Will the real Chinese food please stand up? Of all the world's great cuisines, it seems to be the most myth-laden and difficult to get to grips with, at least for outsiders. Variously misrepresented as exclusively deep-fried, heavily laced with monosodium glutamate or full of scary bits of mystery meat, it is no wonder that its still unfamiliar when so much Chinese food available internationally bears little resemblance to the real deal. And when it comes to recreating Chinese dishes at home, many cooks find themselves rather lost, producing food that might taste good but somehow never quite right. While a few column inches in a newspaper cannot dispel all this confusion, the arrival of the Chinese New Year is still a good time to dip into the variety of Chinese cuisine, and to pick up some useful tips for preparing it at home. Given that China's borders range from Vietnam to Siberia, and from Afghanistan to Korea, it's hardly surprising that its food resists simple categorisation. On top of eight acknowledged great regional food traditions, every province and city has its own additional, markedly different cooking style, while the cuisine's relative complexity runs from simple peasant fare to the rarefied, intricate cooking developed at the Beijing imperial court.
Blurring the picture even further is the proliferation of all sorts of local "Chinese" cuisines around the world. These are not necessarily bad - the differences between, say, the "Chindian" food that has long been made in Kolkata, and "Chifa", a Peruvian hybrid, are in themselves quite fascinating - but it makes the tracking down the genuine article rather trickier. And then there are the myths.
It is often assumed that Chinese food is invariably cooked quickly in a wok and that it always comes with rice or noodles, or that it's pumped full of monosodium glutamate and colouring. And while many people know perfectly well that the standard Chinese food available near them is nothing like the real thing, they often worry that authentic Chinese food involves unusual animals and body parts they'd normally avoid.
None of this is strictly true - many Chinese regional cuisines specialise in cooking food slowly into flaky tenderness, while steamed breads and grains like millet often replace rice and noodles. And although it is true that the country does enjoy some arcane delicacies, these are generally reserved for special occasions and banquets, not everyday fare. Nonetheless, many Chinese see such squeamishness as prim and wasteful, although they tend to have an equivalent aversion to European-style dairy products such as blue cheese.
It is correct, though, that the savoury, mouth-coating umami flavours created by natural glutamates are as important in Chinese as in Japanese food, but it is only in the cheapest, most corner-cutting kitchens that these are created by adding MSG. A useful key to China's wide-ranging cuisines is learning something about the country's eight great traditions. By far the best known of these internationally is the Cantonese style, mainly because so many Chinese emigrants hail originally from its southern region of Guangdong.
Cantonese restaurants are easy to distinguish because of the crisp roasted ducks and chickens coated in red-golden sauce often seen hanging in their windows - this is the hugely popular speciality known as siu mei, or spit-roasted Cantonese barbecue. Lightly spiced and focused mainly on stir-frying and steaming, the Guangdong region's cuisine is also where dim sum (steamed and fried dumplings) originated. While it is popular throughout China (and delicious), to suggest that Cantonese cooking typifies Chinese cuisine is as limiting as saying that Italian food is all there is to European food culture.
Second in international fame is the cuisine of Sichuan. Increasingly popular worldwide, Sichuanese cooking is often mouth-numbingly spicy, with chilli, Sichuan peppercorns and garlic giving its typical dishes a kick of stinging heat that many restaurants outside China feel obliged to tone down. The other six schools are less well-known internationally, but offer some interesting distinctions. Fujian cuisine, for example, often flavours dishes with preserved fruit and shrimp paste, while cooks from Anhui and Jiangsu provinces are known for braising food slowly to a melting softness, just firm enough to be picked up with chopsticks. Seafood-heavy dishes from Shandong province, meanwhile, make ample use of peanuts and fine vinegars, and come accompanied by steamed wheaten bread rather than rice.
Dishes from Hunan are as spicy as those from Sichuan, though they rely on pure chilli rather than peppercorns for their heat and complement them with far more smoked and cured meats. Cooking from Zhejiang province, on the other hand, avoids heavy spicing altogether and instead focuses on balancing sweet and tart flavours. While Chinese restaurants are deservedly popular, Chinese New Year is really more about home cooking. New Year, after all, is specifically a domestic festival in China, a time when people return to their extended families to get together and eat, often travelling thousands of miles to do so.
