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Chinese Chopsticks

Chinese are famous for their cuisine. Chinese are the ultimate gourmet. Especially in south China, they would say they'd eat everything that has four legs besides the dinner table, everything that has two wings besides a plane. Many of the dishes served in China may really surprise newcomers. And many of these dishes are so called medicinal dishes believed to have extraordinary nutritional value, including Shark Fin, Swallow Nest.

    Snake soup is among the most treasured soups in China. Then there are also snake gall and blood mixed in liquor which supposedly will brighten your eyes. Some "westernized" Chinese would suggest that if Adam and Eve had been Chinese we humans would still be in the Garden of Eden as they would have eaten the snake.

 Cooking has occupied a lofty position in Chinese culture throughout history. The great Chinese philosopher Lao Zi once said of the art, "Governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish."

        Chinese food can be roughly divided into Northern and Southern styles of cooking. In general, Northern dishes are relatively oily and the use of vinegar and garlic tends to be quite popular. Wheat, processed into pasta, also plays an important role in Northern cooking; noodles, ravioli like dumplings, steamed, stuffed buns, fried meat dumplings, and steamed bread are just a few of the many flour based treats enjoyed in the North of China. The best known regional variations of Northern Chinese cuisine include those of Beijing, Tianjin, and Shandong.

        Representative of Southern cooking styles are Szechwan and Hunan cuisine, famous for their liberal use of chili peppers.

        Within the whole of Southern cooking, the Jiangsu and Zhejiang regions emphasize freshness and tenderness, while Guangdong cuisine tends to be somewhat sweet and always full of variety. Rice and its byproducts, including noodles, cakes, and congee form the typical foundation for Southern dishes.

        Shanghai style (Shanghai cai) tends to be sort of sweet and features lots of seafood. Shanghai restaurants have been quite popular for some years now. Guangdong eaters have a reputation for eating "everything with four or more legs except for the table, and everything that has wings except for airplanes." All of the really funky dishes you hear about like live monkey brains and raw rat babies are Guangdong (Cantonese) style dishes (yue cai). However, there are lots of excellent, non-scary Guangdong dishes, and the seafood is especially tasty. Northeastern dishes (dongbei cai) are usually composed of large quantities of meat in thick, fairly salty sauces. Potatoes also feature heavily in dongbei cai. This is a great style of food to have in winter. Other famous schools of Chinese food include Huaiyang and Shanxi styles. There are also a number of regional minority cuisine.

        In Chinese cooking, color, aroma and flavor share equal importance in the preparation of every dish. Normally, any one entree will combine three to five colors, selected from ingredients that are light green, dark green, red, yellow, white, black, or caramel colored. Usually, a meat and vegetable dish is prepared from one main ingredient and two to three secondary ingredients of contrasting colors. They are then cooked appropriately, incorporating the proper seasonings and sauce to create an aesthetically attractive dish.

        A dish with a fragrant aroma will most certainly whet the appetite. Ingredients that contribute to a mouthwatering aroma are scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, and chili peppers. Other include wine, star anise, stick cinnamon, pepper, sesame oil, and dried Chinese black mushrooms. Of utmost importance in cooking any dish is preserving the fresh, natural flavor of its ingredients, and removing any undesirable fishy or gamey odors. In Western cooking, lemon is often used to remove fishy flavors; in Chinese cooking, scallions and ginger serve a similar function. Soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and other seasonings add richness to a dish without covering up the natural flavor of the ingredients. A well prepared Chinese dish should taste rich to those who like strong flavors, but not over spiced to those who seek a milder taste. It should seem sweet to anyone who has a sweet tooth, and hot to those who like a piquant flavor. A dish that is all of these things to all of these people is a truly successful dish.

        Color, aroma, and flavor are not the only principles to be followed in Chinese cooking; nutrition is also an important concern.

        The principle of the harmonization of foods can be traced back to the Shang dynasty scholar Yi Yin. He relates the five flavors of sweet, sour bitter, piquant, and salty to the nutritional needs of the five major organ systems of the body (the heart, liver, spleen/pancreas, lungs, and kidneys), and stresses their role in maintaining good physical health.

        In fact, many of the plants used in Chinese cooking, such as scallions, fresh ginger root, garlic, dried lily buds, tree fungus, etc. have properties of preventing and alleviating various illnesses.

        The Chinese have a traditional belief in the medicinal value of food and that food and medicine share the same origin. This view could be considered a forerunner of nutritional science in China. Notable in this theory is the concept that correct proportion of meat to vegetable ingredients should be maintained; one third of meat based dishes should be vegetable ingredients and one third of vegetable dishes should be meat. In preparing soups, the quantity of water used should total seven-tenths the volume of the serving bowl. In short, the correct ingredient proportions must be adhered to in the preparation of each dish or soup in order to ensure full nutritional value.

        The Chinese have a number of rules and customs associated with eating. For example, meals must be taken while seated; there is a set order of who may be seated first among men, women, old and young; and the main courses must be eaten with chopsticks, and soup with a spoon. Chinese banquets are arranged on a per table basis with each table usually seating ten to twelve persons.

