Chinese cuisine has always been an important element in the culture, and beliefs about the best diet even reflect Taoist principles. Of course, China's diverse people and landscape have resulted in extremely varied foods. And compared to what they find in their own Chinese restaurants, Westerners are often surprised at just how diverse and exotic real Chinese food is. This is partly because necessity and famine have historically driven Chinese peoples to look for food in unlikely places, and delectables like chicken kidneys, stinky tofu, fried insect larvae, pig's maw, and liver with dried squid don't usually suit a Westerner's palate.
Pre-refrigeration preservation methods such as pickling, drying, salting and fermentation are still widely employed for traditional Chinese foods. Thus, some common items include pickled vegetables, semidry meats, salted fish and salt-cured eggs, as well as fermented products such as vinegar, sauces and rice spirits [source: Li].
The need to conserve food, fuel and cooking oil has led to preference for efficient cooking styles and methods. For instance, because meat is historically expensive, a cook made it go further by chopping it into smaller pieces and serving it with an abundance of vegetables. Meanwhile, vegetables were usually steamed or boiled in soup rather than simply boiled in water that is later thrown out, which wastes some of the nutrients [source: Wu]. The wok is popular for cooking traditional Chinese food because it evenly distributes heat, cooking food faster and requiring less oil.
Researchers Jian-rong Li and Yun-Hwa P. Hsieh argue that, compared to Western foods, Chinese food is generally less greasy and has fewer calories. The Chinese tend to value sophisticated flavor and interesting textures [source: Li]. Many Chinese also strive for a particular yin-yang balance in their diet based on traditional Taoist principles. They believe that certain foods are inherently cool (yin), such as tofu and cucumber, or warm (yang), such as meats and spices. Even certain cooking methods fall into these categories, with poaching and steaming considered yin and roasting and frying considered yang. According to tradition, striking a proper balance of yin and yang in your diet will help keep you healthy [source: Young].