The Best of China Author:Evie Righter From the Introduction by Series Editor Evie Righter: We recognize the words, and sometimes even the different spellings -- Peking/Beijing, Szechwan/Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, Canton -- and we know where we are. Or do we? China is the third-largest and most-populated country in the world, where the climate veers from near-arctic in the north, in M... more »ongolia, to subtropical in the south along beaches washed by the South China Sea. In China, the language consists not of letters, but of magnificent ideograms lyrically formed with ink and brush.
For the Westerner, there is perhaps only one certainty when it comes to things Chinese: What greets the eye in this complicated, sophisticated, millennia-old culture is never all there is. Something else, another meaning, always awaits. Nothing in China is as it seems, right down to and including its compelling, completely tantalizing cuisine.
Centuries ago, the Chinese divided their food into two major classifications: fan, encompassing rice, other grains, breads, and noodles; and tsai, including meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetable dishes that act to enhance fan. A well-conceived Chinese meal, from the simplest to the most elaborate, should effortlessly unite fan with accompaniments from tsai, and that is only the first, and probably the most straightforward, requisite. Add to it the basic Chinese tenet that there are five fundamental flavors -- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy -- and that contrast in these is one of the goals in a successful combination of Chinese dishes, too.
Most important though, there is the philosophic principle of yin-yang that underscores all Chinese life, including its cuisine. Food is believed to have yin or cold properties, also sometimes described as dark and feminine, and yang or hot properties, conversely described as bright and masculine, and these affect the body. Harmony is everything, but to balance the juxtaposition of opposites is the ultimate goal.
In sum, the selection of dishes in a Chinese meal is meant to contrast as well as harmonize. Flavors complement but play off each other. Specific ingredients are there to please, but also to cleanse, rid, and cure the system of known or suspected impurities. And none of this even takes into account that cooking techniques -- stir-frying, braising, steaming, deep-frying, dry-frying -- are also meant to be varied.
As with other great cuisines, geography and climate have played their part on the cooking of China, but no more so than the ingenuity and creativeness of the Chinese spirit, a spirit thousands of years old. The marvelous noodle preparations, dumplings, and breads hail from the north, land of wheat. Here we find Beijing, where at one time in the Forbidden City banquets were celebrated over a period of several days. Inland and west are the provinces of Sichuan and Hunan, each acclaimed for its hot and spicy dishes, but where, interestingly, the food is still subtly seasoned. South on the coast, most notably Canton, stir-frying reigns for diverse but simply prepared recipes, and seasonings like fermented black beans lend their magic to mild-flavored dishes of fish and chicken. On the bounteous central coast, Yangzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai are among the cities of eastern China famed for their succulent and flavorful creations.
Grace Young, whose recipes fill this book with a small sampling of the innumerable pleasures of Chinese cooking, once described how the cook in China washes vegetables. She washes them early in the morning, carefully, patiently, tirelessly, then leaves them out to dry until needed. Day in and day out, this is the custom. That is how I would suggest using this book - day in and day out, as a way of cooking to be enjoyed and explored, then enjoyed and explored some more, over the course of a lifetime.« less