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Food in Chinese Culture

The above example shows that the Chinese way of eating is characterized by a notable flexibility and adaptability. Since a cai dish is made of a mixture of ingredients, its distinctive appearance, taste, and flavor do not depend on the exact number of ingredients, nor, in most cases, on any single item. The same is true for a meal, made up of a combination of dishes. In times of affluence, a few more expensive items may be added, but if the times are hard they may be omitted without doing irreparable damage. If the season is not quite right, substitutes may be used. With the basic principles, a Chinese cook can prepare "Chinese" dishes for the poor as well as the rich, in times of scarcity as well as abundance, and even in a foreign country without many familiar ingredients. The Chinese way of cooking must have helped the Chinese people through some hard times throughout their history. And, of course, one may also say that the Chinese cook the way they do because of their need and desire for adaptability.

This adaptability is shown in at least two other features. The first is the amazing knowledge the Chinese have acquired about their wild plant resources. . . . The Chinese peasants apparently know every edible plant in their environment, and plants there are many. Most do not ordinarily belong on the dinner table, but they may be easily adapted for consumption in time of famine. . . . Here again is this flexibility: A smaller number of familiar foodstuffs are used ordinarily, but, if needed, a greater variety of wild plants would be made use of. The knowledge of these "famine plants" was carefully handed down as a living culture -apparently this knowledge was not placed in dead storage too long or too often.

Another feature of Chinese food habits that contributed to their notable adaptability is the large number and great variety of preserved foods. . . . Food is preserved by smoking, salting, sugaring, steeping, pickling, drying, soaking in many kinds of soy sauces, and so forth, and the whole range of foodstuffs is involved-grains, meat, fruit, eggs, vegetables, and everything else. Again, with preserved food, the Chinese people were ever ready in the event of hardship or scarcity.

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