Food and Geography

Teacher's Note
Student Essay
Questions for Discussion

Teacher's Note

The kind of food produced and the cooking practices of different areas in China depend on the nature of the geography of each particular region.

For example, regions with hot climates often eat very spicy foods. Why? Because such foods raise the body temperature and cause one to perspire. This has the overall effect of cooling the body so that extreme temperatures can become more bearable. Obviously, one would not eat hot and spicy foods in the north where people strive to keep warm.

As a class activity, have students compare the foods of different countries. For example:

Spicy Mexican beans and rice vs. English meat pies and soups

Spice Indian curries vs. German wienerschnitzel

In China, regions renowned for their hot climates such as Sichuan and Hunan (point these provinces out on the map) are also well known for their hot, spicy dishes. Northern China, on the other hand, is known for its noodles, since the primary agricultural product of this region is wheat.

Give the students the following essay to read; it should further highlight the relationship between geography and food in China. The questions may be used as a basis for discussion or as a written assignment.

Student Essay

In some parts of China the ground is frozen 8 months of the year and it rains only about 2 inches a year. In other parts of the country, it is very warm and it may rain as much as 75 inches a year. China is also very mountainous with 60% of the land higher than 6500 feet. At least 50% of the country is very dry with the rainfall decreasing as one goes from east to west.

Wheat is grown in the northern quarter of China in the area north of the Yangtze River and south of Inner Mongolia. It is made into noodles, pancakes and dumplings. (Bread is currently being introduced.) However, since the major food is rice, China can support a much larger population than most nations which concentrate on growing wheat, because 2 to 3 times as much rice as wheat can be grown in a single acre.

Vegetables add to the diet and the available meat is largely pork, and chicken which can be raised on very little space. Fish, which is caught in the rivers or coastal waters as well as being raised in fish ponds, is also a source of food. It does not make economic sense to use valuable farmland as grassland for raising beef.

The lack of pasture land for grazing means that there are less milk and dairy products in the Chinese diet. Therefore, they use the soy bean to provide protein and calcium. It is made into doufu or bean curd. Soy beans have the added advantage of building up the nitrogen content of the soil in which they are grown --an important factor in a country which does not rely completely on chemical fertilizers. The soy bean also provides the Chinese with a number of popular seasonings --soy sauce, sweet, brown and hot bean past, sweet and spicy hoisin sauce, and salty fermented black beans.

The Chinese also use fresh ginger root, garlic, scallions, and rice wine or vinegar to enhance the flavor of the vegetables and the doufu.

Another geographic fact which has affected food patterns over the centuries is the scarcity of fuel available for fires. Cooking needs to be done quickly. Dicing, slicing, shredding or cubing food into small pieces before cooking prepares it for quick stir frying or steaming and braising in hot liquid off the fire. And, with small pieces of meat or vegetables, there is always a little bit to go with every bit of rice or noodles.

Stir frying, one of the common Chinese cooking techniques, serves the dual purpose of cooking food quickly using little fuel and preserving the flavor and texture of the food. In addition, stir frying uses little oil compared to Western frying techniques.

The Chinese are well aware of the importance of maintaining the fertility of the soil. Composting is a way of life as the Chinese save all organic matter to use as natural fertilizer or as animal fodder. In many instances a village farmer is assigned the task of gathering up deposits of manure from stray village animals and placing them in the communal compost bin. Through such care the Chinese have kept up the fertility of their soil which would otherwise have been depleted long ago by such intensive use.

Questions for "Food and Geography in China"

  1. List three ways geography affects the Chinese diet. Explain your choices.
  2. Why aren't there a lot of beef cattle in China?
  3. List three ways the soy bean is used.
  4. Do you think the Chinese are energy conscious? Why or why not?
  5. What does triple cropping mean?
  6. List five items in the Chinese diet.
  7. What is composting?
  8. What two new Chinese words did you learn?