Why Chinese food are spicy - Introduction to 8 major Cuisines
China is country where diversified foods are widespread around the nation. The history of Chinese foods can date back to thousands years ago, within which some of the popular foods such as Kung Pao Chicken or Dongpo Meat were remained ever since then.a
Many foreigners say Chinese foods are spicy than theirs, after they arrived China and experienced some dishes here. In this article, we try to explain the reason for spicy Chinese food in terms of food characteristics, restaurant operations and social environment.
1. Food Characteristics
According to public knowledge, there are 8 major genres of Chinese cuisines. Technically speaking, not all of them are spicy. Here are some details of these cooking styles:
Shandong Cuisine - Salty
As early as Shang Dynasty, a famous minister named Chiang Tai Kung started the cooking behavior of combining food materials with herbal medicines in his hometown, which became publicly acknowledged as embryonic form of Shandong Cuisine. Meanwhile, Shandong Cuisine has long been the source for imperial dishes during ancient times, and thus turned into the head of 8 Chinese cuisines.
Shandong Cuisine emphasizes brewing of clear or thick soup for flavoring or direct drinking. For cooking object, some of them are seafood with clear and mild flavor; some of them are chicken, carps, or ducks which are cooked of heavy tastes. 2 representative dishes are Kung Pao Chicken and Sweet and sour carp.
Sichuan Cuisine - Tingly
Compared to Shandong Cuisine, Sichuan Cuisine may not enjoy such a long history, but it is more popular among Chinese cooks and normal citizens. The using of pepper, chili oil, broad-bean source, garlic, spice and so on generates tingly or stimulating flavor which greatly raises eaters' appetite for food.
Ingredients and practices for Sichuan Cuisine are normal and accessible for everybody. For example, Yuxiang Shredded Pork is cooked by simply mixing and frying of pork, black fungus, scallion, ginger, garlic, soy source, sugar, salt, vinegar and starch.
Cantonese Cuisine - Delicate
Guangdong is rich in food materials. So, dishes here are selected and carefully cooked. For the sultry and hot weather, Cantonese flavor is more mild and tender, sometimes resembling that of western cuisine.
Avoiding of excessive seasoning and of over-cooking are 2 major characteristics of Cantonese Cuisine. One typical example is Soft-Boiled Chicken, for which thin farmyard chickens were pickled with salt and wine for a short while and were put into boiling water for several minutes until medium-well.
Jiangsu Cuisine - Syrupy
Sugars are preferred for Jiangsu foods to defend local citizens from moisture coming from humid climate. Meanwhile, cooks pay more attention to final shape of dishes and thus are skillful on cutting techniques.
Squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish is a good example. A cook shall bone the mandarin fish and carve on fish body to form regular and beautiful figures. Merely these 2 steps are painstaking. Here is what this dish looks like:
Fujian Cuisine - Aromatic
One of the special materials widely used in Fujian Cuisine is red distillers' grains, which is a kind of stillage after wine brewing. Therefore, many of the Fujian dishes are sweet or sour in flavor, and with strong and pleasant aroma.
Sometimes, Fujian Cuisine can be difficult in cooking procedures. Fotiaoqiang, literally named as "Buddha Jump", is excellent in mixed flavor, intense aroma and comprehensive nutrition. Meanwhile, it's famous for the cooking difficulty and time cost: dozens of procedures and hours of braising are required to finish this dish.
Hui Cuisine - Fire
Originated from Han Dynasty and came to famous in Qing Dynasty, Hui Cuisine now are popular in Anhui, Jiangxi, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang provinces. Properly using and control of different levels of fire heating is Hui cooks' masterpiece. As a result, major techniques they used are braising, stewing, smoking, and steaming.
General flavor characteristics of Hui Cuisine are crisp, tender and tasty. One of the major representative works is stewing bamboo shoots. The key point for cooking it is the opportunity to switch heating power from big fire to gentle heating.
Hunan Cuisine - Spicy
Spicy food is the essence of Hunan Cuisine. Cooks here add chilies to whatever dishes they cook: pork, chicken, beef, fish, or even vegetables and soups. Unlike Sichuan Cuisine, which relies on pepper to stimulate taste bud, Hunan Cuisine is applying methods more primitive and much stronger.
One of the famous dishes is Fish Head with Chopped Chili. A fish head is split and covered with a large number of chopped red chilies, gingers and scallions after pickling with white wine. Through 10 minutes water steaming, the fish is totally merged with spicy flavor and thus been finished.
Zhejiang Cuisine - Fresh
Awarded as "a land of fish and rice", Zhejiang is abundant of food resources from ancient time. Like its people, Zhejiang dishes looks exquisite and delicate. Affected by Jiangsu Cuisine, the flavor for Zhejiang Cuisine is somewhat sweet.
Cooking of fishes is their specialty. West Lake Vinegar Fish is among one of the masterpieces. One grass carp is divided into 2 identical parts and incised by kitchen knife, after which it will be boiled repeatedly and mixed with special sauce made of sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and starch.
Apparently, the flavors or styles for Chinese cuisines are various. Not all of them are spicy. However, some of the above dishes have strict requirement on food ingredients or cooking time, which brings about restrictions for home cooking.
Sichuan Cuisine and Hunan Cuisine are relatively not so picky on food origin or techniques, so they quickly become widespread all over the country's kitchens.
2. Restaurant Operations
As mentioned before, Sichuan and Hunan Cuisines use tingly, greasy and spicy ingredients despite of their versatility. Restaurant owners can benefit from them too. Besides the easy accessibility for materials, here are more reasons they love to adopt spicy food:
- Saving time. Most of the Sichuan or Hunan food is available for quick frying, which requires very little time (2-5 min) with ingredients prepared (For their businesses, time is money).
- Saving cost. Chilies, garlic, scallions which are largely used in Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are widely planted and thus their unit price is cheap, compared to those unusual or machine processed spices.
- Easy to learn. Cooking of these 2 cuisines does not require as much skill as that of other cuisines (except some delicate main courses). People can be quickly trained to be a cooker for those 2 cuisines.
- Good to reuse. It's an open secret that spicy flavor from chilies or related condiments can cover bad taste from rotten food. By making food spicier, some immoral restaurant owners can secretly use putrid materials or even reuse dishes from former customers to reduce cost.
3. Social Environment
There are some social reasons for spicy Chinese food too. These social effects which come from housing price, human resource, or trends can influence those restaurants somehow. Here are some points:
- Soaring house rent. House rent rises every year, making tenants (those restaurants) pushing hard to make more profit. Quick and spicy dishes are naturally their first choice.
- Human resource. Skilled chefs are hired at high salary and at good working conditions, and thus most of them are working on big cities' first-class restaurants or noted shops in their hometowns. That is to say, the chance of eating real and tasty Chinese food for an everyman in downtown is small.
- Bandwagon Effect. In China, People are more prone to follow others' actions as a result of stronger unity: If somebody is running a restaurant, then his relatives or friends will be more encouraged to open restaurants; if somebody likes spicy food, then more people around him will have a try. This effect is pushing fast spicy food forward to prevalence either.
Chinese cuisines are diversified. However, spicy Chinese foods are prevalent for complicated reasons: characteristics of spicy dishes, restaurant operations, and social environment all count. For foreigners who want to try authentic and remarkable Chinese food, a good suggestion is to go to countryside where natural materials and superb cooks are more likely to stay.