Camp counsellors enjoying traditional hotpot in Shijiazhuang!
Flavours of China
While your local Chinese restaurant may claim to serve generic “Chinese food” actually in China this is categorised into four regions, eight varieties and five key flavours! Food is a huge aspect of Chinese culture, with large meals out with family, friends, colleagues and business partners a popular part of everyday life.
The importance of food in Chinese culture
Food is probably one of the most popular and widely appreciated aspects of Chinese culture. While in the west we often see food as simply an essential part of everyday life, eating plain cereal and the same cheese and ham sandwiches every day, in China it is often celebrated as a major focus in life.
When eating out with friends, typically all dishes (with the exception of small rice portions) are shared in the centre of the table rather than everyone ordering a single dish individually. This makes meals more of a social occasion, with great importance put on small gestures such as serving food to a close friend or guest.
Visitors to China are always surprised at how cheap eating out can be and how frequently average Chinese families will enjoy food at a local restaurant. The food culture in China is truly a way of life, and so you can find small eateries on every street serving tasty snacks at very affordable prices.
The Five Flavours and Four Regions
Before understanding food flavours in China, we must first learn a bit about the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) culture. According to TCM, it is important to have a balance of the five flavours: salty, spicy, sour, sweet and bitter. This not only improves the flavour of food, but is thought to have health benefits too.
There are significant variations in food across China, but the country can be broadly categorised into four regions, each with its own distinct flavour:
- South: sweet, sour and light
- North: salty and heavy
- East: sweet and artistic
- West: hot and spicy
Finally, the fifth flavour (bitter) never quite took off in Chinese cuisine! However, you can find it in most traditional Chinese medicines, for example herbal teas, and it is often added to complement other flavours in a dish.
To find out more about the variations in food across China, check out this great video from GoldThread:
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