Dining Guide / Chinese Cuisine
Of all non-Thai cuisines Chinese is the most prevalent in Thailand - actually there are many similarities between Thai and Chinese dishes, and often it cannot be distinguished whether a dish was originally Thai or Chinese.
A unique Chinese food is dim sum. Actually dim sum is more than just a category of dishes; it's an eating habit. Dim sums are small dishes taken for snacks or tea time (in Chinese: yam cha); they are served in restaurants on a trolley. Most of the dim sum dishes are steamed but they may also be fried or braised. Common to all dim sums is that they are small portions, in bite size, and normally strongly flavored. Dim sum is of Cantonese origin and very popular not only in Thailand but also in Hong Kong.
As it is the case in Thai cuisine, noodles occupy an important position in Chinese cuisine. Actually, the Chinese were the inventors of noodles, and they were brought to the European noodle country, Italy, by Marco Polo only in the 13th century.
Unlike the Italians who can't explain why their spaghetti are impractically long the Chinese do have a seemingly very logical reason why the longer the noodles are the better; to the ever superstitious Chinese long noodles mean long life. Making noodles the traditional Chinese way is an acrobatic art. The dough is pulled and whirled through the air in order to stretch it through centrifugal force; but today machines use other techniques.
There are two kinds of noodles in Chinese cuisine, egg noodles or mien, and rice noodles or bijon (in English sometimes referred to as glass noodles because they just look like they were made of glass). Whereas egg noodles are mostly in the shape of thin spaghetti, rice noodles are also commonly served as ho fan (wide noodles like the Italian fettuccine and tagliatelle).
In Chinese cuisine, noodles can be served three ways: in a clear soup with meat and some vegetables, or mixed with meat and with a thickened sauce poured over or without sauce; whereas for noodles with sauce egg noodles (mien) are commonly used, it's bijon noodles if served without sauce.
Egg noodle dishes with sauce appear on Chinese menus with English translations often specified as fried. This is grossly misleading as they are mostly just barely sauted. There is nothing crisp in such a "fried" dish, and the rather tasteless cornstarch sauce gives the dish a porridge texture.
Those who want to eat dishes that are fried by Western standards must order deep-fried dishes in Chinese English terminology. Deep-fried dishes include spring rolls, shrimp, and prawns.
Except for the already mentioned clear soups with noodles, there also are many thickened soups in Chinese cuisine. The thickening is produced normally from cornstarch. Like clear soups the thickened soups may contain meats, fish, seafood and vegetables. In contrast to Western cuisine, Chinese cooking commonly uses lettuce in soups but not in salads.
The two most famous Chinese soups, shark fin soup and bird's nest soup appear to be thickened but the glutinous texture does in neither case result from the addition of cornstarch but from the two main ingredients, shark fin and bird's nests which are simmered for many hours.
As the Chinese are the only people who can make a sensible use of shark fins they are imported by Chinese traders from all over the world - to Hong Kong and also to Bangkok.
The nests in making bird's nest soups are exclusively those of swallows. They are built by the birds mainly of sea weed that is cemented together by their own saliva. Swallow nests are mainly found in high cliffs as for example on the Southern Chinese coast. The Chinese term for swallow nests is ni do. A rich area for bird's nests is Northern Palawan in the Philippine archipelago. There a town meanwhile famous for its cliffs has been baptized in honor of the bird's nests: El Nido.
As rice is processed into noodles, another common Chinese agricultural product, soy beans, is processed into bean curd. Bean curd didn't make it as far as Italy. It was, however, also integrated into Thai cuisine. Bean curd (in Chinese: to kua) accompanies original Chinese meals as normally as potatoes accompany German dishes (where they are not taken as vegetables). However, bean curd is used in Chinese restaurants in Bangkok less as an independent side dish but rather as an ingredient in many dishes.
As bean curd is not commonly known in the Western world, it may be described shortly. Bean curd has the appearance and texture of soft cheese and is produced by milling soy beans and forming large cakes of it that can be stored for quite a while. It can be cut into slices, and as it is fairly tasteless by itself (just as noodles), it easily adopts the taste of sauces and the other ingredients of a dish.
A by-product of bean curd which has a less stable texture (like thickened milk) is commonly sold in Thailand by ambulant vendors. They walk through the streets, equipped with two large aluminum baskets, the one containing the bean curd by-product, and the other some sauces, syrups, and other toppings.
Prominent as noodles may be in Chinese cuisine, the most basic staple food is rice. The Chinese word for rice is fan (remember the ho fan - wide rice noodles).
Chinese restaurants in Thailand offer a wide variety of fan loi dishes. Fan loi dishes also play a dominant role in Thai cuisine, here named rat khao. Fan loi, just as rat khao, has been literally translated as "rice with toppings", and this basically means that it is a bowl of rice with some bits of meat and/or vegetables on top.
However, to serve food in portions for a single person is very untypical of Chinese dining habits. Usually, the side dishes to rice are not served individually but family style with large plates placed in the center of a table. This eating order is still strongly reflected in the way Chinese restaurants are furnished. Often there is inadequate space for people who come alone or in pairs. Mostly large round tables can be seen, with a round board in the middle that can be turned so everyone, using the chopsticks, can help himself or herself to a few bites from every plate.
