An Introduction to Chinese Cuisine

Forget the takeout—flavorful and fragrant, true Chinese food has a lightness, balance, and simplicity that any home cook can easily master.

Photo by Anna Williams

Chinese takeout is standard fare for many families’ weeknight dinners. Everyone has her must-order dish, from sweet-and-sour shrimp to General Tso’s chicken. But what you’re getting in that familiar white cardboard box isn’t exactly the real thing.

“Whether you order beef, chicken, or vegetable Chinese takeout, it all tastes the same because it’s all covered in a sauce laden with too much soy sauce and cornstarch. It’s a travesty,” says Ming Tsai, chef and owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA, member of Macy’s Culinary Council, and contributor to The Macy’s Culinary Council Thanksgiving and Holiday Cookbook. It’s time for the secret to come out: Authentic Chinese cooking is decidedly free of thick, gloppy sauces.

“Chinese cuisine has a tremendous range of flavors and styles. Whatever my mood is, there’s something that satisfies me,” says Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge ($35, “It’s based on color, taste, and aroma—it should be beautiful to the eye, flavorful, and fragrant.” And it offers up flavors to suit virtually any palate. There are hot, spicy notes that will set tongues tingling alongside lightly seasoned dishes that are friendly to even the most delicate taste buds.

Spicy or mild, most Chinese dishes start from a common foundation. “Garlic, chili, and ginger are often called the holy trinity of Chinese cooking,” Young says, with scallions playing only a slightly less important role. And no self-respecting Chinese chef would find himself without a bottle of soy sauce. Used in countless different ways, soy sauce provides much of the saltiness in Chinese cooking while adding a round, full flavor.

The Chinese diet is also a fairly healthy style of eating, when you consider the typical ratio of protein to vegetables to starch. In the United States, “one person will eat a 16-ounce rib eye, and in China that would feed four to five people in a stir-fry,” Tsai says. “Meat is used more as the flavoring than as the focal point—it’s as much about the vegetables and noodles or rice.”