Food is an important part of Chinese culture, and Chinese cuisine holds many symbolic meanings.
Chinese dishes are often eaten around celebratory occasions. Many believe eating certain dishes during festivals such as the Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival or Dragon Boat Festival is considered auspicious. However more often than not, people of Chinese heritage eat certain dishes over and over again most days, and these dishes are equally important in Chinese culture.
Chinese food is not something I eat every day. But Chinese cuisine is one of my favourite cuisines. I find it fun replicating traditional Chinese recipes at home. It’s a treat when I get to eat at a low-key Chinese restaurant with family and friends on a casual weekend.
No matter the occasion, most Chinese dishes are symbolic of traditions and lessons learnt from the past. There are many variations of Chinese cuisine, ranging from Shanghai cuisine to Hainanese cuisine to Sichuan cuisine and so much more. Notably there are common ingredients within each cuisine. Here are six such symbolic Chinese dishes eaten around the world for breakfast, lunch and dinner on an average day.
1. Rice and noodles
Rice and noodles are regarded as firm staples in Chinese cuisine and accompany most everyday Chinese meals. A bowl of white rice is usually served alongside other dishes when it comes to Chinese dining. Rice has a long history in China. Initially around 1100BC, aristocrats in the Zhou dynasty were the ones who were able to afford rice. Later on everyone relied on it for food as it’s easy to cook and store, practical to eat every other day. Today rice is one of China’s top commodities; China relies on rice production to sustain its economy (interestingly importing rice for the first time from the US recently, probably to meet local demand), is responsible for about 30% of global rice production, and eats more than twice as much rice as Japan. To put it simply, rice is a way of life in Chinese culture.
While rice is mostly cultivated in the south of China, noodles are cultivated more easily in the north as that’s where wheat grains thrive due to climatic differences. Like rice, noodles have fed China for thousands of year and are a most economical energy, cereal food. While rice symbolises wealth and abundance, noodles symbolises longevity and long life.
Time and time again I’ve heard my folks and extended Chinese Malaysian family say they feel weird if they don’t eat rice or noodles after a day or two. Whenever we go out for Chinese dinner and don’t feel like eating white rice, my folks normally order fried rice instead as it is…rice. Call me a bad Asian but I have no problem not eating rice every day and have gone weeks without eating rice. That said, yangzhou fried rice (扬州炒饭) is one of the dishes I like to cook and eat, just like how I like making instant Maggi noodles for weekend breakfast.
There are endless Chinese chicken recipes, many of which have been adapted to suit local palates around the world. While steamed yellow-skinned chicken is a popular dish during celebratory occasions (with chicken head, feet and tail symbolising unity and togetherness), chicken is common in Chinese stir-frys too. Oyster sauce chicken with bok choy, Malaysian mango chicken and cashew nut chicken were some dishes I remember my mum cooked when I was younger.
A lot of the time many Chinese are fond of eating chicken head and chicken feet for their gritty texture. This is in contrast with chicken breast which some Chinese reckon is ‘the meat of fools’, tasting like wood and nowhere near as enjoyable as eating meat with bones. Personally chicken breast is my favourite meat. Thick and smooth is just my preference.
On a side note, apart from chicken, duck is notoriously popular in Chinese cuisine. Duck (Peking duck) is historically an iconic dish in Chinese culture, prepared for royalty and later served to everyone else like rice. Not surprisingly China produces around 83% of duck meat production in the Asian region. In general, duck is more expensive than chicken as it’s the rarer of the two birds and not found in all parts of the world.
3. Dates and sesame seeds
Some Chinese dishes are sweeter than others. The Chinese date fruit, also known as the red date or jujube, and goji berries are often used in Chinese herbal soups, steamed chicken and teas. Dark red and orange in colour and high in vitamin B and C, a handful of these preserved dried fruits make any Chinese dish a touch sweeter (occasionally sour depending on season) and is believed to bring physical warmth to the body. In recent times jujubes and goji berries have been touted as antioxidant superfoods helping to regulate stress, sleep cycles and suppress cancerous cells.
At times a Chinese dish might come with subtle crunch along with the sweetness. Sesame seeds are commonly sprinkled over poultry dishes such as sesame oil chicken, fried chicken and sweet and sour pork (always debatably a true classic Chinese dish…).
Chinese dumplings are one of the most important and all time favourite foods in Chinese culture. A staple around the Chinese New Year, dumplings are also popular during yum cha and family gatherings. There are many kinds of Chinese dumplings; the jiǎozi (饺子), xiǎo long bāo (小笼包), shēng jiān bāo (生煎), xiā jiǎo/hā gáau (虾饺) and shāo mài/sīu máai (烧卖) are just a few of them.