It's commonly known that the Chinese invented chopsticks as a set of instruments to be used when eating but the reason behind that is not commonly known. Actually, the Chinese where taught to use chopsticks long before spoons and forks were invented in Europe (the knife is older, not as an instrument for dining but as weapon). Chopsticks were strongly advocated by the great Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC).
He reasoned that, as a matter of advancement in civilization, instruments used for killing must be banned from the dining table. Therefore, knives cannot be permitted, and that is why Chinese food is always chopped into bite size before it reaches the table. The Thais, originating from a region that is today China, have fully adopted the Chinese philosophy on cutlery (if one wants to extend this term to encompass chopsticks).
Chinese cooking is not complicated in the manner that French cuisine is complicated. Much less depends on temperatures of ingredients and exact timing for frying, baking, or cooking. Most Chinese dishes are just cooked in water or oil. Of course, there are many delicacies but most of them do not require such an elaborate processing in the kitchen as does one of China's most famous dishes, Peking duck (thin slices of barbecued duck, wrapped in thin pancakes together with onion, radish, etc and eaten with a sweet plum sauce).
But while Chinese cuisine may not beat French cuisine in the degree it is complicated to prepare dishes, Chinese cuisine certainly wins the prize for stranger ingredients.
Now, while the French have their strange and hard to find ingredients like truffles, they cannot come up with an ingredient like the previously mentioned bird's nests.
The Chinese have a refreshingly unemotional approach to edibles. One may think that as long as eating something doesn't cause a disease there must be a way it can be prepared deliciously.
Therefore, birds nests are not the only strange food stuff used in Chinese cuisine. Others include sea weeds, shark fins, etc. There are no forbidden foods like pork in Islamic countries and beef for Hindus. On the contrary, many foods are recommended in the Chinese cuisine for a variety of medical purposes, several of them to restore sexual power.
This goal, for example, allegedly is achieved by consuming Soup No 5 which contains the testicles of various animals and which is served in a number of Chinese restaurants in Bangkok.
Many animals with a phallic look are also supposed to help men's sexual power, as for example eel and snake. Snake meat is highly valued in Chinese cuisine rather for a number of alleged pharmaceutical effects than the taste (it tastes like chicken). Snake is supposed to be particularly good in winter because it is regarded as heart warming. Eating the snake's gall bladder is supposed to bring sure relief from rheumatism. A dish named Dragon, Phoenix, Tiger is prepared of snake, chicken and cat and is supposed to be an especially powerful agent to restore youth and vigor.
Of course there is nothing wrong with eating cats, snakes, and bird's nests; most probably these foods are even nutritious; it's just the idea of it that cannot convince Westerners to enrich their diet with these delicacies. Especially cats, being considered pets, receive in Western tradition sympathy to a degree that is never afforded less cute animals such as pigs or chickens.
Furthermore, what criteria makes some kinds of animals a clean food and others unacceptable to the Western diner are just perceptions based on ignorance. Shrimp live in mud and preferably near sites where waste is drained into the sea, and those who believe chickens only eat clean food may observe them pecking on dung-hills. Who after these elaborations doubts that the Chinese have a more enlightened approach to food than Westerners.
China is a vast country and it is therefore no surprise that there are many regional variations in Chinese cuisine. In general one can say that the Southern Chinese, Cantonese, cuisine puts more emphasis on fish and seafood and the Northern Chinese, Peking, cuisine includes more meat. Of all meats pork is most common in all Chinese cuisines. Actually the pig is so respected by the Chinese that the Chinese character for "home" is a combination of the characters for "roof" and "pig".
The central Chinese regions of Sichuan and Hunan have the spiciest food in all of China. Garlic as well as chili are extensively used. Helmsman Mao Zedong who was Hunanese once claimed that the more chilies one eats the more revolutionary one becomes. It was meant as a joke (most probably) but the statement is in accordance to the Chinese belief that diet makes a great difference in the well-being of a person. Anyhow, Mao Zedong's theory fails to explain why Thais who certainly eat loads of chili are in general rather conservative than revolutionary.
In the case of exclusive dining, Chinese have a different orientation than Westerners. First, the ambience of a restaurant is much less important; even first-class Chinese restaurants tend to be simply and inexpensively furnished. Second, unlike European custom a dish doesn't become much more expensive when prepared by a much better cook.
In Europe a certain meal (for example baked duck) can cost many times as much in an exclusive restaurant than it does in an ordinary restaurant; in the case of Chinese restaurants it's less the particular preparations that make a restaurant first-class but more the use of fancy and more expensive foods.
An exclusive Chinese restaurant for example will serve foods like abalone (a large marine snail; only the foot, about fist size, is served) which cost many hundreds of Baht per dish.
But it's not the preparation that makes these foods so expensive, it's just the price of the raw material. Many more ordinary Chinese dishes do not cost much more in first-class Chinese restaurants than they do in plainer kinds.
Tea is preferred by the Chinese as a drink during all meals less for it's own taste but to clear the palate of a former dish before proceeding to the next. And as proclaimed by the Hong Kong Tourist Association in their official guide, "the Chinese don't ruin the tea with such alien substances as milk, sugar or lemon."
A typical addition
to the names of Chinese restaurants is Garden. Usually, Chinese
restaurants designating themselves as Gardens are better class.