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The demand for Chinese food is growing at a very fast pace. This entire furore about Chinese food could make one wonder what is so special about this cuisine. Well, the answer is if one has to put it in one word, it is wholesome.

Traditionally, Chinese food and the way it is prepared is very much influenced by the two major philosophies, Confucianism and Taoism. Confucius emphasized the importance of the texture and color of a dish, and taught that food must be prepared and eaten with harmony. Taoists focus on foods that will increase their health and longevity.

Chinese food has the characteristics of being nutritious, economical, balanced and delicious. It cannot be gainsaid that Chinese food is popular the world over and it can be adapted into our modern lifestyles, as the strong link between diet and health of body, mind and spirit is epitomised in Chinese Cookery. We all desire harmony in our lives and this works on the ancient Taoist principle of Yin and Yang in which balance and contrast are the key. Each Chinese dish reflects a balance of taste, texture, aroma and colour. Be it sweet, sour, pungent, hot, salty or spicy – these six basic flavours are incorporated deftly in all their dishes.

The taste factor is not the only plus point of this delicious cuisine. It scores very high on the health front. Carbohydrates, such as noodles and rice which provide energy, are served at every meal. Vegetables, providers of vitamins and minerals, also form an integral part of this cuisine. Besides, they are cooked in a manner, such as stir frying or steaming, whereby most of their nutritional values are preserved. In the non-vegetarian fare mostly white meats such as chicken and seafood are used rather than high fat ingredients such as red meats or dairy products, which are either absent or used sparingly.

Over the years, the Chinese have developed and mastered a complex system of preparing food, such as identifying ingredients that make compatible combinations; making use of cooking techniques that are multi-phased such as first steaming and then deep-frying or stir frying, then boiling; and administering multi-phased flavoring like marinating between the stages of roasting, or after steaming, or before stir frying.

Chinese food is not a single concept, but rather a collection of many different regional cuisines that are all equally delicious. The three that are most famous outside of China are Cantonese, Fujian, and Sichuan, but the other five (Anhui, Hunan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shandong) are also renowned inside of the country. In the characteristically austere Chinese nomenclature these are known as the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of China. 

Chinese Kitchen

Most Chinese dishes can be prepared and cooked with the equipment found in the normal home kitchen with perhaps, a few small additions. A good supply of pots and pans of various sizes should be handy. In general, slow cooking dishes should have thicker pots and faster cooking things should have thinner ones.

Of course, you will want to add your home kitchen with Chinese cooking utensils such as a wok and bamboo steamers as you go along and get more ambitious; which you will find very useful and indispensable once you put your hands on them.

Wok - The most basic traditional Chinese cooking utensil is called a wok. It is similar like a kadai, which has a sloping side and rounded bottom. It can be used for almost all types of cooking. It is wider and shallower, so that heat can penetrate the food items easily for faster cooking.

Bamboo steamers - Are great for steaming food and are designed to fit inside the wok. The texture of the bamboo allows steam to circulate and evaporate so that less moisture will form on the inside of the lid. The bamboo steamer has the additional asset of allowing more than one layer of food to be steamed simultaneously - just stack a second basket on top of the first.

The Chinese Spatula - This is a long-handled wide shovel-like blade spatula specially designed for stir-frying in the wok, known as 'wok sang' by the Chinese. The edge of the spatula blade is rounded to fit the shape of the wok, and the utensil itself is sturdier to allow stirring and tossing of large quantities of food as well as removing food from the wok.

The Chinese Wire Strainer - This wide, flat wire-mesh strainer with a long bamboo handle is very useful for removing deep-fried foods from hot oil or noodles from boiling water. It drains oil and liquid more efficiently than those metal perforated types.

Sizzling Platter - Sizzling-platter dishes, also called "iron-plate" dishes. These dishes are named for the heavy iron platter that is used for serving. The platter is heated to a high temperature, placed on its wooden tray, and delivered to the table. When hot stir-fried food is spooned onto the platter, the sizzle is very dramatic.

Clay-Pot - The design of the clay-pot assures good retention of heat, so that even if dinner is delayed, the food stays piping hot. Clay-pots add an indefinable richness of flavour to soups and hot pots.

Long Wooden Chopsticks - The Chinese sometimes use chopsticks for putting food into and taking things out of a wok especially during deep frying.

Chinese cleavers - They come in three weights: Heavy, medium and light. Lighter one also known as Chinese chef knife, has narrow blades and is used for dicing, peeling, mincing, cutting, crushing, slicing, and shredding. The medium one is used to pound and tenderize meat. You can even use it to scoop up food. It does not end there; the end of the handle can be used to grind spices just like a pestle! Lastly, heavy-weight cleavers have the thickest blades and are generally used to hack through bones and chop the toughest of ingredients. 

Stock up with Chinese ingredients

Chinese food has gained fame all over the world, because of its delicious taste and unique cooking styles. Over the years food preferences are changed with their modified versions.

Let’s simplify it with vegetarian and non-vegetarian preferences. Chinese vegetarian dishes often contain large varieties of vegetables like bai cai, shiitake mushroom, cabbage, sprouts and corn. The non-vegetarian dishes add eggs, pork, beef, chicken, lamb and seafood.

