Food Writing


It is said that China's three major contributions to the food world are soy sauce, noodles and bean-curd (tofu). Here Deh-ta clarifies some of the misconceptions about Chinese food.

Pardon my Chinese — but is 'soy' a 'sauce'?

HOW often has your enjoyment of Chinese food been spoiled either by choosing the wrong dishes when eating out, or worse still, by following recipes that misguided you when cooking at home?
The fault, I must emphasize, has probably little to do with your personal judgment or cooking skills, but is rather a matter of misunderstanding caused by incorrect translations and inadequate explanations of Chinese food and cookery terms.
China today is a far cry from the days of Rudyard Kipling, whose often-quoted maxim: "Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet..." must have helped to nurture the seed of prejudice in the minds of many Westerners with the result that they looked suspiciously at anything that was Oriental. Nevertheless, China and the Chinese still appear to be a complex puzzle to the outside world, despite the narrowing of the cultural gap in the recent years - one cannot being impressed by the extent to which Chinese food and cooking have become established in almost every corner of the earth.
Whether Chinese cuisine is the greatest in the world is debatable and at any rate quite irrelevant; but it is true to say that there exists a uniqueness about Chinese cuisine in comparison with any other food cultures - perhaps with the exception of South-East Asia, not only in the preparation and cooking, but also in the serving and eating of the food.
The Chinese have always regarded clothing, food, housing and transport (in that order) as the four basic necessities of life. Over the years, there has been a tremendous transformation in all these except one - namely the culinary art of China. For despite all the foreign influences and modern technology that have affected nearly all walks of everyday life in China, the indigenous cuisine alone remains resistant to fundamental changes. In fact, foreign foodstuffs have been introduced into China since the dawn of history, but they all became integral ingredients of Chinese food.
It has been established that trade and cultural exchanges between China and the outside world took place as early as the time of the Roman Empire, and for centuries many aspects of Chinese civilization were admired in the West, and influenced its cultural development; yet Chinese culinary art, one of China's greatest traditions, was comparatively unknown in the West until very recent times. Even today, it is not appreciated as it deserves to be. Partly because of the many misunderstandings caused by the gulf between the two cultures.
I think the root of the problem lies in translating Chinese food and cookery terms into a foreign language that is based on an entirely different culture. Therefore I believe that none of the misunderstandings are insurmountable, once the vital glossary is correctly translated and properly explained.
It must be pointed out that in the early days of inter-exchanges between East and West, the very few linguists could not be expected to be specialists in all the different fields, least of all on food and cooking. Once a definition was struck and passed down in common usage, it then became established as fact however misconceived the original might have been.
Take, for instance, the very basic Chinese condiment jiang you known in English as soy sauce; now there is a real misnomer, because to start with, the Chinese term jiang has no equivalent in most European languages, while you means oil or fat, but here it should be translated as 'extract' - chou in Chinese, which is another name for 'soy sauce' in China. And to complicate the matter further, there is no equivalent for 'sauce' in Chinese either - we usually describe the term as sosi (which is a meaningless transliteration); 'gravy'; 'seasoning juice'; or 'liquid jiang. But none of these represent 'sauce' properly.
First, let us look at the term sauce in the context of Western cooking. Generally speaking, a 'sauce' implies a seasoned liquid served with, or on food. It can be made from the liquid in which the food it is to accompany has been cooked, and thickened by various means - e.g. cream, flour, and egg-yolks etc. Or it may be made separately and served as an accompaniment to grills, roasts, vegetables and so on. Sauce making must be of a paramount importance in French cuisine - didn't many great chefs build their reputations on the sauces they made or created? The saying of Brillat-Savarin, that a cook can be made but that a roaster must be born, is well known. What is not so well known is that the great gourmet was persuaded by his friend, the Marquis de Cussy, to revise the aphorism to: On devient cuisinier, on devient rotisseur, on nait saucier - "Cooking and roasting are things to teach; it needs genius to make a sauce."
Now if we look at the making of jiang you or soy extract, you will see at once that it is entirely a different matter. The process, like wine making, is a lengthy and painstaking one - it generally involves the following: cleaning of the dried soya beans; soaking until soft; steaming; cooling; mixing with yeast culture and wheat flour; incubation for 3-5 weeks (according to climate); fermentation with brine solution for 6-24 months; 'baking' in hot summer sun for 100 days; extraction; filtration; pasteurisation; bottling and packaging.
The quality of the end product depends very much on the expertise of a 'soy master', who supervises every stage of the process from start to finish - the selection of the soya beans, the making of the yeast culture, the proportion of different ingredients for the mixture, precise timing in fermentation and 'sunning', and the temperature control. Any deviation from one of these processes can make all the difference between a superior soy and an ordinary one. So you see, a 'soy' is not really a 'sauce' that is freshly made and served up in a restaurant. Imagine my reaction, when teaching Chinese cookery in India's leading Catering Institutes, invariably a student would ask me: "Sir, can you show us how to make a soy sauce?" - and this was usually during the last 10 minutes or so of the question time at the end of each demonstration session!
I hope I haven't bored your pants off by all this, what you really want to know is probably the differences between light soy and dark soy, and which brand I would recommend and so on. All these will be revealed in another article. Watch this space.

Copyright © Deh-ta Hsiung 2003

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