An introduction to the fine art and science of creating perfection out of simple ingredients.
Among devotees of gastronomy who have had the privilege, of sampling the great national cuisines of the world, the Chinese cuisine is rated No. 1 quite as often as the French. It has a purity and refinement that transcend mere cleverness, a beautiful simplicity that marks the truly gourmet. Like the French, it is based upon sensitivity to the inherent nature of the foodstuff being prepared. Chinese awareness and respect for intrinsic taste and texture have produced a highly sophisticated body of practices and seasoning.
There are cookery books that provide recipes for Chinese food. But recipes are dry reading at best. As cookery is an art, one can hardly learn much from recipes without an explanation of the principles that underlie the cuisine that created them. The principles of Chinese cooking have been developed partly from long experience and partly by accident through many centuries. They are applicable not only to Chinese food but to good cooking in general, a science as well as an art.
First, the Chinese believe in nature. According to their interpretation, everything that grows on earth and is edible can be delicious when properly prepared, and so is intended by nature to be eaten by man. The Chinese explored the kingdom of vegetables and herbs and living creatures and so discovered a number of foods, undreamed of by the Westerner, that are both appetizing and beneficial to health. They are used when freshly gathered from field or forest or sea, and again after they have been preserved by pickling or drying in the sun. Thanks to these means of preservation, their supply is assured for all seasons.
As an example, the Chinese discovered the virtues of the soybean, and methods of growing bean sprouts indoors and making bean curds throughout the year.These ingredients are truly a blessing to the Chinese and a just reward for a long, patient search. They are appetizing, nutritious, and because economical to produce, accessible to all. When properly prepared, they appeal equally to the palate of prince or peasant. Such widespread appeal is typical of Chinese cooking.
Most Chinese dishes include some vegetables. The net effect is to enhance the taste of the main ingredient (meat or seafood) and at the same time give simple vegetables the benefit of pleasing flavor from the meat. The combination makes a delicious dish, easy to digest and healthful. Of course, Western cuisines use vegetables, too, but they are generally cooked and eaten separately from the meat. The Chinese cuisine includes some roasted (shao k'ao), grilled (chien),or fried (cha) dishes, not combined with vegetables, but they are the exception.
Consequently, Chinese dishes require less meat. A small piece, say half a pound, enough for only one person if cooked the Western way, may serve five persons if cooked in the Chinese way. An excellent example is the well known dish chop suey, which, although invented by Chinese in America rather than in China itself, utilizes the principles of ch'ao, a staple method of the Chinese cuisine.
Ch'ao, pronounced and often spelled "chow," means low-oil, quick-stir frying. Both meat and vegetables are cut into small pieces and cooked over high heat in a . wok, a large concave skillet. Lacking a wok, the American cook can achieve the same effect in a cast-iron frying pan. A small amount of oil is used, but practically no water. The method is almost unknown to the West, which is surprising because it is so simple and quick and adds flavor to everything cooked. It is suitable for cooking either meat with vegetables or vegetables alone, in almost endless variety.