Chinese dishes are classified in two ways: One is by region. One of the regional methods defines four major cuisines based on the eating habits of the people in different regions. They include Sichuan, Guangdong, Shandong and Huai Yang cuisines. Another regional division comprises nine schools. They are the Beijing, Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, Fujian, Huai Yang, Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangsu Zhejiang cuisines.
The second classification is based on the origin of the dishes. This system includes the palace, officials', common people's, mountain and forest temples', and ethnic minorities' dishes, and dishes of foreign countries. This second classification is very old. It was based on the rigid stratification of China's feudal society, which lasted for thousands of years and forced different ways of living upon the people. The differences in the stratification of the foods were recorded in the Unofficial Annals of the States in the Spring and Autumn Period as follows: "The emperor ate ox, sheep; officials ate pig; scholars ate fish; and the common people ate vegetables." Feudal ethics and different living standards among the differing strata resulted in Chinese food being classified into the palace, officials', and common people's cuisines.
Officials' cuisine, also called the cuisine of the officialdom and literati, included the famous dishes of the wealthy people. The standards for the officials; cuisine were lower than for palace food, but remained far superior to the common people's cuisine. Official's dishes were created by working people, but were eaten only by feudal bureaucrats, aristocrats, and the rich.
Many bureaucrats and aristocrats ate luxurious food. Huang Sheng of the Tang Dynasty "cooked three catties of venison from dawn to sunset every day, and said with joy: It is well done now!' He did this for 40 years." Lu Mengzheng of the Song Dynasty had chicken tongue soup every day, the result being that chicken feathers were piled up like a hill. The family cook of Cai Jing, a prime minister of the Song Dynasty, killed 1,000 quail every day.
Family cooks knew how to make tasty dishes and gradually created their own cooking styles. The luxurious life, rich resourced, and abundant raw materials provided important conditions for the creation of officials' cuisine.
Another important condition that aided the creation of officials' cuisine was the combination of famous cooks and gourmets. Famous dishes require cooks and gourmets, and these required education, culture, and a high standard of living. Cooks improved the dishes based on the gourmets' comments so that each dish became better and better. The gourmets helped discard bad dishes and retain dishes with good color, fragrance, and taste.
Gourmets were common throughout history. Most were literati, ministers, or officials, such as Confucius in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, Su Shi and Lu You in the Song Dynasty, Ni Zan in the Yuan Dynasty, Li Yu in the late years of the Ming Dynasty, and Yuan Mu in the Qing Dynasty. They were food and drink experts who left behind many penetrating remarks and special writings. For example, Dongpo pork, Yunlin goose, Confucian dishes, Sui Garden dishes, and Tan family dishes were all famous officials' dishes that have been passed down to later generations.
The special features of the officials' dishes are that the materials are carefully selected and the cooking is exquisite. Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China, had many family cooks with excellent skills. He liked to eat duck, especially steamed duck. In winter, he ate duck steamed without soy at every meal. To make sure the duck was more nutritious and tasty, he ordered the farmers to powder pilose antler, mix it with sorghum, and feed it to the ducks.
Pan Zuyin, minister of the board of works during Xianfeng's region in the Qing Dynasty, has a profound knowledge of how to eat well. In his home, bean curd was braised together with the brains of live ducks to make a delicious dish.
Great attention was paid to cooking methods and careful preparation. For example, Dongpo Pork was named after Su Dongpo (or Su Shi) who described it thus: "Clean the pan, put a little water into it, and cook the pork over a low fire. Don't hurry, but wait until it is well done. It tastes natural and good when it is ready."
Diced chicken with peanuts stir � fried with chili sauce was a dish created by the family cook of Ding Baozhen, an imperial inspector for Shandong Province and the Governor of Sichuan Province The main ingredient is the breast meat of roosters several months old. The meat is fried over a medium to hot fire. When the chicken cubes separate, add the mixed gravy and salted peanuts. Then shake and turn the ingredients several times.
