FanT’sai and Cou Gan
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Many people of the Chinese community in India have been here for at least 3 generations and they love their dal, roti and curries, but most of their daily food and cooking techniques are still fairly traditionally Chinese. In comparison to Indian food, Chinese food is subtle with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared with a minimum amount of fuss and beautifully balanced for colour, texture, umami and sweetness. It is said that the Chinese philosopher Confucius (around 500 BC) helped to bring “perfect taste to Chinese food” by developing proper cooking techniques. Technique and timing are indeed important as is kou gan or “mouth sensation" that you would get with, say, the rubbery white fungus used in soups and desserts, that has no taste really but the texture is thrilling on the tongue. I was surprised to see white fungus in many desi-Chinese kitchens although you can’t buy it very easily in stores in India.
Chinese food often cooks quickly — but it can take a long time to prepare, involving precise slicing and chopping before the ingredients hit the heat. Vegetables are always diagonally cut, so that more of the surface is exposed to the heat and it also absorbs more of the flavours and sauces. Spice is used sparingly except for the 5-spice powder, with its sweet, sour, bitter, savoury and salty taste. The essentials are of course Fan or starch from grains and T’sai or meat and vegetables which must be in the right balance when both are in the same dish or in the spread of dishes on the table. Fan-T’sai may be eaten together but never mixed up. Even in dishes in which starch and the meat/vegetable go together, as in wontons, each still retains its distinct character and taste.
The enduring image most of us have of Chinese food being prepared is the sizzle and smoke of stir-frying but in fact, Chinese cooking also involves a lot of braising, deep frying, roasting and steaming. Steaming, especially in Cantonese cooking, is an important method because steaming retains freshness in vegetables and the beautiful bamboo steamers one sees in many stores today are so redolent of all the Chinese home kitchens I have visited, along with the ubiquitous wok. Meats are often roasted for crispness and then sliced and served with a variety of delicious sauces made from fermented soya and other red and black beans. Even at home, the Chinese preserve food by smoking, fermenting , salting, pickling, drying etc, and everything can and is preserved - grains, meat, vegetables even eggs, (heard of the 100 year egg ?)
Another distinctively Chinese feature is that although they eat the meat of several animals, they never use the milk. Dairy is almost absent from their cuisine. I could not find a good explanation for this except a probability that, historically, in China, Korea and Japan, they adopted farming early on and farming rather than pastoralism, remained their more important source of calories and nutrients.
But none of all this matters really. When I am invited over to a desi-Chinese home for a meal, the only question on my mind is “what’s for lunch?”