Food has been an important part of Chinese culture since ancient times. Eating has always been very serious business in China. Chinese eating culture contrasts sharply with that in western countries.
Philosophy of Food and View of Food
The Chinese philosophy of food contrasts sharply with the American philosophy of food. Traditionally, a good Chinese meal is a combination of ts’ai (菜) and fan (饭). Ts’ai refers to cooked vegetables or meat. Fan is rice, sorghum, millet, or whatever. Ts’ai is to assist the intake of fan. As a Chinese myself, I usually hear the term “four ts’ai and one soup.” It means that a good meal should include four dishes of cooked vegetables, meat, and meat products and one bowl of soup to assist the intake of fan.
Chinese also have a different view of food nutrition and health from Americans. It is a traditional Chinese ideology that food could be medicine. “Chinese culture believes there is a positive energy and a negative energy in the universe. ‘Yin’ represents negative energy and ‘yang’ represents positive energy. They have to be equally balanced to create a harmonious and healthy state, otherwise, conflict and disease will be created.” See Chinese Culture Profile. Food belonging to the “yin” is considered cold or cooling, such as those that are low in calories and bland. Food belonging to “yang” is considered to be stronger, such as those spicy foods or greasy foods. Chinese believe these two groups of food should be balanced in meals to help people keep in health. For example, in cold weather, it is believed that people should eat more Yang food. When the whether is hot, people eat less Yang food. People in illness pay special attention to the kind of food they should eat. Some foods are regarded in Chinese culture as being able to aggravate illness including “crab, shrimp, clams, fish (the kind that is scalesless), beef, and eggs” See Chinese Culture Profile. “Post-operative patients or patients with skin problems like dermatitis, acne or eczema is often told to avoid the above items as eating these foods are thought to worsen the problems.”
Chinese have their principles of eating according to medicine:
- “Try to avoid overly processed food.
- “Eat naturally.
- “Eat seasonal vegetables and fruits.
- “Always make sure the vegetables are cooked.
- “Sit down to eat at a quiet place.
- “Chew the food well. Eat slowly.
- “Pay attention to your eating, and get away from distractions.
- “Do not skip meals.
- “After lunch, take a nap or rest for a while” See Chinese Medicinal Cuisine.
Another special aspect of Chinese eating culture is its table manners. Ts’ai dishes are laid in the center of a round or square dining table. People sit around the table and each of them is equipped with a bowl of fan. Different from Western practice of individually served foods, Chinese usually sit around the table and eat from the same served Cai dishes. Traditionally, juniors at the table should not eat until seniors begin to eat, to show respect. Showing respect for guests at the table is important too. It is considered courteous to offer the best or most special item to the eldest person or guests.
Chinese eating culture is also reflected in how Chinese cook their food. A Chinese kitchen is normally equipped with tools including a wok, a chopping block and knife, some saucepans, and other pots. Generally speaking, Chinese traditionally either cook with water or with oil. Using water, Chinese boil food such as rice and noodles, or steam food such as fish and crab. Cooking with oil usually refers to stir-frying in China. However, Chinese sometimes do deep-frying too. In Chinese cooking, different methods can be combined in order to create one single dish.
Chinese people are very concerned about food’s color, flavor, and taste. To qualify a good Chinese chef, a person has to make sure the food they cook not only tastes good, but looks like an art piece. Chinese cuisines are definitely a form of art.
Anderson, E. N., Jr. & Anderson, M. L. (1977) Modern China: South. In K.C. Chang (Ed.), Food in Chinese Culture. (pp. 319-382). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Hsieh, M., Huang, K., Chiu, T., Chen, C. (2011). Nutritional Support in Palliative Care: Chinese Perspective. In Victor R. Preedy (Ed.), Diet and Nutrition in Palliative Care. (pp. 121-131). Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Hsu, V. Y. N., & Hsu, F. L. K. (1977) Modern China: North. In K.C. Chang (Ed.), Food in Chinese Culture. (pp. 297-316). New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Newman, J.M. (2004). Food Culture in China. Westport: Green Wood Press.