chinese Chefs and Culinary Arts

  • Date Posted: 2011-11-07 15:51
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In ancient times, people who cook for a career were called “pao,” now we call them chefs. Compared to the internationally recognized Chinese dishes, most of those who create these delicacies are obscurely anonymous. In Chinese history, Peng Zu and Yi Yin are quite famous chefs. The first-ever documented chef, Yi Yin (dates unclear), was also a prime minister of the Shang Dynasty. He was not only a man of erudition but also an accomplished political-military strategist. In addition, his superb culinary skills gained him much trust from the rulers of the time. Every time when holding rituals at ancestral temples, Yi Yin would explain to the Shang King in great detail the study of food. He would mention everything from cooking to the names and descriptions of all the delicacies in the world, classifying them into different schools. Taking the opportunity, Yi Yin would incorporate many nation-governing principles into his teachings about food, so the common people recognized him as “god of the kitchen.” In later periods, there were also great chefs, Chinese Foodsthrough excellent culinary skills, that acquired high ranks and generous salaries. But after all, it is a rare fortune. Most “pao” were still just servants to the nobility.

A kitchen range in ancient houses in Anhui Province.

A kitchen range in ancient houses in Anhui Province.

Among the common folks of China, chefs have always been viewed as a respected profession. They rely on their own excellent skills to live in society. Those who service the common people are the chefs in public restaurants. In the old days, they were called “shi chu,” or “city chef.” As the food service industry developed, the classification in the roles of chefs became more and more precise, which resulted in titles such as cooking chef, pastry chef and so forth. The passing on of culinary skills is no longer through the singular format of one teacher to one student. Instead, as an important make-up to modern professional education and training, cooking is now taught in specialized vocational schools, from which the graduate student can receive the “Professional Qualification Certificate of the People’s Republic of China.” The majors of this profession not only must learn culinary skills, but also partake in basic nutritional studies. The promotion in ranks of the chefs requires further professional testing.

Chinese cooking attaches greatest importance to  huohou ,  duration and degree of heating.

Chinese cooking attaches greatest importance to  huohou ,  duration and degree of heating. 

Housewives who take charge of cooking were called “zhongkui” in ancient times. Though they were not considered chefs, their hands were skilled, and can often make eaters drool. Also in ancient China, studying cooking was mandatory for women before marriage. Even though many modern women now have taken steps outside the family and into the professional world, being able to make a fine meal is still the blessed gift and pride of the family.


Speaking of a group of people who have contributed the most to Chinese food culture, we cannot leave out the connoisseurs and summarizers of food, who were the literati and great men of ancient China. It was through their documentations that the skills and secrets of the chefs could be passed down through the ages. Aided by their superb art appreciation levels and cultured tastes, Chinese culinary techniques entered the realm of art. Sometimes, these great men personally participated in the making of dishes. Su Dongpo (1036 – 1101 A.D.), the great writer of the Song Dynasty, not only was a man fond of eating, his creation, the Dongpo Pork became a highly praised and popular dish. These epicures and the chefs of the past together brought about China’s rich and consummate culinary arts. Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei (1716 – 1797 A.D.) wrote in his work, the Suiyuan Shidan, detailed accounts of 326 dishes from the 14th to 18th centuries; ranging from exotic meat dishes and superb seafood, incorporating delicacies from both the north and south. This work is a valuable historical documentation in the history of Chinese food culture. Using elegant words of commentary and abundant knowledgeable of cooking, he was honored as an epicure of the highest taste and scholarship. However, in tradition, wealthy families all hire in-house chefs to take care of daily meals to grand feasts. Banquets prepared by wealthy families were usually held in their homes, rather than at public restaurants. So to be able to find and employ a first-class chef, for a family, it is something to show off to others. Under such prevalent social atmosphere, chef’s skills made progress in leaps and bounds.

A chef making dishes in a qingzhen (Hui Muslim) restaurant.

A chef making dishes in a qingzhen (Hui Muslim) restaurant. 

A chef’s cooking and cutting skills include the mixing of supplementary ingredients, knife work, duration and heat control, and the specific cooking method. In daily life, basic ingredients used to make meals include four categories: vegetables, fish and meats, eggs of poultry, and seasonings. The so-called culinary arts are mainly just adequate mixing and cooking of the four categories of materials. Having Chinese food is different from having Western food. For example, when ordering a Western steak, the diner would be asked to choose from rare, medium or well-done. The chef prepares the food fully according to the diner’s demand and adds no spices or seasoning. After the steak is served, the diner adds salt, pepper, lemon juice or ketchup totally depending on personal taste preference. Chinese food is simply ordered by the menu. How the dishes are prepared, deep or stir-fried, boiled or steamed, rare or well-cooked, hot peppers added, vinegar drenched, how much oil and how much salt, unless the customer makes a request, everything will be left up to the chef. The same kind of dish by the same chef will not have much difference in the general making, regardless of the diner, the dish will basically be the same taste. 


Chinese FoodsBlending of supplementary ingredients is a Chinese chef’s primary skill, a basis to making tasty food. Supplementary ingredients must be refined and thoughtfully added while keeping in mind the original properties (place of origin, age of growth, which cut of a whole piece) of the main ingredient. Also to consider are the combination of color, form, texture and so on. When making Beijing (Peking) Roast Duck, for instance, Beijing’s homegrown “force-fed duck” is usually used, weighing in at approximately 2.5 kilograms. Too large the duck would make the meat overly stiff and too small would not be juicy and tender enough. Sautéed Pork Slices in Starchy Sauce is made with pork loin; Steamed Pork in Lotus Leaf uses streaky pork (bacon cut). The classic dish of Tomatoes and Egg Stir-fry has great contrast in color between its bright red and yellow. In terms of the shape and form of foods, usually diced pieces go with diced, strips with strips, to keep the consistency. In texture, it is also soft with soft, crispy with crispy, chewy with chewy; such as complementing simmered bean curd with fish, or garlic bolts with squid.

Chinese cakes and pastry pay meticulous attention to  appearance and packaging. Shown in this photo is a  color package printed from wood engraving during the  Republic of China period.

Chinese cakes and pastry pay meticulous attention to  appearance and packaging. Shown in this photo is a  color package printed from wood engraving during the  Republic of China period. 

Sometimes, special treatment must be given to the ingredient according to the style of cooking. Such as Hangzhou’s famous West Lake Fish with Vinegar, which uses actual grass carp from local freshwater lakes. Though the fish is tasty, its meat is loose and with a slight aftertaste of soil. Therefore, before it is cooked, it must be placed in a specially made bamboo basket to be kept alive without feeding, so its meat will become tender and full of fresh flavor when prepared for food.


Without a doubt, the selection of ingredients for any dish sets benefits to health as primary consideration. Turnip has the power to relieve excessive internal body heat, so it is very fitting to be made into dishes with lamb, which causes high body heat. Spinach and tomatoes contain relatively more acidic substance. If it were coupled with calcium-rich bean curd, forming calcium salt (calcium hypochlorite), then it would be unfavorable for digestion and absorption.

Image of a lady cook portrayed in an illustrated tile of the  Song Dynasty.

Image of a lady cook portrayed in an illustrated tile of the  Song Dynasty. 

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