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Also known as Chiuchow cuisine, or Chaoshan cuisine, originated from Chaoshan Plain about a thousand years ago; one of the four subcategories of Cantonese cuisine, or Yue cuisine.
The Chaozhou Peninsula covers an area of 3,600 square kilometers in the eastern-most part of the Guangdong Province of China; and has a total of 140 kilometers of coastline; featuring humid subtropical climate, characterized by relatively high temperatures and evenly distributed precipitation throughout the year.
The Chaozhou territory has an extensive water network: the Han River flows throughout the city, while the Huanggang River flows Southward throughout the Raoping County of Chaozhao, emptying into the South China Sea. These two main rivers provide abundant water for the Peninsula, supporting agriculture. Chaozhou is mountainous, hilly areas make up two third of the total land area. The highest peak in the area is the Wusong Mount, 1498 meters above sea level.
Chinese cuisine generally follows the principle of living on what the locality provides, especially back in the days when transportation was underdeveloped. Territory and climate determine the natural resources, which in turns controls the range of ingredients for a cuisine.
The humid subtropical climate, lengthy coastline, extensive river networks, and mountainous landforms ̶ the advantageous geographical location grants the Chaozhou region with a rich natural resources from both the sea and mountains, which laid the foundation of the Chaozhou cuisine with a wide heterogeneous dishes in comparison to other Chinese cuisines. Diverse food choices allow Chaozhounese to pick ingredients in the season, shaping the food culture of Chaozhou cuisine with an explicit, deeply-rooted obsession with freshness.
Chaozhounese especially took advantageous of the Han River, or more commonly referred as ‘the Mother River’ by the locals ̶ the mouthwatering prawns, oysters, crabs, jellyfish, eels and all kinds of fish are common catches; while the fertile river banks are optimal for the cultivation of rice, sweet potatoes and all kinds of vegetables, which ultimately forged the well-known seafood and vegetarian dishes of the Chaozhou cuisine. Generally, Chaozhou banquets contains 10 main dishes, whereas seafood accounts for 70%, leading to the saying ‘not a Chaozhou banquet without seafood’.
Chinese want the freshest of the fresh, thus dishes are always made ‘from scratch’. Different from North America, where food is packaged in plastic wraps stored in freezers; Chinese do grocery almost every early morning at their local wet markets that sell dead and live animals out in the open, butchers would kill the poultry, fish, reptiles right in front of you, hence the freshness of the ingredients are being guaranteed.
Chaozhou cuisine tend to be mild and delicate ̶ in an effort to preserve the natural umami of ingredients, steaming, poaching, simmering and braising are the principal cooking methods by which oil is only used in relatively small quantities. Other cooking methods, such as stir-frying, baking and sautéing play a more significant role in other Chinese cuisine, but Chaozhou. Monosodium glutamate (abbreviated, MSG) is a chemical found naturally in seafoods, it interacts with our taste buds giving food the taste of umami, or taste of ‘freshness’. MSG does not usually decompose during normal cooking, but at high temperatures, explaining the mild preparation methods for Chaozhou banquet due to oil’s high boiling point.
The strong emphasis of Chaozhou banquets on the seasonality and freshness of food choice have led the flavor principles to be less heavy-handed on spices, but more on the absolute freshness of ingredients. Instead of flavouring purposes, spices in Chaozhou cuisine are used for the purpose of elimination of the seafood stench, and accentuation of the original taste of ingredients; and are usually being used in small quantities relative to other Chinese cuisines, e.g. Sichuan and Hunan cuisines in order to not cover up the food’s natural taste. The most common spices used are ginger, garlic and scallions, as simple as that.
Chaozhou banquet has a special feature named ‘One dish, one sauce’, by which dipping sauces are always being served in a set combination with the main dish to enhance the umami of food, such as tangerine marmalade for steamed lobsters, and Puning bean paste for cold Grey Mullet. Without the dipping sauce, Chaozhounese would consider the dish as ‘in-complete’. To dip or not to dip; dipping how much piquant sauces are all personal preferences, each eater has their own right to season their food is another feature marking Chaozhou cuisine.
The table manners for all Chinese cuisines are more or less similar. There is a special emphasis on the guest of honour – seating arrangements are based on seniority, the guest of honor is always seated in the centre farthest from the entrance, and so on. The least prominent seats are usually the youngest generation, whilst they must remain seated until the guest of honor is done eating and has departed from the table. Also, it is considered rude if someone started eating before the guest of honor begins.
Chopsticks are the main eating utensils for the Chinese, treat chopsticks as the extension of your fingers, do not use them to point at people or to bang your chopsticks. Chinese eat communally and share their dishes; therefore one should never use the chopsticks to search in one dish for the something in particular because Chinese regard this extremely poor manner as ‘grave-digging’.
Chaozhou banquet has a special post-meal ritual, named Gongfu tea ceremony, involving the ritual preparation and presentation of Chinese tea. It originated from the Song Dynasty, and remained a significant part of social etiquette in Chaozhou. Gongfu tea is almost like the ‘expresso’ of Chinese tea: the lingering aftertaste marks Gongfu tea even though it tastes bitter first drinking it.
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