Focused on a reunion dinner where presents are exchanged and children are given money in auspicious red envelopes, the New Year festival is a chance for a blowout that is both delicious and said to be lucky. It always includes dishes that bring good fortune - fish, for example, is always served because its Mandarin name yu means wealth, while jiaozi dumplings are popular in northern China because their fillings are like little bundles of luck encased in noodles.
Happily for people wanting to try out some of these dishes themselves, there are many good recipe books out there. If, however, you're the sort of cook who likes to make up your own dishes using trial and error, here are some guidelines that will make your cooking taste more authentic.
If you're starting out with Chinese home cookery, there are a few store-cupboard ingredients calculated to make your food taste rather better. Light soy sauce is essential - the dark variety is less popular and only added when a cook wants to darken a dish's colour significantly. Sesame oil - to use as a garnish not as a cooking ingredient - also makes a huge difference, splashed on to steamed greens or mixed with soy sauce and vinegar in a dipping bowl for dumplings. Dried chilli flakes (or chilli bean paste in Sichuan) are among the most common ways of spicing up Chinese cooking, while rice vinegar also adds an interesting tartness that never tastes quite right when approximated with western vinegars. A good brand of oyster sauce is also worth seeking out - you should check that it contains some oyster extract. When it comes to combining ingredients, one approach shared across China is designating foods and cooking techniques as either yin or yang. Yin foods and techniques are cooling and moistening, while their yang counterparts are warming and drying, and a healthy balance between the two is considered essential. While this sounds complicated, the system is actually quite simple and logical. It divides cooking between the light and the heavy, the mild and the spicy - while deep-frying and meat are yang, for example, cucumbers and steaming are yin. Provided you use common sense and match protein with vegetables and fried foods with steamed or boiled ones, you should get an appropriate yin-yang balance pretty easily.
While you need not necessarily go out and re-equip your kitchen Chinese-style, there are a few essential bits and pieces you can't really do with out. Firstly, you should get a good, wooden-handled wok, with a wok stand to make it sit right on the hob. You'll need to temper it before use to get an authentic, faintly barbecue-style flavour to your cooking - just add oil, heat it hard and brush the sides with the oil for 10 minutes, until the sides are discoloured to brown. A sharp, heavy cleaver is a good one-knife-fits-all solution for Chinese cooking, while a stack of bamboo steamers that can fit on top of a saucepan is also a good buy.
While it is too simplistic to generalise about common Chinese tastes, it's worth unlearning a few non-Chinese habits in order to make your cooking taste a little more correct. Avoiding western-style stocks or broths is a good start - the vegetables in these make them cloudy while the Chinese usually prefer a clear liquid. Stick to meat and bone broths - if you are a vegetarian you can make stock with dried Chinese mushrooms (or even porcini).
Personally, when I do this, I like to use water that has had chickpeas boiled in it for extra body and flavour - this isn't authentic, but somehow it still tastes right and is not cloudy. If you've wondered why meat in Chinese stir-fries often tastes juicy and springy, even when it probably comes from quite a cheap source, the answer is because it's been "velveted". This involves coating your meat (or possibly fish) with an ultra-fine batter made with one beaten egg and a scant tablespoon of corn flour. Let any excess drip off before throwing the meat into hot oil and you'll find that it comes out with a pleasant golden crisp to it, without having lost any of its juiciness.
If you are combining this meat with vegetables, try to cut everything into similar sizes and shapes - haphazardly chopped vegetables are seen as a sign of slapdash cooking in China. Beyond its use for coating meat, corn flour should ideally be used as sparingly as possible. You may find that the sauces you make when cooking Chinese food at home seem disconcertingly thin compared with much restaurant food. Don't worry about this - many international Chinese restaurants thicken their sauces to a gravy-like consistency to cater to western tastes, but that's no reason for you to follow suit.
Likewise, soy and oyster sauce should be used as condiments, rather than cook-in sauces. You'll often find thick, gloopy dishes that have been bubbled in oyster sauce in international Chinese restaurants, but with a few exceptions it is considered better form to add them sparingly after cooking in China. Finally, while green tea is a typical accompaniment in Chinese restaurants, it is usually served before or after rather than during meals in the country itself. If you want to serve something, stick to water. Some people even drink water left over from boiling rice.