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The ancient culinary art of China

In many cultures, eating is a means of providing sustenance for the body.

That is true in Chinese cuisine as well, of course. But for the Chinese, dining is a much larger part of life. It is an art used as part of a celebration, even when attached to no special event.

The taste of Chinese food

Westerners today often spend large amounts of time counting calories, measuring nutritional elements and being concerned about the health impact of eating. Those are valid activities, to be sure. But the Chinese are much more focused on taste, presentation and other sensory aspects of food. In Chinese cuisine, all the senses are engaged and there is less concern over whether something is fattening or 'heart healthy'.

But the use of phrases, such as 'Chinese cuisine' can be misleading. For, in fact, there is a wide variety of styles in Chinese cooking, owing to the diversity of this ancient land. Areas of China have been populated and cultivated for thousands of years. But because of the huge land area and the numerous enclaves created by mountains and distance, many styles have developed.

The delicate Canton style is decidedly different from the robust and spicy Szechuan cuisine. Mandarin dishes that developed in the dynastic royal court are very different from those coming from modern cosmopolitan Shanghai.

At the same time, there are certain customs and traditions that are universal, or nearly so. Despite its size and geographical and cultural diversity, China has been extensively traveled. Trade routes and population migration have led to considerable intermixing, where customs and recipes blend.

Tea, for example, is everywhere; tea is an art in China. Though black and oolong are consumed, the major blend is green and it is served with virtually every meal, regardless of style or region. Dining customs are similar, whether one is enjoying a full meal with royalty or a simple Dim Sum with friends and family.

A respect for hierarchy, a concern with the well being of one's guests, and a reciprocal deference to an elder host are all part of the culture. Those customs are reflected in dining styles and etiquette. But far from being a grim, silent affair the atmosphere during a Chinese meal is typically festive.

Whether enjoying a bit of Kung Pao chicken or a simple Jiao Zi, or consuming an elaborately prepared Peking Duck, the food is intended to be an addition to a pleasant event. It's an occasion for reveling in the joys of life. It's an opportunity for lively conversation about family and food.

So, next time you're considering preparing Chinese cuisine or enjoying the offerings on the menu at a fine genuine Chinese restaurant, go that one step further. Rather than simply making food and eating, consider embracing at least temporarily the full style of a Chinese meal. Expand your horizons and enjoy all it has to offer.

It has been written that Chinese will eat anything in four legs, except the table, and anything with wings, except a plane. Not surprising when, in the past, Chinese people have often struggled to put enough food in table.

The art of dining Chinese style

The art of Chinese tea

Food in China

Chinese noodles

Chinese cuisine

Chinese food preparation methods

Canton style cuisine

Szechuan style cuisine

Hunan style cuisine

Shanghai style cuisine

Mandarin style cuisine

Recipes from China