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Talk the talk… before you walk the walk

To truly understand the essence of Chinese cuisine, you need to know something about the language. So let's go back thousands of years for a moment. Most of the signs we use today for eating and cooking go back to our most ancient ancestors. One of the first pictographs painted by the Chinese in ancient times was this: 人 (rén). It looks like a walking man, doesn't it? And that's what it stood for: a human being.

After man came fire, which looks almost like a waving man: 火 (huǒ).

After we had fire, we could start cooking. For this reason, the Chinese character for celebration appears in various forms in many other characters related to cooking. Can you spot it?

If you grow your own ingredients, you might need this: 田 (tián). It means "field" or "farm" and looks a bit like a vegetable patch in a garden. Then you're ready to feed all those hungry mouths... 口 (kǒu). So the next time you cook up a feast, remember that the language of food goes back (almost) to the beginning of time.

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How to Prepare Chinese Meals

Chinese meals are often associated with family time and gatherings with friends. Dishes are all shared. To get started, you can consider the following:

A menu offering a mix of different categories of food will give a balanced intake of nutrients, e.g. vegetables, meat, fish, rice, etc.

As a few dishes are normally served in a meal, it is good to off er varieties of taste within the same meal to provide excitement rather than monotony. For example, a meal with some richly flavoured dishes, and some dishes with a lighter taste, or simply a different taste profile works well (beef and broccoli in oyster sauce, black bean chicken). Or, there can be a mix of dishes made with different cooking methods, for example, a stir-fried dish, a steamed dish, a braised dish.

How many dishes you prepare depends on the number of people you’re serving. For example, for four people, plan two to four types of meat, seafood and vegetables – plus some rice or noodles. Or capture the Cantonese spirit and add soup, too.

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Your Chinese cooking toolkit

All you really need to get started with Chinese cooking is a good kitchen knife. But if you want to scrub up on your chopping skills, try a Chinese cleaver. It’s wider and heavier than Western ones, making it a textbook tool for shredding, slicing thinly or when you need to give your ingredients a bit of welly.

It takes a bit of practice, but try gripping the blade itself to cut with. If you’re tackling something chunky like ribs or pumpkin, you’ll need to hold the handle like you would a normal knife and use the cleaver’s weight to chop down.

Small and bowl-shaped, this is a super soup scooper. Use it to get every last drop of soup or gravy from a pot.

With a flat blade spatula – or wok charn in Cantonese – you’ll be a stir-fry whiz in no time. A normal wooden spatula is also great. Or, if you’re handy with chopsticks, use those.

Along with stir-frying and steaming, stewing is one of the best ways to capture all the goodness and great flavour in food – especially meat that needs a bit of tender care and longer cooking time. That’s where a clay or sand pot comes into its own.

Chinese families love them because they keep stews and clay pot rice hot even after they come off the stove. If you don’t have one in the cupboard, use a good sturdy casserole or cast iron dish, or even a non-stick saucepan or pot.

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