Staples and Main Food Types
For the Chinese people, rice is the staple food in everyday meals. They eat it as Westerners do with bread. Rice is cooked by boiling or steaming, till it absorbs as much water as it can.
There is a rich collection of rice dishes in China. Among them, fried rice might be the most popular not only in China, but also around the world. Depending on the types and amount of added ingredients, such as beans, chopped meat, vegetables, eggs, etc., as well as different manners of preparation, there have developed endless variations of fried rice.
Rice may also be made into rice porridge (congee). When cooking porridge, more water than usual is added to make the rice saturated with water and become very soft and viscous. It is often served and eaten with pickles, bamboo shoots, salted duck eggs, pickled tofu and many other condiments. Besides a common food on the dining table, rice porridge can also serve as food therapy for the unwell by adding ingredients of therapeutic value.
Chinese noodles vary in width. They can be thin as needles, or thick as chopsticks. However, when it comes to length, they are usually served long and uncut. This is because long noodles are a symbol of longevity in Chinese tradition. Thus, during birthday celebrations, people will serve “longevity noodles” in good hope for longevity. Read more about Chinese noodles
Many commonly used vegetables in Chinese meals are familiar to Westerners, such as cabbages, mushrooms, peas and beans, all leafy greens, chili peppers, onions, carrots, celery, broccoli, bamboo shoots , gourds, etc.
Chinese people prefer cooked vegetables rather than raw. Vegetables are cut into thin strips or small pieces, cooked with meat, tofu, fish, seafood or noodles. They can also be used in soups, braises, or as stuffing for dumplings, wontons, and steamed bums.
Besides, people like to make vegetables into pickles. A huge variety of pickled vegetables are made, such as cucumber, cabbage, turnip, chili pepper, among many others. Pickles have a refreshing and savory taste, so they are often served as appetizers in a meal.
Food savvy Chinese people make lots of dishes out of eggs. The most unique and famous ones are probably the salted duck eggs and century eggs (preserved eggs), both are produced and eaten all over China.
Salted duck eggs are made of fresh duck eggs, by soaking in brine for about one month till the yolk becomes bright orange-red color, and the salty flavor is absorbed.
People make century eggs with duck, chicken or quail eggs. Eggs are soaked in a mixture of ash, salt, lime, clay and rice straw for several weeks or months, depending on different processing methods, till the white becomes a dark-brown transparent jelly, while the yolk becomes a cream-like, dark-green substance. The eggs smell a strong odor of sulphur and ammonia.
In Chinese, the pronunciation of egg, dan, sounds similar to dai, which means generation. Eggs represent rebirth and fertility in traditional view. When two people get married, when a baby is born, at the baby’s first-month birthday, and some other joyous occasions, red-dyed eggs are passed out as auspicious gifts. They represent hope, happiness, and carrying on the family line by having babies.
In Chinese, the pronunciation of fish, “yu”, sounds the same with the word for abundance, richness, or surpluses, and it is believed that eating fish will bring prosperity in the coming year. Therefore, in China, especially at banquets, it is customary to serve the entire fish, with the fish head pointing towards the honored guest.
Popular fish and shellfish include carp, grass carp, crucian, sea bass, squid, soft-shell turtle, crab, shrimp, prawn, scallops, oysters, etc.
The cooking of fish is a delicate matter. At many Chinese restaurants, a new cook is tested by cooking fish, and a restaurant is often known by the chef’s skill in cooking fish. The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi even said "Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish."
Tofu (Bean Curd)
Tofu contains little fat, and is high in protein, calcium and iron. Tofu itself has very little flavor or smell, but it has the ability to absorb new flavors through spices and marinades. Due to this quality and nutritional value, Tofu, a staple of Asian cuisines since ancient times, has recently become a popular material used in Western vegetarian dishes.
There is a wide variety of tofu, which can be split into two main categories: fresh tofu – produced directly from soy milk, and processed tofu – processed in some way from fresh tofu.
With white color and very tender texture, it contains the highest moisture contents of all fresh tofus. This is the typical tofu in south part of China. It is usually used to make soup. Read more information about Tofu and Tofu dishes.
Meat and poultry
Every part of the animal can be eaten, be it meat, skin, fat, blood, or entrails. People even joke that, speaking of pig’s meat, every part of the pig can be eaten, and nothing is wasted, except for the oink.
Chinese people rarely eat any raw meat. They prepare and cook meat in various ways. All meat can be boiled, stir-fried, stewed, roasted, poached, baked, or pickled, etc.
The most famous dish might be Beijing Roast Duck. It has been prepared since the imperial era, and is considered as one of China’s national foods. The duck is served with pancakes, cucumber, spring onions and hoisin sauce (seafood paste).
Since in China, soups are eaten as one of the main dishes in a meal, particular attention is attached to the soups’ stocks. Meat, bones, eggs, marine products, vegetables, fruits, crops and edible fungus are used.
There is a wide variety of Chinese soup; however, it can be generally characterized into two main categories: Thin soups – made with clear broth and cooked quickly; thick soups – cooked more slowly with all the stocks added together at once, and often starches are added as a thickener near the end of the cooking process.
It’s an ancient tradition to treat a cold or fever with soup. In addition to its ability to comfort, it is believed that certain soups have healing powers. Many soups are consumed for their flavor, as well as for their restorative or invigorating effects. This is heavily linked with traditional Chinese medicine. There are varieties of such tonic soups, ranging from pungent to light, savory to sweet flavors.