What is “Real” Chinese Cooking?

To Americans, the most familiar of Eastern cuisines undoubtedly is the Chinese. Every large U.S. city has its Chinese restaurants, sometimes scores of them, as in New York and San Francisco, and often first-class. In smaller cities, especially in Western states, a Chinese restaurant may well be the best place in town, not only because everyone seems to like chop suey, but because a good Chinese cook can whip up a Yankee steak or a Southern fried chicken as expertly as he stir-fries a lobster.

In the Orient itself, Chinese restaurants dominate the public dining scene from Myanmar (Burma) to the Philippines and on across the Pacific islands to Hawaii. Again, they are apt to be among the best available. Moreover, Chinese cookery methods have invaded other native cuisines to the extent that Indonesian food, for example, could be described as tropical Malay spiced by India and cooked by China-and then served up a la Dutch.

It happens that Guangzhou (Canton) was the first port to be opened to foreign trade by the old Empire, and it became the embarkation point for the great emigrations of Chinese fleeing the famines of the mid-19th century. The restaurants the emigrants established abroad reflected their southern China origin. What most American and European identify as “Chinese food” is more accurately labeled “Cantonese.” This has led to arguments.

The Old China Hand who spent years in the international circles of Beijing or Shanghai insists that the southern style is not all there is to Chinese cuisine. Of course, Beijing and Shanghai are about as far and as different from Guangzhou (Canton) as New York from New Orleans. Continental in size, China has as many diverse ways of preparing food as does the continent of Europe. At least five major regional cuisines are recognized by gourmets, plus some subsidiary schools. All are “real,” but the north-versus-south dispute implies a class distinction.

The Old China Hand’s upper-class Chinese friends in the northern cities naturally served them the specialties of their own region. On the other hand, large numbers of the Chinese who went abroad were coolies. It was easy to jump to the conclusion that northern food must be the cuisine of the elite, southern food fit only for peasants and the poor. This ignored the fact that even the poorest coolie knew how to
enjoy good food, and ate it when they could afford it.

There is a saying in China, “to be born in Suzhou, to eat in Kwangchow (i.e., Canton), to dress in Hangzhou, and to die in Liuzhou.” For Suzhou is known for beauty, Guangzhou for food, Hangzhou for silk, and Liuzhou for wood for making coffins.

Besides, the majority of the Chinese restaurants abroad are Cantonese. Though this may be due to the fact that most of the Chinese abroad are Cantonese, I think it is also due to the fact that Cantonese cooking is broader in basis and can be “international” in taste. Canton has also at its disposal a greater variety of seafood and so has the advantage of creating more dishes than any of the other schools. Therefore it is only fair to put the Canton school at the top.

According to experts, the Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine holds a position akin to the French in Europe-the haute cuisine; others are good, but this one is better. When a Chinese emigre opened a restaurant and called it “Cantonese,” he felt he was putting his best foot forward-just as an American opening a restaurant in, say, Brazil might dub it the “New York” or the “New Orleans” but probably not the “Omaha.”

Nevertheless, each school of Chinese cookery has its staunch adherents. The above will by no means satisfy the Old China Hand, and the inquisitive modern gourmet will want to try them all. So we will briefly identify the major cuisines and wish you luck in telling them apart.

Notice the conspicuous absence of any “Beijing” school. China’s capital, like Washington, D.C., has borrowed its cuisine from neighboring provinces. The so-called Mandarin style is mostly from Shandong.