As I wrote in Why Many Chinese Like Eating Dumplings, dumplings are dishes for sharing and represent wealth and togetherness. Interestingly enough, when it comes to eating dumplings many seem content to just eat dumplings and more dumplings, no need for rice of noodles. At least that is the case when I eat dumplings with my Chinese friends in Australia – just eat dumplings and no other dishes. Dumplings really are just that good by themselves and it’s easy to feel stuffed from eating more and more dumplings.
5. Green leafy vegetables
There’s almost always a vegetable dish when it comes to having a Chinese meal. Bok choy/Chinese celery (xiǎo bái cài, 小白菜), gai lan/Chinese broccoli (jiè làn, 芥蘭), water spinach and bamboo shoots are some popular greens in Chinese cooking. Probably the most well-known one is the bok choy. Native to China and first cultivated along the yellow Yangtze River Delta, it is nicknamed ‘soup spoon’ for its large leaves that are shaped like a spoon. Chinese immigrants brought bok choy to Australia during the 1850s Gold Rush and it was brought to North America in the 1880s with its seeds were sold in English-language seed catalogues.
In general, raw and uncooked vegetables aren’t eaten too often among the Chinese. Good sanitation has been a problem in China for a long time, and food here is preferably cooked over heat to minimise bacteria. From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, uncooked and ‘cold’ food may not be optimal for digestion. Personally I like my vegetables cooked hot and over the years have learnt vegetables are one of the fastest foods to cook. If I come home from work, have the house to myself for the evening and am feeling lazy, boiling some bok choi or Chinese broccoli for five minutes along with some fresh meat makes for a meal right away. Quick and easy for a hungry girl. Not to mention washing up is easy too.
Traditionally tofu symbolises death in Chinese culture. This is because most tofu is white (at least on the inside) and the colour white is synonymous with death – and so sometimes isn’t served during festivals. That said, some have suggested eating tofu sounds like eating a mouthful of ‘fú’ (福) or good fortune. In everyday Chinese cooking, tofu is cooked with soups and in stir fries, made into yam rings and simmered in hotpots. Made out of soybeans, milk and coagulents, there are many varieties of tofu such as beancurd, silken tofu, dehydrated tofu, pickled tofu and stinky tofu. One of the most popular tofu dishes is the Sichuan mapo tofu which is beancurd in red chilli and bean oil.
Rumour has it tofu is associated with sexual harassment. There is this story out of Chang’an in China where a husband and wife duo ran a tofu restaurant. The husband made tofu at night while the wife ran the shop in the day. The wife was said to have good looks as a result of of eating tofu (supposedly keeps the skin nice and smooth) and men patronised the shop to ‘eat tofu’ – flirt with her.
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Certain Chinese cuisine is spicier than others. Think Sichuan and Hunan cooking out of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces south of China where the climate is relatively cool. In general, many Chinese eat spicy and don’t mind spicy food at all. China currently produces around 28 million tons of chilli, which is 46% of the world’s total chillis. These days if you go to a Chinese restaurant, more than likely you’ll come across a spicy Chinese dish on the menu or chilli condiments on the table like chilli flakes or chilli oil.
Growing up Chinese Australian, my Chinese parents forbade me to eat spicy dishes until I was about 15. They argued eating spicy foods at a young age damages brain cells (can’t find research to prove this). Well by the time I started eating spicy food as an adult my tongue couldn’t tolerate it. Eating a bowl of curry noodles never fails to hurt my tongue and stomach a fair bit, and I’ve chugged glass after glass of milk to ease the fire on my tongue and stomach. Even eating ‘white and western’ kind of spicy levels in Australia is too much for me and so all you chilli lovers out there, yes you can call me a wuss.
Notably, Chinese meals are often centred about the notion of balance and the yin and yang philosophy. That is, in a given Chinese meal there usually is a balance of flavour (sweet, salty, sour, bitter), balance of ‘hot and cold’ foods and a mix of starch, meat and vegetable dishes and maybe even a soup dish so as to encompass as many nutrients and food groups as possible. As such some might argue Chinese food is healthier than other kinds of food. On one hand, eating a wide variety of foods is favourable so you get all the vitamins your body needs. But on the other hand, eat big portions of Chinese dishes and Chinese dishes that are greasy, that leads to calorie consumption overload.
Today Chinese food is found all over the world. In Australia, it’s not hard to find Chinese food in the capital cities. Here in Melbourne it’s not hard to find more than a few Chinese restaurants in the city and in the towns with a high Asian demographic – quite easy to eat at a different Chinese meal at a different Chinese restaurant every night (and so easy to get broke eating this way). The question of whether Australia’s Chinese food is more on the authentic side or more geared towards a Western palate is a question to ponder. But that’s another story for another day.
Do you like Chinese cuisine?