Seasonality in Chinese cuisine
Chinese cuisine is as diverse as its many regions and inhabitants. Traditional northern Chinese food is glutinous and meat-heavy, with an emphasis on dumplings, either steamed or deep fried in hot oil, and sticky-sweet braised braised pork belly or shoulder. Szechuan cuisine is famous for the tingling, numbing heat of Szechuan pepper, while Guangdong is known for its dim sum and Beijing for its Peking duck. A multitude of skills and techniques are utilised, from searing hot wok frying at exact temperatures to slower, gentler methods of roasting and poaching.
Chinese cuisine also reflects the changing seasons. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are specific ingredients and flavours that should be eaten each season to counteract the changing weather. This relates in some way to the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin yang, suggesting that the complementary forces in the world need to be balanced to maintain harmony. This theory extends to seasonal ingredients and methods of cooking: natural harmony is achieved by eating or drinking foods that are similar in nature to the environment.
Derived from the yin and yang philosophy, many foods are described as hot or cold (or somewhere in between). This is used to describe the ‘energies’ of the food and drink rather than their specific temperatures, and it is a concept used widely in China.
Spring is the season of new birth and growth. It is important during this time to eat cool and sweet foods as opposed to the warming foods of winter, such as spinach, celery, onions, lettuce, mustard leaf, wheat, dates, peanuts, coriander, bamboo shoots and mushrooms.
In summer, plants grow fast and people act more energetically. The Chinese suggest eating ‘yin’ or cooling foods during these months. However, if the temperatures climb, it is recommended that cold foods are consumed, such as bitter gourd, watermelon, peach, strawberries, tomatoes, mung beans, cucumber, pumpkin, ginger, lotus root, lotus seeds, wax gourds and Job’s tears.
In the autumn, trees start to shed their leaves and fruits mature. During these months, the Chinese cook with neutral and sour foods, such as sesame, honey, pineapple, pear, loquat fruit, sugar cane, banana and white fungus.
Living things start to slow down to save energy during winter. Some animals hibernate, while humans conserve energy and concentrate on building strength. Warming or ‘yang’ foods that are high in starch and calories should be eaten during this time, such as red meat and dark coloured foods to restore chi. Mutton, goose, duck, Chinese yam, glutinous rice, dates, eggs, longan fletch, black fungus, leeks and nuts are all warm foods that are eaten to stave off the cold in winter.