kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake

One aspect of Chinese food that can be confusing at first for those unfamiliar with it is the importance of texture. Some dishes and ingredients may appear subtle or even bland in flavour, since their purpose is primarily textural.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is tofu/beancurd (豆腐/dòu fu), particularly the ultra-soft "flower" beancurd (豆腐花/dòu fu huā or 豆花/dòu huā) which I discuss in my post on hot-and-sour flower beancurd. Beancurd in Chinese dishes is generally much softer than the type used in Western vegetarian/vegan dishes as a meat substitute, to the point where it can be a bit offputting if you're not expecting it. Personally, I love its smooth, wobbly-soft texture, particularly in combination with strong flavours such as in mapo tofu or with other interesting textures such as beancurd with century egg.

Other examples of foods that have little flavour but interesting texture include pork skin, pig ears, jellyfish, and cartilage. Pork skin has a different texture depending on how much you cook it; it can be chewy or almost meltingly soft. Pig ears are chewy, too, but in a good way — chewiness is often prized in Chinese cuisines, but was deprecated in the British food with which I grew up, so it took me a while to be able to appreciate it. Cartilage is another food it took me a while to get the hang of, but now I happily crunch away at it when eating chicken feet at dim sum. In fact, the last time I cooked chicken feet myself, I overcooked them and was very disappointed to not have that crunchiness in there.

One interesting word used to denote texture is 滑 (huá), which means "smooth/slippery". Good cheung fun will display this quality, and this aspect is often explicitly mentioned in the name of the dish; for example I've seen prawn cheung fun listed as 鮮蝦滑腸粉 (xiān xiā huá cháng fěn), literally "fresh prawn slippery cheung fun". 滑 is also commonly associated with chicken (雞/jī), where it's used to describe the texture of perfectly-poached meat, neither undercooked nor dry. Finally, you might see it in connection with puddings such as coconut mousse (香滑椰汁糕/xiāng huá yē zhī gāo) and egg dishes such as beef and scrambled egg with rice (牛肉滑蛋飯/niú ròu huá dàn fàn).

QQ is another important texture, and one that I don't have an English term for. [identity profile] sung wrote about this yesterday, in his post on beef noodle soup/牛肉麵 (read the comments too). In his words, QQ "describes the springy or bouncy texture upon biting into food e.g. good fishballs should be QQ, as should certain types of Chinese noodles". There's more discussion of the term in the comments on another post of his, on QQ vermicelli/粉絲.

Another hard-to-translate texture is crispness/crunchiness, specifically the type of crispness manifested by very fresh prawns, or rehydrated black fungus. I'm never quite sure how to describe this in English, as it's not quite the type of crispness manifested in certain baked or deep-fried foods (which would be 脆/cùi in Chinese). It's more like the crispness of raw carrots or lettuce, but to me the words "crisp" and "crunchy" in connection with prawns bring up associations with deep-fried battered prawns, which is a long way from the intended meaning.

According to Prawncrackers on eGullet, the Chinese word for this type of crispness is 爽 (shuǎng in pinyin, song in Cantonese). This texture can be achieved in prawns by brining them before use; I've also seen the suggestion of adding sugar to this brine. Another poster further down the same thread uses the term 彈牙 (daan ngaa in Cantonese), or "bouncing teeth", though Prawncrackers points out that this term may be better applied to fishballs, as with the QQ mentioned above — then again, according to Steamy Kitchen, good prawns are QQ!

At this stage of my learning about Chinese cuisines and languages, I can't give you a neat little list of all the important textures and their translations. But I can suggest a few dishes that are worth looking out for if you're interested in exploring texture in Chinese food (some of which are also mentioned above):

Characters mentioned in this post:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2011-11-09 06:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com
Texture isn't just limited to Chinese/East Asian food, but also Western food. Fish and chips for example is a great example, the contrast of crispy batter and moist fish. Arancini (risotto balls) also spring to mind, as do croquettes from the world of tapas! There's loads of examples but texture tends to be in the background whereas the Chinese have it at the forefront.

Date: 2011-11-28 12:26 am (UTC)
pulchritude: (14)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
huh, I'm not sure I've had tofu used as a meat substitute. Now I'm vaguely curious how it's different (it had never actually occurred to me that it would be).

Now that you mention that chewiness is not prized - yeah, it's something with which I have huge problems when eating vegetables at a restaurant serving Western cuisine, generally. They are usually steamed or boiled to hell and back and have pretty much no flavour and just kind of...fall apart in one's mouth. I really dislike it, lol.

Date: 2011-11-29 08:00 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (14)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
I have never bought tofu from a non-Chinese shop. :P

And I actually classify 豆乾 as something completely different in my mind, even though I know it's made from 豆腐. Same with 腐乳. I'm not sure what you mean by frozen tofu, actually.

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