Everything But the Table, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Chinese Food Posted by on Mar 31, 2010 in Culture, Uncategorized

China truly is a gourmand’s paradise filled with delicious food everywhere you go. The food itself can be as far ranging as delicacies popularized during the Ming Dynasty or it can be as simple and down to earth as a 1 块 stick of 串 (think kebab) found on any roadside corner. Whatever the type, Chinese food is made to satisfy the tastes of nearly 1.4 billion people, which is no small task. Either out of necessity or out of enjoyment, Chinese food has evolved into an amazing amalgum of century-refined delicacies, combining simple yet time-tested practices, flavors and ingredients that has kept Chinese bellies full(吃饱了chī bàole)for millennia.

The sheer variety of Chinese food is complimented by a diverse nation of 55 distinct minorities, plus the far ranging in tastes and cooking styles among Han populations (due to geography and livestock). Add in the influence and evolution of 中国菜 from dynasty to dynasty plus the introduction of spices and new ingredients by way of Southeast Asian (namely India) and Silk Road trade routes (Middle Eastern Influence) and it becomes clear that Chinese cuisine has developed into a melting pot of flavors (much like hot pot 火锅 huǒ guō).

But what really impresses me about 中国菜 is the ingenuity in creating a meal–and a delicious one at that. There is a phrase that I often hear roughly translated as: [Chinese people] eat everything with four legs except the table or “每个东西有四条腿的除了桌子以外都吃“. I’ve also heard it as “everything that flies except for a plane” but I believe that is a a modern colloquial play on words. Whichever you prefer, it’s true. Just take a stroll down a street food alley and you’ll see things you weren’t even sure were edible, let alone tasty enough to cause a line to form. Still, I find this phrase to be very telling of both Chinese food and culture.

Throughout Chinese history, especially during the 18th, 19th and mid 20th century, scarcity of food, loss of entire crop yields, drought and natural disasters plunged China into cyclical periods of famine (饥荒 jī huang). As a result, diets had to change as rice, wheat, and sorghum were planted as alternatives, while herdsman switched to different livestock. Yet to weather the famine, more had to be done with less, and soon all parts of plants and animals were incorporated into some kind of dish so long as they provided calories. During the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命), following agricultural breakdown, this use of every available iota of sustenance was what kept people alive and as a result, began influencing modern Chinese cuisine.

Thankfully, those days necessitating the stretching of less into more are gone, but the food sure isn’t. While you may not be in love with the idea of eating chicken’s feet, sea cucumber, squid on a stick, scorpions, duck blood pudding, yak hoof, or intestines, you will most assuredly find some Chinese dish that is deliciously out of this world and to your liking. Just remember, “the blandest dish is the one you didn’t taste”.

There is no way to include all Chinese food in just one post, this will be a recurring post, each of which will highlight a specific area of food, specific ethic style, or a specific locations to eat. If there are any types of food you are interested in, and would like me to mention, please feel free to post comments about the delicacy in question.

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. a:

    What are the favorite foods of young Chinese students? For example, in America, the favorite foods are pizza and hamburgers.

  2. 苏雅金:

    After living on the east coast of China for two years, this article brings a lot of memories of us eating out and those unique experiences. It also makes me excited to head back; thank you. And speaking of diversity, some nationals in our city there told us that there are more than 80 dialects within the Chinese language… whoa!

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