The Ancient Theory Behind Chinese Food
Chinese cooking is one of the most varied and sophisticated in the world, due in part to the size of the country, the culture, its ancient history and its huge population.
The yin and yang of Chinese food and the theory of the five elements
Chinese cooking is one of the most varied and sophisticated in the world, due in part to the size of the country, the culture, its ancient history and its huge population. Traditionally, there is also a fascinating complexity behind each meal that is based on natural laws and good manners.
One of the main characteristics of traditional Chinese cooking is that it takes the theory of yin and yang into account when the dish is prepared. Briefly, the theory of yin and yang states that all natural phenomena have opposites that complement each other. Generally speaking, foods that have a higher water content are considered “cool”, or yin, in nature. These are often foods that are boiled or steamed. Foods that have a higher energy content, particularly from fat, are considered “warm”, or yang, in nature. These are often foods that are fried or roasted.
According to this theory, a diet that has a balance of yin and yang foods will help prevent illness and emotional problems. The theory also believes that you should eat “cool” food when it is warm and “warm” food when it is cold. Another fundamental theory in Chinese cooking is the theory of the five elements. This states that all matter in the universe is made up of the five elements of fire, earth, metal, water and wood. From this theory comes the idea of the five flavours − bitter, sweet, spicy, salty and sour.
These flavours are subdivided into yin and yang. Sweet and spicy foods are considered to be yin, while bitter, sour and salty foods are considered to be yang. The five elements also correspond with the colours red, yellow, white, blue and green, which are all considered when choosing ingredients.
Other factors are also taken into account during preparation, such as the characteristics of the foods the smell, flavour and particularly the nutritional value. The Chinese scholar Yi Yin of the Shang Dynasty related the five main organs of the body (heart, spleen, lungs, kidneys and gallbladder) with the five flavours, since it was believed that each food has specific properties to maintain health and harmony in the body. According to ancient Chinese customs, food has always been linked with spiritual and physical well-being.
When it comes to sitting down and eating, just like in the West, the Chinese have their own customs. For example, the table is often round and has set places for each member of the family and for any guests. The guest of honour is usually seated facing the door and opposite the host, who sits with his back to the door. This allows the host to be closest to the kitchen so that he can bring the dishes to the table quickly.
The guest picks up the chopsticks first to begin eating, but it is the host who starts eating first. Chopsticks are generally made of wood, but there are also other materials like ivory and silver. Soup is not served as the first dish, as it is in the West, but as the last dish. The spoon traditionally used for soup is ceramic, with a flat back. Another notable difference is that dessert is not a Chinese custom, since some sweet foods, like fruit, are used within the main dishes.
Behind each plate of Chinese food is a whole culture of ancestral wisdom. While a Western guest wouldn’t be expected to know all the traditions associated with a Chinese meal, it does show respect to the host to be aware of some of them.
“Five elements” chicken
This dish has a careful balance of the five flavours of bitter, sweet, spicy, salty and sour.
4 chicken breasts
300g Chinese noodles
1 tsp sesame oil
3 tsp peanut butter
2 tsp cold green tea
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp vinegar
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 onion, diced
1 diced garlic clove
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4 cup coriander
Bring six cups of water to the boil in a saucepan.
Add the chicken and gently boil for 15 minutes or until tender.
Remove chicken (keeping the water) and allow to cool before cutting into slices.
Reboil the water and add the noodles.
Cook for 5-7 mins. Drain and mix with the sesame oil.
To make the sauce, mix the peanut butter, tea, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and salt.
Gently fry the onion and garlic in the peanut oil and add a teaspoon of sauce.
Mix the sliced chicken with onion, garlic and the remaining sauce.
Sprinkle with coriander and serve.
By Valeria Beroiz fromThe Epoch Times Argentina