“My wines can pair well with Peking duck.” That’s what I heard from winery visitors about ten years ago, whether they were from New World or Old World, producing red or white, still or sparkling, unfortified or fortified. It shows me an image that, as long as Chinese sit down for a meal, we have Peking duck in front of us. The same kind of image could be portrayed with the French, as most Chinese believe the French eat foie gras every day—from breakfast to dinner.
As an important part of culture, food is never easy to understand, and Chinese food is complicated. Stepping into local restaurants in different provinces, you feel that you are in different countries, or even on different planets.
But do you want to read a book about Chinese food? I don’t think so, so I am going to write. Let’s make it as simple as we can, just starting with the main tastes in Chinese food. Primarily, these tastes are sweetness, umami, saltiness, and spiciness or chemesthesis—even it doesn’t fit into taste sensation.
Sweetness and umami are favored tastes. Think what a monkey or a wolf would like—ripe fruits and meats! This shows an environment with abundant living resources. On the contrary, if too present in food, saltiness and spiciness can be unflavored, while a little can balance the sweetness and umami. Interestingly, different styles of Chinese food are showing different focus on these tastes, which enable us to identify what we are eating.
Don’t think dessert is served after the meal at most Chinese tables—except fruits—especially in South China. Maybe you could find a very short dessert menu at many Chinese restaurants, but they are not those ones you think, therefore not many consumers order off them. Most people in China don’t even expect their mothers to prepare dessert for them at home!
It would be wrong to believe that the Chinese don’t like sweetness; opposite to that, it has been a luxury taste for Chinese people. Instead of making dessert, sugars are used in cooking meats, fishes and even vegetables. In Shanghai and Wuxi, sweetness is very often accompanied with soy sauce, vinegar or tomato sauce for pork, fish and seafood. It is also not uncommon to add sugar in fried green vegetables.
The extreme case is Tainan cuisine, as they are almost all very sweet. Local friends told me that, traditionally, the more sugar they add in dishes, the more wealth and hospitality they are showing to their guests.
Premium Chinese food is generally rich in umami, with Chaoshan (Teochew) and Guangzhou (Canton) food being the most typical cases. The top ingredients on the Chinese table including abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw, don’t have as many flavors, but they are very high in umami. The ways of cooking these are steaming, boiling or simmering, to keep the original savory quality. One of the best dishes you absolutely cannot miss is the beef hotpot in Chaoshan. Fairly simple, it’s just several plates of hand-sliced pieces of different parts of cow, and it is added to the pot of boiling water on the table. Cooking the beef very quickly in the water, and then dipping in soy sauce, is one of the most savory foods on the planet.
In China, anywhere you find a dish with almost nothing else added indicates that they want to show you the best purity and quality of the ingredients. Shrimp meat in Shanghai and river beach lamp in Ningxia are two other dishes to try with pure and high umami—they are delicious!
Saltiness is the most important taste for Chinese food, as it goes well with rice. Rice has next to no flavor, thus people need salty dishes to help eat it, or eat it even more with the addition salt-cured meat, fish, egg or vegetables. For example, food of Ningbo can sometimes be way too salty; one can easily finish two or three bowls of rice with their salt-cured fish.
Soy sauce is another way to add saltiness, while also adding some umami. Braising with soy sauce is quite common in Shanghai and around the Shanghai-area, with meats and seafood being the common proteins. Red braised pork is a very famous and simple dish here, featuring pork belly with quite a bit of soy sauce. After braising for one to two hours, the color of the pork belly becomes deep red, and the skin and fat melts in your mouth. For me, it is the best partner with rice!
Don’t you think Sichuan food is inherently spicy? Even most people in Sichuan think so. In fact, chiles were introduced to this province just about 200 years ago, and introduced to China through the Silk Road and South China Sea more than 400 years ago. And then it was planted all over the country.
Just like saltiness, spiciness is extremely appetizing—with it you could eat more rice, or just eat more food! After I told my students at a recent lecture that, historically, people in poor areas preferred more saltiness and spiciness, I received a strong objection from a Sichuan woman. I then told her about my university classmate who came from a really poor countryside, and he ate a large bowl of rice covered in only homemade chile powder for lunch nearly ever day. Needless to say, she looked convinced.
You can seldom find premium spicy-food restaurants in China. And in people’s minds, Sichuan food should be hot and casual, with moderate to inexpensive spending. Who wants their business suits or evening dresses smelling like chiles?
I still remember when Sauternes came to China some four or five years ago—they suggested pairing themselves with Sichuan food. I suppose the theory behind that is that sweet wines go well with spicy foods, and Sauternes needs to find a place on the Chinese table, since dessert isn’t usually on it. But why with spicy Sichuan food, since even premium Sichuan food isn’t originally spicy? The images definitely don’t match up.
To understand Chinese food is never easy, and that’s we're discussing the tastes of Chinese food. We already know that French wines go well with French cuisine, and the same can be said of Italian wine and cuisine. But what about Chinese food? China is an important wine market and Chinese food has international popularity, so let’s start our journey of Chinese cuisine sooner rather than later.