Chinese Cuisine originated from the various regions of China and has become widespread in many other parts of the world — from Asia to the Americas, Australia, Western Europe and Southern Africa. In recent years, connoisseurs of Chinese cuisine have also sprouted in Eastern Europe and South Asia.
Regional cultural differences vary greatly amongst the different regions of China, giving rise to the different styles of food. There are eight main regional cuisines, or Eight Great Traditions: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. Among them, Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, and Huaiyang cuisine (a major style and even viewed as the representation of the entire Jiangsu cuisine) are often considered as the standouts of Chinese cuisine and due to their influence are proclaimed as the Four Great Traditions. Occasionally, Beijing cuisine and Shanghai cuisine are also cited along with the aforementioned eight regional styles as the Ten Great Traditions. There are also featured Buddhist and Muslim sub-cuisines within the greater Chinese cuisine, with an emphasis on vegetarian and halal-based diets respectively.
In most dishes in Chinese cuisine, food is prepared in bite-sized pieces, ready for direct picking up and eating. Traditionally, Chinese culture considered using knives and forks at the table barbaric due to fact that these implements are regarded as weapons. It was also considered ungracious to have guests work at cutting their own food. Fish are usually cooked and served whole (or chunked), with diners directly pulling pieces from the fish with chopsticks to eat, unlike in some other cuisines where they are first filleted. This is because it is desired for fish to be served as fresh as possible, and more importantly, whole fish culturally signifies wholeness of things as it has a proper beginning (head) with an end (tail). It is common in many restaurant settings for the server to use a pair of spoons to divide the fish into servings at the table. Chicken is another meat popular in Chinese meals. While the chicken is cut into pieces, and similar to serving fish every single piece of the chicken is served including gizzards and head in order to signify completeness.
In a Chinese meal, each individual diner is given his or her own bowl of rice while the accompanying dishes are served in communal plates (or bowls) that are shared by everyone sitting at the table. In the Chinese meal, each diner picks food out of the communal plates on a bite-by-bite basis with their chopsticks. This is in contrast to western meals where it is customary to dole out individual servings of the dishes at the beginning of the meal. Many non-Chinese are uncomfortable with allowing a person's individual utensils (which might have traces of saliva) to touch the communal plates; for this hygienic reason, additional serving spoons or chopsticks may be made available. In areas with increased Western influence, such as Hong Kong, diners are provided individually with a heavy metal spoon for this purpose. The food selected is often eaten together with some rice either in one bite or in alternation.
Pork is generally preferred over beef in Chinese cuisine due to economic, religious, and aesthetic reasons; the pig is easy to feed and is not used for labour, and is so closely tied with the idea of domesticity that the character for "home" depicts a pig under a roof. The colour of the meat and the fat of pork are regarded as more appetizing, while the taste and smell are described as sweeter and cleaner. It is also considered easier to digest. Religiously, certain religions such as Buddhism prevent the consumption of beef and beef is not allowed to cook in the homes of religious Buddhists. However, beef is more popular in the west of the country, influenced by Islam, and also in the Sichuan region and parts of the south, where cattle are used for hauling in mining and are plentiful. Lamb is more popular in the far north of the country.
Vegetarianism is not uncommon or unusual in China, though, as is the case in the West, it is only practiced by a relatively small proportion of the population. Most Chinese vegetarians are Buddhists, following the Buddhist teachings about minimizing suffering. Chinese vegetarian dishes often contain large varieties of vegetables (e.g. bai cai, shiitake mushroom, sprouts, corn) and some imitation meat. Such imitation meat is created mostly with soy protein and/or wheat gluten to imitate the texture, taste, and appearance of duck, chicken, or pork. Imitation seafood items, made from other vegetable substances such as konjac, are also available.
Contemporary Health Trends
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates for 2001-2003, 12% of the population of the People’s Republic of China was undernourished. The number of undernourished people in the country has fallen from 386.6 million in 1969-1971 to 150.0 million in 2001-2003.
Undernourishment is a problem mainly in the central and western part of the country, while "unbalanced nutrition" is a problem in developed coastal and urban areas. Decades of food shortages and rationing ended in the 1980s. A study in 2004 showed that fat intake among urban dwellers had grown to 38.4 percent, beyond the 30 per cent limit set by the World Health Organization. Excessive consumption of fats and animal protein has made chronic diseases more prevalent. As of 2008, 22.8 percent of the population was overweight and 18.8 percent had high blood pressure. The number of diabetes cases in China is the highest in the world. In 1959, the incidence of high blood pressure was only 5.9 percent.
A typical Chinese peasant before industrialization would have eaten meat rarely and most meals would have consisted of rice accompanied with green vegetables, with protein coming from foods like peanuts. Fats and sugar were luxuries not eaten on a regular basis by most of the population. With increasing wealth, Chinese diets have become richer with more meats, fats, and sugar being consumed.
Health advocates put some of the blame on the increased popularity of Western foods, especially fast food, and other culinary products and habits. Many Western, especially American, fast food chains have appeared in China, and are highly successful economically. These include McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
An extensive epidemiological study called the China Project is being conducted to observe the relationship of disease patterns to diet, particularly the move from the traditional Chinese diet to one which incorporates more rich Western-style foods. Controversially, Professor T. Colin Campbell has implicated the increased consumption of animal protein in particular as having a strong correlation with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases that, while common in Western countries, were considered rare in China. He suggests that even a small increase in the consumption of animal protein can dramatically raise the risk of the aforementioned diseases.
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