Chinese Food Facts


The Chinese often joked of themselves that they "will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything that flies except a kite!"  Chinese food in China is of course quite different to that found in restaurants in Australia.  In fact Chinese food found in one province of China can be very different to that found in another.  Generally Chinese food has been divided into 8 cuisines, the most well know being Cantonese, Sichuan, Huaiyang and Northern Cuisine.  To the Chinese food has its own language, symbolism, medicinal qualities and cultural significance.  Below are some facts on Chinese food which we hope you will find of interest.  Happy eating!


The Meaning of Common Chinese Food Terms 

  • Dim Sum literally meaning "to touch your heart".  Dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and other goodies such as the famous egg custard tarts. They are similar to hors d'oeuvres, the hot and cold delicacies served at French restaurants.

  • Yum Cha "drink tea" refers to another Cantonese custom, drinking tea. Teahouses began to appear along the Silk Road to service travellers. Tea was originally thought to be bad for digestion and was not served with food.  However over time it was seen as an aid to digestion and tea house proprietors began adding a variety of snacks.  The tradition of dim sum was born.

  •  Chopsticks are called called kuai-zi which translates as "quick little fellows".

  • The Chinese have been using chopsticks for five thousand years. They probably originated from using twigs to stir pots of food.  As the population grew wood became scarce and people began chopping food into small pieces so it would cook more quickly. These morsels could be eaten without knifes and so the twigs gradually turned into chopsticks.  Confucius reinforced this practice between 551 to 479 B.C. as he believed that knives were too violent for use at the table.

Is this Really Chinese Food? 

  • The dish chop-suey does not come from China. It is American and was created by Chinese immigrants in California.

  • Frankfurter sausages were actually first created in China not Germany!

  • The Fortune Cookie is most probably American. A story goes that a gentleman called George Jung created the fortune cookie in Los Angeles in 1916. Unable to find moon cakes for the Moon Festival, biscuits with messages inside were also consumed by Chinese railroad workers in America in the mid 1800's.  Clearly the inspiration for both was quintessentially Chinese.

  • Sauerkraut is not German, it is in fact Chinese and has been eaten in China for over 2000 years.

  • Spaghetti isn't Italian as the noodle was introduced to Italy by Marco Polo on his return from China in 1295.

  • Ice Cream is also Chinese.  Marco Polo returned to Italy in 1295 and brought back a recipe for a desert called "Milk Ice." However, Europeans substituted cream for the milk, and made "Ice Cream."


The Language of Food 

  • Noodles are often served at birthdays as the lengthy strands are said to represent long life.

  • Steamed buns coloured to look like peaches symbolise longevity and are also served at birthdays.

  • Oranges and Tangerines ensure sweetness of life.

  • Golden coloured food or food that Phonetically rhymes with Gold is deemed good for prosperity. (eg: "orange" has the same sound as the word gold in Cantonese)

  • Banquet tables and cakes are always round and this signifies harmony and perfection. 

  • Spring rolls represent the shape of early Chinese currency.

  • Ducks are symbols of fidelity and joy.

  • Poultry with their heads still on symbolise the Phoenix rising from the ashes to be reborn.  Of course when reborn it will need its head!

  • Fish are equated with prosperity, luck, wealth and regeneration or fertility.

  • Mushrooms have a blossoming nature and shape and are therefore equated with prosperity.
    Bamboo shoots mean good fortune as they have a golden hue and are fast growing.
    Lotus seeds are symbolic of fertility.
    Green vegetables represent plenty and the green of a prosperous countryside.
    Rice has many grains and is therefore symbolic of fertility.

  • On the wedding day, it is also customary to serve Chinese dates, peanuts, longan and chestnuts together as wish that the couple will soon have a baby in accord with the Chinese proclamation.

  • When Northern Chinese travel the return home is greeted with noodles and the departure involves a farewell is offered with dumplings.

  • Moon Cakes are a traditional baked pastry filled with lotus seed paste and a salted egg yolk in the centre.  They are consumed during the annual Moon Festival and recall a time when leaders of a rebellion against the Mongols baked messages into the moon cakes outlining the plans for rebellion.

  • Zong zi, or fragrant sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, are served at the Dragon Boat Festival.  This tradition began when a loved but disgraced official drowned himself.  To honour his memory the townspeople threw rice into the water so that the fish would not eat his body.

  • No salt or pepper are offered during a Chinese meal as to season your food after the cook has spent hours preparing it, is a gross insult.


Medicinal Foods

Chinese medicinal cuisine was in use as long ago as the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220). There is a wide choice of foods that are used in many different ways to promote health and well-being. It is estimated that there are more than 600 different kinds of resource ranging from cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats and marine products.  Some Chinese restaurants in Adelaide offer this type of cuisine.  Some examples of medicinal dishes are:

  • Broiled sheep's heart with rose or braised mutton with angelica will help to rebuild a healthy constitution.

  • Mung bean soup guards against heat stroke in summer.

  • Lotus seeds, lily, yam, chestnuts, and pears can strengthen resistance to cold in winter

  • A soup of pumpkin and almond can help lose weight.

  • A soup of angelica and carp can add beauty.

  • Ginseng congee can give more strength.

  • Fried potatoes with vinegar can ease hypertension

  • Carp soup with tuckahoe strengthens the blood and reduces swelling.


Chinese Tea Rituals

The SA Migration Museum has produced a terrific little brochure explaining the tea rituals of various cultures - including the Chinese.  Below is the ritual for making Chinese Green Tea, but included at the following link is also great recipe for "Bubble Tea" that you may wish to try.  If you are half of the tea-nut that I am you will find this very interesting to read over a good cuppa!