'Everyone eats and drinks', said Confucius,
'but few can appreciate taste.' Since taste is a very personal thing (just
as beauty is in the eye of the beholder), one's palate has to be developed
both physically and intellectually. Few people in the West, however, are
aware of that, for centuries, Chinese scholars discussed, analyzed and
wrote down their thoughts on food and drink, and that some of them
developed an extensive knowledge of the nature of food and the physiology
of taste based on Taoist and Confucianism teachings.
No one would disagree that the essence of
the art of cooking lies in the taste of the food. The Chinese believe the
most important elements that help us to appreciate the taste are color,
aroma, flavor and texture. All these elements have to
be well balanced to form a harmonious whole and this is the central
principle of culinary art.
Any wine connoisseur will immediately
recognize the parallel with wine tasting. First you examine the color,
then smell the bouquet, next you taste the flavor and, finally you judge
its body and aftertaste. This may sound very elementary to the expert, but
how many uneducated palates can truly appreciate the subtleties of all
these elements when they are combined in one single dish?
Aroma and flavor are very closely related to
each other, and they both form an essential element in the taste
experience. The agents a Chinese cook most often uses in order to bring
out the true aroma of a certain ingredient are: spring onions (scallions),
root ginger, garlic and wine - the four essential flavors.
Each region has its own classification of
flavors, but out of scores of subtle taste experiences, the Chinese have
isolated five primary flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and piquant.
They have also learned how to combine some of these flavors to create an
entirely new flavor - sweet and sour, for instance, make an interesting
pair, but not sweet and piquant nor sour and bitter.
This is another vital element in Chinese
cooking. A dish should have one or several textures: tenderness,
crispness, crunchiness, smoothness and softness. The selection of
different texture in one single dish is as important as the blending of
different flavors and the contrast of complementary colors.
Very few Chinese dishes consist of only one
single ingredient; as it offers no contrast it therefore lacks harmony.
This is the basic Taoist philosophy of yin and yang. So, with few
exceptions, all Chinese dishes consist of a main ingredient (be it pork,
beef, chicken or fish) with one or several supplementary ingredients
(usually vegetables) in order to give the dish the desired harmonious
balance of color, aroma, flavor and texture.
For instance, if the main ingredient is
pork, which is pale pink in color and tender in texture, one would use
either celery (pale green and crunchy) or green peppers (dark green and
crisp) as the supplementary ingredient; or one might choose mushrooms
(Chinese mushrooms are much darker in color with a soft texture) or bamboo
shoots (pale yellow and crunchy when fresh), or a combination of both to
give the dish an extra dimension.
This principle of harmonious contrast is
carried all the way through a meal. No Chinese would serve just one single
dish on his table, however humble his circumstances might be. The order in
which different dishes are served, either singly or in pairs (often in
fours), is strictly governed by the same principles; avoid monotony and do
not serve similar types of food one after another or together, but use
contrasts to create a perfect harmony.