About Chinese Provincial Cuisine
This Month's Film: Raise the Red Lantern
This month, I will be exploring the four major provincial styles of Chinese cuisine: Cantonese, Mandarin, Hunan, and Szechuan. And although they share certain similarities, they each have their own unique qualities as well.
The term Cantonese cuisine actually refers to the food of the Guangdong Province surrounding the old port of Canton, now known as Guangzhou, which also includes Hong Kong. Guangdong province is surrounded by a mountain range that separates it from the rest of China, and therefore, much of its culture is influenced by international maritime trade. A large number of Chinese immigrants in countries around the world are descended from Guangzhou families whose native dialect is Cantonese.
The sea has also influenced the cuisine, which is rich with a seemingly endless variety of fish and shellfish dishes. The flavors of Cantonese food tend to be mild and subtle, compared to that of their spicy neighbors to the west. Perhaps the most widely recognized type of Cantonese cuisine is dim sum, which literally means 'to touch the heart'. A typical dim sum repertoire usually consists of but is not limited to an array of steamed and deep fried dishes, including dumplings, croquettes, spring rolls, and meat filled buns, as well as more exotic items like savory sausages, delicate seafood creations, and even chicken feet, a common dim sum standard. Each type of dim sum is prepared in large batches in the kitchen, and then loaded onto rolling carts in stacked bamboo baskets. The dim sum waiter then rolls the cart into the dining room past all the tables, lifting the lids of the steamer baskets for the customers to get a peek to see if it looks appetizing enough to partake.
The term 'mandarin' refers not to a province, but to the capital itself, Beijing, formerly known as Peking, where the mandarin officials of the Chinese Empire once resided. The metropolis of Bejing, a name that means 'Northern Capital', is located in the northeast region, near the Great Wall of China, and is the site of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Ming Tombs.
The surrounding area is rich with agricultural products, mainly wheat. Mandarin cuisine can be quite elaborate, and popular dishes include Mu-Shu Pork, Peking Duck, and Mongolian-influenced items such as pot stickers, garlic-scallion beef, and cook-it-yourself hot pots.
The province of Szechuan (Sichuan) is named for the four tributaries of the Yangtze River (Min, Tuo, Fou, and Jailing), which flow through a large basin formed by the surrounding mountain ranges. The terrain is well irrigated and therefore perfect for the cultivation of rice.
The flavors of Szechuan are rich and spicy with chilis and peppercorns. The cuisine is also marked by the taste of the vinegar used to preserve meats and vegetables for the winter. Common favorites include Szechuan Beef, Ma-Po Tofu, and Green Bean Stir Fry.
The province of Hunan is located in the south central region, famed as the birthplace of Chairman Mao. Much like that of its neighbor, Hunan cuisine is as spicy if not moreso than Szechuan cuisine, and the common methods of preserving are garlic laced oils and hot chili pastes. Preparation techniques include seared and stir-fried dishes such as Orange Chicken, Crispy Spicy Fish, and Garlic Eggplant.
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