        A typical banquet consists of four appetizer dishes, such as cold cut platters or hot hors d'oeuvres; six to eight main courses; then one savory snack type dish and a dessert. The methods of preparation include stir frying, stewing, steaming, deep frying, flash frying, pan frying, and so forth. A dish may be savory, sweet, tart or piquant. The main colors of a dish may include red, yellow, green, white and caramel color. Food garnishes, such as cut or sculptured tomatoes, Chinese white radishes, cucumbers, and so forth, may be used to add to the visual appeal of a dish. All of these elements contribute to making Chinese food a true feast for the eyes and nose as well as the taste buds.

        With over 5000 years' history, Chinese have developed a high level of food preparing skill. In fact, Chinese culture considers cooking an art while all other philosophies consider the preparation of food a craft. Chinese food culture reflects two dominant Chinese philosophies: Confucianism and Taoism and has been developed and refined over many centuries since the great classical age of China, the Zhou Dynasty 1122-249 B.C. Ancient Chinese people have explored the world of plants, roots, herbs, fungus and seeds to find life giving elements as well as medicinal value. Therefore, unlike the majority of eastern cuisine, most Chinese dishes are low calorie and low fat. You may find answers to today's diet and health problems within Chinese food.

When the Chinese began to use chopsticks as an eating instrument is anybody's guess. They were first mentioned in writing in Liji (The Book of rites), a work compiled some 2,000 years ago, but certainly they had their initial form in the twigs which the primitive Chinese must have used to pick up a roast after they began to use fire. The twigs then evolved into the wooden, tapering sticks as we know them today.
   Chopsticks may be made of any of several materials: bamboo, wood, gold, siler, ivory, pewter, and plastics. In cross-section, they may be either round or square. Some of them are engraved with coloured pictures or calligraphy for decoration. Ordinary chopsticks used in Chinese homes are of wood or bamboo, those for banquets are often ivory, whereas gold ones belonged only to the royalty and aristocracy.

    Chopsticks are the main table utensils in China. Chinese children starts with a spoon but will adapt to chopsticks as early as when he just turns one. As a gift chopsticks symbolize straightforwardness, because of its shape. Chinese chopsticks don't have pointed tip, unlike the Japanese style that is refined to pick out the bones for their main diet, fish. Chinese chopsticks are mostly of bamboo, but today there are more and more wooden ones and plastic ones.

    Foreigners are not expected to use chopsticks proficiently, but if they do, they will give a mighty impression. Therefore before you go to China, go to the local Chinese restaurant, if not to find authentic Chinese food, at least you can practice the use of chopsticks. If in your first meal in China you don't have to use chopsticks, then if you still can't handle the two sticks to pick up a big shrimp in your tenth meal, you show your incompetence in learning and the willingness to learn.

Chopsticks, used to lift food to the mouth, are basic to Chinese table settings. The historical record shows that the Chinese have been using chopsticks since the eighteenth century B.C. In 1974, a pair of chopsticks dating back two thousand years was unearthed in an ancient tomb in South China.

Early chopsticks were much longer than modern ones, which measure about 10 inches(25cm) long, because the bronze tripods, quadripods, and pottery vessels used for foods then were deeper and had wider rims than food containers today.

  Today, chopsticks are usually made of wood or bamboo. Sometimes they are made of ivory or silver. They can be plain, or lacquered and painted with floral or empresses in feudal times used chopsticks made exclusively for them. A pair of these chopsticks, painted with the royal symbols of the coiling dragon and flying phoenix took a skilled craftsman a month to make.

The most sought-after chopsticks nowadays are plain bamboo ones, painted with views of the scenic West Lake, from Tianzhu, near Hangzhou, lacquered ones from Fujian, and ebony ones made of the black, hard wood found in Guangxi Province. The latter are known for their durability as well as their beauty-they will not warp, even after long use.

  Chinese children learn to use chopsticks at a very early age and can manipulate them quite easily by the time they are five or six.

To learn to use chopsticks, perch them between the thumb, first, middle, and ring fingers so they lie parallel to each other. The lower chopstick rests on the inside tip of the ring finger, which keeps it stationary, while the thumb, first, and middle fingers maneuver the upper chopstick in a pincer movement to pick up the food. Dexterity comes with lengthy practice-if you can pick up a pea and carry it to your mouth, you can call yourself an expert with chopsticks.

   Individual pairs of chopsticks are placed neatly at the right side of the plate of bowl. At a right angle to the edge of the table. They should not stick out over the table edge because they might fall the the floor. Chinese table settings also often include a second pair of chopsticks, called common chopsticks, which are used by the diners to transfer food from the serving dishes to their own plates or bowls. These chopsticks are placed in front of the diners' plates and parallel to the table edge. After a meal, chopsticks should be left neatly on the table. It is considered bad manners to toss one's chopsticks carelessly on the table after dining.

 Incidentally, using chopsticks has a great deal in common with wielding a brush to write Chinese characters. Those who write a good hand, some scholars have observed, are invariably those who handle the chopsticks correctly. One holds the writing brush basically in the same way as one would the moving chopsticks and, while writing, one must achieve a coordination in the movement of the shoulder, arm, wrist and fingers in order to write well.

        Westerners are often impressed with the cleverness of the Chinese hand that makes embroideries and clay sculptures with such consummate skill. Could not this also be attributed, at least partly, to the constant use of chopsticks?