What does the typical meal in China consist of?

One of the most traditional form of Chinese meal is made of “four dishes and one soup “  (四菜一汤). 

The legend   This tradition originates in the early days of the Ming Dynasty, under the reign of the emperor Zhu Yuanzhang. Originally a peasant, Zhu Yuanzhang has lead the revolt that forced the Yuan dynasty to retreat, becoming Ming Hongwu, the first emperor of the Ming dynasty. 

Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming dinasty

Under his reign, the country regained prosperity but its people still suffered from famine. For merchants and officials, the life was good tough and they were hosting the most extravagant banquets. Zhu Yuanzhang, who had beg for food in his youth, was particularly upset with what he saw as a highly corrupted lifestyle. The birthday of its queen was approaching, so he decided to host a big party and invite all the lords from the Middle Kingdom.

Once everyone has arrived, he stood up and said :   * “For this very special meal, there will be only four dishes and one soup : the first dish will be stir-fried radish, the second dish will be stir-fried leek, then you will be served two small bowls of vegetables and a Tofu soup. “ * Everyone was absolutely surprised, as they were expecting bird ‘s nest and other legendary dishes from the royal kitchen. Those were the most basic dishes, without even any meat.

Zhu contiues his speech, saying that officials should be * “like the moon and the sun “* and live out green vegetables (青菜). [1 ] As usual in Chinese, there were a second meaning to his words : the Chinese word for green (qing) vegetables also meant being upright and virtuous for an official (清官). Serving this meal to the lords of the country was the equivalent of announcing the beginning of a large campaign against corruption.

The standard ** **meal

Since then, the “four dishes and a soup “ is the symbol of a frugal but luxurious meal - an extreme form of sophistication ! The communist regime has brought back this legend since 1949 and it has even become the official meal for state banquet when receiving foreign presidents. When Obama came in 2009, he had 1) cold dishes , 2)  Chinese-flavored beef, 3) steer-fried wild rice and bamboo sprouts and 4) grilled groper

  • a tofu chicken soup. [2 ]

Obama having its four dishes and a soup in Peking.

Each US president had its own specific menu.

This is so popular that it has become ubiquitous in advertisements for food. I live in France, and recently some friends ‘s families came from China to visit Europe. They were enthusiastic and told me how great their trip has been so far : * “We had* six dishes and a soup everyday ! “. The only downside is that it was all Chinese food, so they didn ‘t get to taste the French food really. Even the restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower served them * “four dishes and a soup “.*

The actual meal

The soup plays a very important role in Chinese cuisine. You usually don ‘t have water on the table during Chinese family dinners (restaurants usually provide water or tea tough). The most basic soup is made from tomato and eggs, but it can become really elaborated with rare things like fish head or black chicken. The soup will usually be served first, prior to any other warm dishes.  Its role is to warm your stomach up and help you quench the thirst and hunger, so you can slowly enjoy the rest of the meal.

The rest of the dishes may vary according to regions, restaurant, families, tastes and so on, so there is almost infinite possibility to combine dishes. The most typical thing will be one fish, one meat and two vegetables. Also, you can select between the different tastes : one sweeter, one saltier, one spicier, etc. In Northern China, the food is  usually more salty, while people from the center eat really spicy. The Southerners like * “bland “* food, which is seen as a positive quality of being tasty without being strong.

As a French, I have an eternal respect for the Chinese cuisine. I have to stop writing now tough, because I am salivating too much.

[1 ] Baidupedia 四菜一汤 _百度百科 [2 ] People ‘s Daily  http://opinion.people.com.cn/GB/ …

This text was originally published in quora.

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