Curious about the significance of the word “mandarin?” It’s tricky.
Street Food! by palindrome6996, on Flickr. Street vendors in Beijing on June 3, 2006; street food is one of the major influencers of Beijing, or “Mandarin,” cuisine.
Trying to categorize the food of a culture with over a billion people and over four thousand years of history is not a simple task. The way Westerners typically do it is to try to regionalize the cuisines within China. In that tradition, there are eight major regional cuisines we typically recognize.
Of those eight, Americans are most familiar with three of them:
- Cantonese, known especially for its fresh seafood, noodles, and dim sum;
- Szechuan, known for the use of Szechuan peppercorn and sesame–for example, kung pao chicken and mapu dofu–but also smoked duck and stews; and
- Hunan, known for the use of chili peppers and a diversity of vegetables–for example, General Tso’s Chicken and “dry wok” chicken and celery stir-fry.
To those three regional cuisines Americans are familiar with, there’s a fourth influence on what Americans consider Chinese food: Beijing cuisine (which is a style of cuisine, but not one of the eight aforementioned regional cuisines), sometimes called just Mandarin cuisine. Beijing cuisine was strongly influenced by Shandong cuisine, another provincial variety, and reflects that in its use of nightshades, especially eggplant and tomato.
But, being a capital city with a lot of travel and containing the Forbidden City–which itself spawned a rarified subset of Mandarin Cuisine we typically call Imperial Chinese Cuisine–Beijing cuisine tends to absorb and collapse into itself whatever regional dishes travelers have brought, and continue to bring, with them.
For the American confronted with a recipe card that identifies itself as Mandarin, then, all this really tells you is: “Chinese, but not really Cantonese, Szechuan, or Hunan, and possibly reflecting a mix of styles that can’t be categorized anymore.”
Maybe someone could classify this as a regional chinese cuisine, but I can’t. Personally, I suspect it no longer resembles its origins enough to do so. It’d be a bit like asking someone to identify the part of America responsible for a brisket and lobster surf-and-turf cheesesteak.
From a box sold in Martinez, California.
Mandarin Rice and Beef (China)
4 medium dried black mushrooms ([substitute?] shiitake)
2 T. dry white wine
1/4 c. soy sauce
2 c. chicken stock
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 t. minced peeled ginger root
2 cloves garlic
3/4 lb. ground beef or pork
2 c. coarsely chopped cabbage leaves
1 medium carrot, shredded
1/4 lb. fresh green beans, French cut
1-1/2 c. long grain rice
1 medium zucchini, shredded
4 green onions, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
Soak mushroom in warm water 30 minutes. Drain, trim, and mince. Set aside.
In medium bowl, combine wine, soy sauce and chicken stock. Add oil in skillet; medium heat, saute onion, ginger root and garlic 1 minute.
Add meat. Stir in cabbage, carrots, green beans and mushroom. Cook for two minutes.
Stir in rice. Add chicken stock mixture. Cover pan tightly; lower heat; simmer 20 minutes until rice is almost tender.
Stir in zucchini. Cook 5 minutes more or until rice is tender and dry. Stir in green onions.
Makes 5 to 6 servings.