Most of the taste in Chinese food comes from their specific ingredients. The use of oil is very important. The most popular cooking oil in Chinese cuisine is peanut oil. Others are ground nut oil and corn oil. Sesame seed oil is used for seasoning and flavouring but not frying. But butter, margarine, ghee and olive oil are never used in Chinese cooking, unless the recipe asks otherwise.

The Chinese have a long tradition of using herbs and spices to boost a dish’s flavour. Garlic and fresh root ginger are used for every other Chinese recipe to season the oil before cooking. It’s important to use them fresh for rich flavour and fragrance. Whole red chillies are also important in Chinese cooking. They are either used freshly crushed or grounded, toasted or fried for infused spicy flavour. Fresh green coriander is the most basic and widely used herb in Chinese cooking. It is chopped up and added as the last ingredient and then the heat infuses the fragrance and flavour of chopped coriander.

Five spice powder is another specialty of this cuisine. It is a grounded blend of some strong fragrant spices like Star Anise, Sichuan Peppercorns, Fennel (anise seed), Cloves and Cinnamon. A dash of grounded 5-spice adds an amazing hot, fragrant and spicy flavour. Star anise is a dried, star-shaped pod with a strong, sweet licorice flavor. It's one of the key spices in Chinese savoury cooking.

Chinese cooking encompasses thousands of sauces and condiments. We will find our noodles and soups incomplete if we don’t add them. Soya sauce, Chili oil and vinegar that we all know form the basis of it. Soya sauce is made of soya bean and wheat and then matured. It has a saltish flavour and blackish brown colour. It is available in two varieties; dark soya sauce and light soya sauce. Chilli oil is made by heating dried red chillies in groundnut oil to produce hot, spicy oil. White vinegar that we use is actually rice vinegar. Rice vinegar is more nutritious and has a distinctive flavour with a slightly sweet edge. Hoisin sauce, oyster sauce and sichuan sauce are also popular for cooking meat or vegetables, marinades and seasoning rice or noodles.

Chinese meal

A Chinese meal begins with soup and appetizers. Typically you may find Wonton Soup, Manchow soup or Sweet corn soup. The non-vegetarian variety adds pork and chicken soups. However the list is big, the commonly available starters are chicken lollipops, spring rolls and wontons.

In a Chinese meal, dinner is given to each individual with his or her own bowl of rice while the accompanying dishes are served bowls that are shared by everyone sitting at the table. This is in contrast to western meals where individual servings of the dishes are customary at the beginning of the meal.

According to the Confucius standards, food is cut into bite-size pieces while it is being prepared, so none of it has to be cut at the table. This is a custom that is definitely unique to the Chinese culture.

Instead of a knife and fork, the Chinese eat with chopsticks, a pair of wooden sticks held in one hand. Chopsticks used for eating are usually 10 inch long. Ask someone who is expert at eating with chopsticks to show you how to hold and use them. Chopsticks, held in the other hand, are used to help scoop the rice into the person's mouth.

Almost anything can be, and is, eaten with chopsticks; soups are obviously eaten with porcelain spoon provided. When eating rice, the rice bowl is held close to the mouth and the chopstick used to ferry the rice is held at the short remaining distance.

Chinese meal always contains an equal division of fan (grains, rice or other starches), and cai (cooked meat and vegetables). Chinese food is grain and vegetable-based, with meat, seafood, or poultry playing more of a secondary role. A wider contrast is provided by the variety of dishes all served at the same time; a meal can thus consist of a combination of simple and complicated dishes, sweet and mild versus sour flavours, bitter versus salty, dark and pale ingredients, bland versus hot and peppery, or simply hot versus cold in temperature.

A variety of fried rice or noodles form the basis of main-course, have them with different sauces or gravies to best enjoy Chinese food. Try chilli chicken, Manchurian Chicken or Sichuan vegetables.

For dessert, the Chinese normally prefer fresh fruits. And what about tea? After all, tea is China’s national drink; there are nearly hundreds types of tea cultivated in China.

Today, Chinese cuisine is popular around the world with its regional variations like Cantonese, Sichuan, Shanghai, Hong-Kong, Singapore and American, be it  American style Chopsuey, Hong-Kong noodles or Cantonese spring rolls. Even the very famous hakka noodles that we eat today are invention of Hakka community of China which is well adapted in India. Chinese recipes are all about invention and modification. Now, it’s time to experiment a few more at home.

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MasterChef Sanjeev Kapoor

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor is the most celebrated face of Indian cuisine. He is Chef extraordinaire, runs a successful TV Channel FoodFood, hosted Khana Khazana cookery show on television for more than 17 years, author of 150+ best selling cookbooks, restaurateur and winner of several culinary awards. He is living his dream of making Indian cuisine the number one in the world and empowering women through power of cooking to become self sufficient. His recipe portal is a complete cookery manual with a compendium of more than 10,000 tried & tested recipes, videos, articles, tips & trivia and a wealth of information on the art and craft of cooking in both English and Hindi.