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Chinese Western Cooking - Szechuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Hunan


Map of China

'The road to Sichuan is more difficult than the road to heaven', wrote an eighth-century poet. Today Sichuan is no longer inaccessible. Railways run from the north and south of China into Sichuan, while on the Yangtze there is continuous river traffic moving east and west. About half of the province consists of a huge, densely populated, fertile basin guarded by the narrow deep gorges of the Yangtze to the east and by towering mountains to the north and west.

This saucer of land has a sub-tropical climate and an eleven-month growing season; it is so often blanketed by damp clouds that the dogs of Sichuan are said to bark when they see the sun. The countryside, broken by small hills, is cut into squares, each an irrigated paddy field. Rice is grown during the summer, and after it has been harvested in the late autumn wheat is planted in its place to be harvested six months later. Here there is enough grain for everyone, and no evidence of potatoes. The government, which controls all the supplies of grain in China, uses the surplus to help feed the big cities further east.

On the lower slopes of the hills there are citrus-fruit orchards (tangerines in particular) and bamboo groves in abundance, while on the higher forested mountainsides the people collect various kinds of edible fungi, such as ‘muer’ (wood-ears) and silver fungi. The western half of Sichuan is very mountainous and sparsely populated. The people there, mainly of Tibetan origin, keep sheep, cows and horses.

Lying to the south of Sichuan and bordered by the high mountain ranges that form China's frontier with India and Burma is Yunnan, a high plateau land cut by deep, unnavigable river valleys and studded with mist-shrouded mountain peaks. Most of the people, and by Chinese standards there are very few, are herdsmen, not cultivators. There is a dairy industry in the north-west producing dried milk, and, uniquely for China, curd cheese and a form of yoghurt. ‘Puer’ tea comes from tea gardens lying on the more accessible slopes of the mountains in the south, and Yunnan is also famous for its sweet-cured bacon. Guizhou to the east of Yunnan also has little flat land, and where there are irrigated fields the narrow strips cling to the hillsides like a crazy knitting pattern. Here there are peoples of many races, including Moslems and Miao; often they are herdsmen keeping sheep, goats and horses.

Hunan (birthplace of Chairman Mao) is the province where the south meets the west. Half of the land is an irrigated plain crowded with people. It is another area in China where there is grain to spare. The people here are said to have big appetites. They have large rice bowls, and eat with chopsticks said to be so long that it is easier to feed another man than oneself. They like to accompany their food with a dipping sauce of crushed garlic and chilis.

The most striking feature of western cooking is the stunning quantities of chillis employed. There are several 'explanations' for this: one is that the fire will stimulate the palate to distinguish the flavors beneath; another is that the heat induces perspiration and so helps people to keep cool; and another, from the cynics, is that chilli hides the taste of putrid meat. Whatever the reasons for their use, the origin of chillis in the region is itself a mystery. Chillis were originally a South American plant, but it is not really conceivable that they arrived with potatoes and maize during the seventeenth century; they are not mentioned in the literature, nor do they appear to have traveled from east to west across China. It has been sug¬gested that chillis were brought by sailors in prehistoric times across the Pacific Ocean, where they were taken up by a Malaysian people who brought them to what is now western China by way of India; when the Chinese arrived there about two thousand years ago chillis were already part of the indigenous people's diet, and the Chinese adopted them. This cannot be proved, but it is certainly true that the people in the west and south-west of China today eat chilis in great quantities; a number of recipes at the beginning of this chapter illustrate this clearly. (In the north China plain, people tend to keep a string of dried chilis to hand, hanging from the ears of their house.)

The texture of different ingredients in a dish is important to western cooking and care is taken to produce ‘chewy’ and ‘crunchy’ results as required. Unlike dishes in eastern China many western dishes are fried with only the minimum of sauce to convey the seasonings: the sauce is not itself an important feature in the dish. The resulting dishes are drier. Much more reminiscent of southern regional cuisine; it is quite usual to find garlic, chilis, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce in one dish. Such ensembles are call ‘fish fragrant’ and are peculiar to western cooking.

Chinese Regional Cookery - Margaret Leeming & May Huang Man-hui

Here are a few Chinese Eastern Cooking Recipes:
Szechuan Garlic Pork
Stir Fried Pork with Noodles
Duck with Almonds
Chicken with Hot Oil Sauce
Scallop Fu-Yung
Dry-Cooked Green Beans
Duck with Almonds
Beef Steak with Snow Peas
Dry-Cooked Bamboo Shoots
Hot Mapo Tofu

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Last Modified: 11/28/11.