Much of the countryside of eastern China is dominated by water. The great Yangtze river flows through the region from Sichuan in the west, through the famous gorges of Hubei where the steep mountainsides fall straight into the river, through the great flat plain where a vast patchwork of paddy fields and ponds contains nothing to distract the eye, and finally to the delta at the east coast, with its network of waterways. The people here travel between the villages in flat-bottomed punts, for there are more waterways than roads or bridges. From the Yangtze delta the Grand Canal of China, started in the sixth century, runs northwards towards Tianjin, its route strewn with lakes. Along its banks can be seen occasional fields of mulberry bushes, grown to feed the silkworms. Everywhere the water is rich with fish.
Subtropical Jiangxi, where sugar-cane grows in the humid valleys, lies to the south of the Yangtze, while to the east is Zhejiang, with nearly 300 frost-free days per year. Zhejiang is famous for its oranges and the upholstered landscape of its tea gardens in the foothills. In the more humid south of Zhejiang lies a mountainous, sparsely populated area, still rich in game and other natural resources. The northern side of the Yangtze plain has a harsher climate; in the north of Anhui, where porous soils make it impossible to grow rice, the main crops are sweet potatoes and wheat. The farmers store the grain in round, thatched straw bins - a distinctive feature in the northern Anhui villages.
The Yangtze plain has been populated and farmed for two thousand years, and a thousand years ago the capital of China was at Hang-zhou, just south of modern Shanghai. It was from the produce of this land that much of the classical cooking of China was created. Even after the court moved north in the fifteenth century there were sufficient rich devotees in such cities as Suzhou to continue to encourage the preparation and cooking of good food. So it is that over the centuries the domestic tradition of the region has gained skills and dishes from the haute cuisine. Even in the present-day cookery books, addressed to quite a different class of diner, echoes of those culinary practices remain - in the careful preparation and fine slicing of the foods, in the combinations of ingredients, in the attention paid to the food's elaborate presentation, in the use of stocks, the handling of slow cooking and in the taste for sugar.
Many famous products have been developed alongside the cooking skills, such as Shaoxing rice wine, the most highly esteemed of rice wines. This appears in such regional specialities as drunken chicken and drunken prawns. Zhenjiang vinegar, a dark, sharp vinegar made from rice and reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce, was once hawked about the streets and used as a dipping sauce for crabs and fish. Yangzhou produces knife-cut wheat-flour noodles, wide and long and eaten in soup. There is a vast range of small, delicate pastries from Shanghai, both sweet and savory, some of them no more than a tiny mouthful in the thinnest pastry skin. In Zhejiang there is a regional ham not dissimilar to English smoked bacon.
Fish in some form, often fried, is almost invariably eaten during an eastern meal. The fact that both rice and wheat are grown in the area accounts for the impartiality with which an eastern meal may include either rice or noodles. Around Shanghai large areas of land are devoted to vegetable farming, and have been for about the last 1300 years.
The most striking feature in eastern cooking to a stranger is the quantities of sugar that are included in both vegetable and meat cooking - up to 15 ml (1 tablespoon) sugar for 125 g (5 oz) meat. Sugar combined with a dark soy sauce creates perhaps the most fundamental eastern flavor. Another difference between southern and eastern cooking is in the quantities of oil used for shallow frying. In the east it is normal to have almost double the amount of oil used in the south; either it falls to the bottom of the plate and is not eaten, or, more typically, it is left in the pan to be used for cooking another vegetable dish.
In the preparation of minced-meat dishes the eastern cook is able to demonstrate his delight in the small and exquisite. In the south similar meat preparations are used as stuffings for vegetables, bean-curd or egg skins; in the east they are fashioned on their own into tiny meatballs that are deep-fried and served as snacks to go with wine, or coated in glutinous rice and steamed as pearly balls, or, in a famous Zhenjiang dish, lion's head pot, shaped into rissoles and cooked slowly with Chinese leaves. Not only is pork minced but also chicken, fish and prawns, and all are made into different kinds of meatballs and cakes, often elaborately decorated as in the recipe for silk meatballs, a traditional wedding-feast dish.
It is said to have been the custom for young village girls to throw balls of silk to the eligible bachelors: whoever caught the ball would marry the thrower. These meatballs are an image of that custom. However, though the dish is a good one, we have grave doubts about the story; Chinese marriages in the past were carefully arranged affairs in which the class of the families concerned and the horoscopes of the couple were the decisive factors.
Chinese Regional Cookery - Margaret Leeming & May Huang Man-hui
Here are a few Chinese Eastern Cooking Recipes:
Ham with Lotus Seeds in Honey Sauce
Fried Eight Piece Chicken
Soy Braised Cod or Halibut Steak
Stir Fried Squid with Broccoli
Spareribs in Sweet and Sour Sauce
Stir Fried Mixed Vegetables
Dung Po Meat
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