In The Chinese Kitchen

One of America's leading authorities on Chinese cooking, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, shares her knowledge of culinary history, recipes, techniques, and ingredients in The Chinese Kitchen.

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by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

  • In Chinese households, the gods eat with us at our table, and food is what we offer as gifts, as sacrifices to them. We hang their images in our kitchens and dining rooms to remind us of their continual presence. The altars of our ancestors are laden with food, which we symbolically send to them.
  • In the Chinese kitchen, fan is grain, rice, wheat, millet, whole or milled into flour, and includes breads, noodles, and pancakes. Ts'ai include basically everything else, vegetables and meats, which were to be cut into small, bite-sized pieces to be eaten with fan. Traditionally grains were and are the center of the Chinese meal, the basic rice in particular; all else is complementary. They are not mixed but presented together, each retaining its essential character. What makes Chinese food unique in its preparation is the art of the mixture.
  • It is usually believed that the Chinese preoccupation with food blossomed in the Han dynasty, which bridged the centuries from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220. It was during these times that the five tastes of the Chinese kitchen —sweetness, sourness, saltiness, hotness, and bitterness—were enunciated and became common.
  • Philosophers and artists concerned themselves with food during the Sung dynasty, which ran from 960 to 1280. Restaurants, which had sprung up initially as small travelers' inns, flourished and became elaborately decorated with extensive menus. It was the Sung dynasty that gave us, Meng Yuan-lao, probably the world's first restaurant critic. This peripatetic gastronome roamed the country looking at the rising tide of restaurants. He wrote of these new public eating places, how sitting on the floor changed to chairs at table, about menus and markets and seasonal and prepared foods.
  • When Mongol invaders descended from the north in l280, they brought with them coarse, bland, and simple foods that were abhorred by the Chinese. However, the Chinese, who clung to their own culinary traditions, managed to change some of those Mongol foods into other dishes they considered edible. Huge cauldrons of boiled mutton became, later, the Mongolian hot pot. It is Mongol in name only, for the concept of grilling thin slices of lamb on a red-hot dome of iron is not Mongolian but the creation of twentieth-century Chinese Muslims.
  • There is little doubt that the tea tree is native to China and that tea as an herbal beverage has been known in China for thousands of years. The Tang dynasty, in the eighth century, was the time of Lu T'ung, a poet who was granted the title of tea master, a tradition that continued into the ensuing Sung dynasty, when Hui Tsung, the sybaritic emperor, became known as the tea emperor and decreed for himself no fewer than 46 personal imperial tea gardens.
  • The hundreds, possibly thousands, of teas in China are classified as green, oolong, and black (also referred to as red). Green teas are unfermented; oolongs, semi-fermented; and blacks, fully fermented.
  • Wines in China are not always wines as they are understood to be in the West. All wines, whether fermented from grapes or grain, are referred to as chiew. It is a generic word that describes not only wines but all alcoholic drinks, even distilled liqueurs flavored with flowers, herbs, or fruits, and other distillations such as brandies and vodkas.
  • The classic techniques of the Chinese kitchen, its implements, its basics, differ from those of the West. There is no collection of knives; instead there is the cleaver. There is no array of pots; instead there is the wok, perhaps the world's finest all-purpose cookpot. The wok is used to fry, steam, blanch, bake, and boil. The most useful wok is carbon-steel with a diameter of about 14 inches. With the addition of bamboo steamers, it is also perfect for all manner of steaming foods. I prefer round-bottomed woks because of the ease with which stir-frying can be accomplished. but recognize that flat-bottomed woks are well suited to electric ranges.
  • To a large extent, Cantonese is what people think of when they think of Chinese food. It is the cooking, albeit altered by circumstance, of those men from southern China who migrated to the West to search for gold and to build the transcontinental railroad. But pure Cantonese cooking is grand indeed, with its belief in the sanctity of freshness and that the essential nature and taste of a food ought not to be changed. Overcooking is a sin in the Cantonese kitchen, which relies heavily on stir-frying and steaming, though it roasts and stews too.
  • The historical, traditional cooking of the North, of Beijing, Tianjin, and the Shandong region, is a wondrous mixture of the elegant and the rough. Where the South (Canton) was surrounded by freshness and green, the harsh northern winters forced the drying and preservation of foods and great use of hardier vegetables such as cabbage and all manner of roots. There was also the imperial tradition that spawned such grand Beijing cookery as Peking Duck and Beggar's Chicken.
  • The cooking of the East is particularly rich because of the access to fish in the seas of Shanghai and the coast and in the thousands of lakes and river tributaries that flow through this region. Its pastries, some traditional fried red bean and turnip concoctions, are well known throughout China, as are its soup buns and dumplings, dough mounds that contain hot soup and pork, and occasionally crab, scallion pancakes, and those pan-fried dumplings we call potstickers.

The Chinese Kitchen
Recipes, Techniques, and Ingredients
from America's Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking

By Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
William Morrow, December 1999
Hardcover, $30.00
ISBN: 0-688-15826-9
Reprinted by permission.

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