It comes from an ancient phrase once made by a top advisor to an emperor in around 200 BC who said, "People are the most important to an emperor, while food is the most important to the people."
To some extent, this applies to the people in the West, as it's often said “good food, good wine and good company make for a good life.”
However, Chinese food culture is unique in many aspects, from the use of chopsticks, the ways of preparing, cooking and serving a wide variety of dishes and delicacies.
Local delicacies [fēngwèi xiǎochī - 风味小吃] are peculiar to each region and range from smelly tofu in Yunnan province to Dan Dan Noodles in Sichuan province or Peking Duck in Beijing. But nowadays they may be enjoyed by people all over China and around the world.
With food playing such an important part of Chinese festivals, many people enjoy showing their hospitality by treating their friends and colleagues to a feast at a local restaurant.
In your first trip to China, you might be overwhelmed by the huge diversity of foods on offer. You may also be surprised by the length of time people spend talking about, preparing and enjoying food.
Today, in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, you will easily find a wide selection of dishes which originate in other parts of China.
One basic food stuff much used in Chinese cuisine is tofu [Dòufu -豆腐], or bean curd. It may be used in a variety of different recipes which differ from province to province. Tofu is just one of the many products made from this versatile bean. Soy milk, soy bean paste, often known in the west by the Japanese name Miso [みそ], tofu skin - a dried product made from skimming off the cooled layer of tofu solids when making tofu product and similar to the skin formed on boiled cow’s milk - and of course soy sauce.
Plain tofu is used in soups or cooked with vegetables. It may also make up the bulk of a dishes such as the famous Má Pó Dòufu (麻婆豆腐) a Sichuan dish where the tofu is cooked in a very spicy sauce with pork mince. A vegetarian alternative omits the pork and may be simply described as Málà Dòufu (麻辣豆腐) or spicy tofu.
However, tofu may often be eaten by itself as a snack. In his case it undergoes a process not unlike that which turns milk curds to cheese. Unlike cheese, stinky or smelly tofu fermentation does not have a fixed formula for starter bacteria. Indeed there are many differing wide regional and individual variations which exist for its manufacture and preparation.
One traditional method for producing smelly tofu (Chòu Dòufu - 臭豆腐) is to prepare a brine made from fermented milk, vegetables, and meat and then immerse the blocks of tofu. The brine fermentation can take as long as several months and the resulting tofu can have the odour of smelly socks! The tofu is then cut and dried and before being distributed to street vendors or restaurants.
Smelly tofu is a popular street food all across China, though it may be cooked differently depending on where you are. On the streets of Shanghai or Beijing it maybe deep fried and dipped in a sweet sauce while in Yunnan in particular it is generally barbecued and served with chilli powder or with a little soy sauce added.
Often enjoyed on a warm sultry night with a beer, Shiping tofu is particularly revered amongst the inhabitants of Yunnan province.
There is a long tradition of making smelly tofu in Shiping county, and recipes are are kept a closely guarded secret.
Each by-product of the tofu making process is considered a delicacy in Shiping county be it the soybean milk, tofu skin or tofu itself.
But it is the smelly tofu which is considered the most highly prized and much sought after snack and which is an integral part of everyday life not only in Yunnan province but across much of China.