth and buoyant (shark’s fin; also hasma), and the soft and spongy (fish maw; also bamboo pith). The accompanying flavors are rarely fussy. Feats of texture tend to be served in a subtly flavored soup, or paired with a simple sauce. When a texture-food stars in a hot stir-fry, however, it is common to contrast its blandness with a strong complementary ingredient, such as the practice of serving bamboo pith over bok choy and winter mushrooms.
Even when a texture-food is not the point of the dish, Chinese cooking controls texture exceptionally well. Velvet-tender meat and poultry are the standard in everyday cooking, and are achieved through various techniques, from removal of sinews, ligaments, and connective tissue, to slicing across the grain (beef) or with the grain (poultry and pork), to brining (chicken and seafood) to “velveting” (coating chicken breast slices with egg white and either cornstarch or water-chestnut flour, thus modulating the otherwise direct heat). In the West, when a restaurant achieves fork-tender beef, or silk-soft chicken breasts, it is considered an accomplishment, and draws praise. In China, it is expected. Most restaurants can do it.
The three classic benchmarks of excellence in texture refer specifically to how well the chef has changed the ingredient. In the final dish, the texture, as transformed, is often contrasted with other textures. Consider the first course of Peking Duck, as one example: the crackly skin, the delicate soft pancake, the cold crunchy scallions, the sauce, all together in every bite.
Cùi, 脆. Crispy, crunchy. It is natural to imagine this simply as something deep-fried, like pork crackling, like the crisply roasted, air-separated skin of Peking Duck, but cùi means so much more than that. Cùi is also crisp-succulent, as in fresh, barely cooked vegetables, and prawns so bursting with juices that they almost pop when you bite into them, not to mention the brittle-thin toffee shell encasing the skewer of sour crabapples you buy on the street in Beijing. Cùi is almost always a concocted effect.
Nèn, 嫩. To take something tough and fibrous, and render it delectably toothsome. This category includes the extraordinary range of dried, smoked, salted, and otherwise hard-preserved ingredients that chefs are able to turn back into tender, yielding, appetizing food. The transformational power of nèn can be witnessed simply by checking out the dried-foods aisle in any Chinese grocery.
Ruăn, 软. Soft as a cloud, completely yielding—a soft-boiled egg, the apex of velvet chicken, the custard-style Japanese tofu made with egg whites. Often ruăn is paired with another texture, as in the deep-fried cubes of egg-white tofu, which have very delicate, crisp golden crusts surrounding cloud-soft interiors.
Methods of Manipulating Flavor and Texture
Techniques of altering flavor and texture are well understood, and consistently applied. Rank and undesirable flavors are suppressed by the addition of ingredients like wine, ginger, spring onions, black and white pepper, and Sichuan peppercorn. Sugar increases and improves xiān flavor, while vinegar intensifies the heat of chiles, and sesame boosts xiāng. Fermented black beans add a powerful piquant taste; soy sauce provides a meaty note. Procedures and techniques are important too, some of them well known in the West (such as sautéing aromatics like ginger, garlic, and onion in hot oil to bring out their flavor), while others are not (like breaking all the bones in a whole chicken before roasting it, to release flavor, as do the chefs at Hangzhou’s Lóu Wài Lóu [楼外楼] when they prepare their famous Beggar’s Chicken).
Texture is just as closely controlled. From removing membranes and sheaths from chicken meat in order to “velvet” it, to soaking prawns in cold salt water to trap in enough moisture to “pop” when bitten into, texture is usually modified or controlled in some way. Sometimes ingredients are added to change texture, as when fatty pork is folded into shrimp balls to make them lighter, or when vinegar is added to a stir-fry of slivered (丝) pork or bamboo shoots, to keep the shreds tender. Other interventions involve maintaining tenderness by creating a barrier to limit direct heat, as when lamb, seafood, or chicken pieces are coated with cornstarch and egg white.
“In making a mixture you must judge to a nicety what is sweet, sour, bitter, sharp, and salt: you must know which has to be added first, later, and how much of each. This distribution is very complicated but it must be controlled in every detail by addition. The changes which take place in the food after it has been prepared in the dish are so delicate and mysterious that it is impossible to describe them in words.”
-attributed to I Yin, ca. 1800 BCE