Official's cuisine stresses a family atmosphere during meal times. At that time, there was no etiquette to make people overcautious at meals as there was in the palace, nor was there interference from neighboring tables as in a restaurant. It was similar to common family life, where there is no restraint and diners concentrate on eating.
In the feudal society, the literati and officials always enjoyed food and drink as a fruit of the culture. They liked natural tastes, cleanliness, beauty, and sought benefit from their food. They were interested in tasting the deliciousness of their food and they treated good food ant they treated good food as a work of art. Tan Zhuanqing, founder of the Tan Family cuisine, was a connoisseur of cultural relics as well as a gourmet. The Tan Family cuisine stresses both the original juices and taste of the ingredients. Both Tan Zhuangqing and his father, Tan Zongjun, preferred their food to have a natural taste.
Pan Zuyin was a man of letters and a gourmet. Toward the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Guangheju Restaurant had many renowned cooks and was famous throughout Beijing. Pan Zuyin was a frequent customer of the restaurant. He taught the cooks how to cook fish, then had them cook it for him using this procedure: Boil the cleaned carp for a few minutes, then use your hands to break the fish into two parts. Add the minor ingredients and flavorings and steam the fish until it is done. The special features of this dish are that neither a cutting tool nor cooking oil are used. The fish is steamed to keep its original flavor. It is tender and both the meat and soup are delicious. The cook found it satisfactory and guests spoke highly of it. This Pan Family dish was later introduced in restaurants as "Pan's fish" or "Pan's steamed fish."
There are many other dishes that were originally created for official's families, then later became popular in restaurants. Their common feature was to preserve the original taste and stock.
Exquisite dinnerware serves as an accent to tasty dishes and adds glory to banquets. Today, people can see the exquisite dinnerware from Confucius' mansion, including silver and porcelain sets. Many sets are uniquely shaped and are very beautiful. Some dinnerware was especially designed and made for special dishes. The Tan Family Food Restaurant in Beijing has many specially designed sets, such as the plates for shark's fin, which are slightly higher in the center to make the shark's fin more appealing.
The shape of dishes should not affect their natural taste and flavor. Loss outweighs gain if the taste of the dish is lost for the sake of shape. Yuan Mei in his Sui Garden Menu said, "Good food should be matched by good dinnerware." Officials' cuisine stresses taste foremost, then uses good dinnerware to accent the good taste.
Many dishes were named after the literati who invented or especially liked them. For example, Dongpo pork, stir � fried diced chicken with peanuts, and Pan's fish. Many years ago some Beijing restaurants that were frequented by literati and officials, served dishes named for famous people. For example, Wu's dishes in the Sansheng Restaurant, of which the most famous was Wu's fish slices: Cut fresh fish into long slices with good quality soy sauce and water from Yao's family well in the south. Wu here referred to Wu Junshe or Wu Yansheng, an imperial cook.
Hu Shi's fish in the Chenghuayuan Restaurant: Cut fresh carp into small cubes and cook it into thick soup with three fresh delicacies, such as abalone, sea cucumber, shrimp, chicken cubes, mushrooms, or bamboo shoots. The dish was invented by Dr. Hu Shi and prepared for him by his cook.
The Guangheju Restaurant was known for its wide variety of famous dishes. Most of these were officials' dishes. When these literati and officials met in restaurants, they taught the cooks how to make their family delicacies. Apart from Pan's fish, the restaurant also served Jiang's bean curd, a soft bean curd prepared with shrimp roe, fermented soybeans, and bamboo shoot cubes. It was taught by Jiang Yuntao, magistrate of a prefecture, hence the name. Other dishes were Han's pork leg, a dish prepared from the top part of a pig leg along with five flavorings. It was taught by Han Xinshe. Tao's dish was taught by Tao Fu, a vice minister in the Qing Dynasty; Hu's fish was taught by Hu Guqing, a vice minister in the Qing Dynasty, and Zeng's fish was taught by Zeng Guofan.
Today, the Beijing Television Station has a special program on Chinese cooking that invites famous chefs to demonstrate their cooking skills and literati and artists to teach their own specialties.