29 May 2011, Posted by Dustin J in China, 1 Comments
The long history of China makes their cuisine a captivating subject and with some of the oldest documented techniques, influential products and recipes, breaking it down makes for a difficult task. In modern day China, cuisine is separated into 8 culinary regions, with those being Shandong, Sichuan, Cantonese or Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan and Anhui. Of course these are just the most favored as there are many other urban areas clamming their own unique styles, such as Beijing, which has developed a cuisine of their own. The Chinese began to use products native to the land very early on, as they were the first to cultivate rice over 10000 years ago, domesticating pigs by 4000 BC, began drinking tea around the same time and later using soybeans to produce such products as tofu or bean curd. Due to the fact that rice doesn’t grow in northern China, it was a blessing when wheat arrived, although they were already cooking with millet, wheat quickly became the staple grain in the diets of the northerners.
Later on people began showing interest in mapping out the world and discovering all there was to offer in these far away lands. This marked an era of exploration unleashing mass trade, beginning with the early paths to west and south Asia that provided an array of spices and introduced different livestock. This eventually lead to the first contact with Europe that opened several doors, both good and bad. Last was the trade that occurred after the Spanish and Portuguese returned from the Americas. This brought some of the most influential ingredients to ever affect Chinese cuisine allowing it to expand in so many ways. It would take years to bring Chinese food to light but I will attempt to cover it in a brief yet thorough manner by looking into certain products and techniques and breaking down some of the more interesting dishes I have come across.
Baozi –Its origin is thought to have occurred during an expedition into southern China lead by Zhuge Liang a scholar and military strategist. He and his troops faced many hardships while returning home from battle. In an effort to revive his troops he created these head shaped wheat buns stuffed with whatever little they could scrape up. This invention saved his troops and became popular upon returning home. The dish is believed to come from the traditional mantou, which translates to “barbarian’s head”, and was spread all over China through this popular story. Wheat was introduced into the peoples diet during the Shang Dynasty around 1500 BC, before this the Chinese were using different grains to produce porridge style soups. Shorty after the introduction they began mixing ground wheat with water to form a dough this allowed them to produce noodles, dumplings and various types of mantou.
Now days Baozi can be filled with anything imaginable, from meat, vegetables, gourds and even pickles of different kinds. These ingredients are stuffed inside of this fluffy wheat dough, sealed off and placed in round wicker baskets and finally stacked and steamed. It is common for Baozi to be affiliated with Dim Sum, a style of Canton dining that consists of many small plates and the consumption of tea. But the truth is wheat based foods remain more popular in the north since wheat is the main staple in their diet. In the north Baozi tend to be bigger in size, in the south or below the Yangtze River they are a bit smaller becoming more of a snack. You can find Baozi all across China varying from province to province, and because of its inexpensive cost yet satisfying taste, it has spread all across Asia being seen in countries like Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia, just to name a few.
Jiǎozi – Chinese dumplings are the original form that have inspired so many to produce their own, in Japan they are called gyoza, Nepal momo, Turkey manti and in Italy they are referred to as ravioli. The first mention of these stuffed treats dates back to the Song Dynasty when they were expanding their cuisine to match their developing pallets. Like most desired dishes, these Jiǎozi were created as a celebratory centerpiece for festivities, in this case, Chinese New Year. The myth behind the shape is believed to be influenced by money or coins, so eating them will bring you good luck and fortune in the New Year. In China you find dumplings on almost any street corner, laid out in round wicker baskets stacked high on top each other, steam being pushed out the sides from the boiling vat of water below.
Although steaming is common, they are also prepared in other ways such as boiling or being pan-fried known as pot stickers. They can be stuffed with anything edible and today the dough can even be altered by adding pumpkin, red bean or spinach to give it a vibrate color and additional flavor. Traditionally they are served with a soy-based sauce for dipping that may include garlic, ginger, chili, rice vinegar and sesame oil. The dumpling has truly changed the world, seeing spawned versions of it on nearly every continent like the Samosa in India that got passed on by the Arabs to the Spanish who made empanadas which influenced further creations like the Pierogi in Eastern Europe, Latin American empanadas or Caribbean Jamaican patties.
Xiang Cun Yuan zi Tang – “Village Meatball soup” is a classic in Sichuan province China that is made up of light broth with tender mutton meatballs, bean sprouts and Chinese chives are sprinkled on top. This is a dish pretty much any one can relate to, resembling classic comfort food. All across the world people consume meatballs but the common style is believed to have originated in Persia with Kofta which later was thought to have inspired the Romans to write their own recipe. During Roman times a man named Gavius Marcus Apicius was well known for the roll he played in developing Roman cuisine, he was responsible for documenting these culinary experiments, with meatballs being one held high in praise. Dating back to the Han Dynasty, relations between the Chinese and the Arab people began to tighten through trade and Chinese expansion. With this trade came several influences from the Middle East that has truly changed the food in China forever. For centuries there has been a large population of Muslims living in China with Halal shops introduced by the Yuan Dynasty this encouraged further immigration. Nowadays these Halal restaurants are spread across most cities, some serving up these kofta and kebab style dishes along side middle Eastern khobz while others lean more towards Chinese flavors. A look into their past through these present close ties supports an ever growing culinary fusion.
Huíguō – “Twice cooked Pork” is another common dish in Sichuan, which is really just a cooking technique that can be utilized in many ways. First a slab of fatback is boiled until it becomes tender, then cut into small bacon like slices before it is ready for the second cooking. This is the base for several dishes and from here it can take on many different forms depending on the additional ingredients added. The version I sampled incorporated green chilies similar to the “Anaheim” that were introduced by the Portuguese via modern day Peru only 400 years ago. These chilies are first blistered in a dry pan before adding the strips of pork that are then crisped up and finished with crushed huājiāo, dried chilies and a light soy sauce. Pork is a very popular protein in China making perfect scene because the Chinese were the first to domesticate this native breed of white pig over seven thousand years ago. This is the same species that was passed on early from Asia to Europe becoming extremely valuable during Roman times, and although there are boars native to Europe in places like the Iberian Peninsula, the Chinese breed of pig was picked for domestication for various reasons. These pigs were also brought to the New World by the Spanish around the 16th century first landing in Cuba and later on spreading to Mexico and beyond. These pigs have made a big impact on the cuisine in countries all across Latin America.
Chuan Chuan Xiang aka Hotpot – certainly a vital part of Sichuan cuisine in addition to being a meal it is also a dining experience and a culture of its own. Hotpot has a history of over 1000 years and often believed to be of Mongolian origin where the warriors would use their helmets for stew pots. Although the cooking style was developed early on, it’s the Sichuan hot pot that is now famous. In Chengdu, it boasts the same flavors of the Chongqing classic but has one main difference, with that being the bamboo skewers used to impale your chosen ingredients. When walking into a hotpot restaurant the first step is deciding what you would like to eat, the options are endless and the choices can be quite overwhelming.
For most non-experienced Asian diners a large percentage of the display can be unidentifiable, with things like seaweeds, unique soy products like tofu skin, lotus root or fresh bamboo shoots. When it comes time to pick your protein you might want to choose some eel, rabbit, frog or bits and pieces of pork, mutton or chicken. In Chengdu the meats are served with the bone-in but the more common version of hotpot uses very thinly sliced meats. The Chinese are known for eating every part of the animal, so you can find innards, heart, kidney or liver skewered up as well. Besides the exotic side of it, there are always options that should please the masses like dumplings, leafy greens, mushrooms and “potatoes”. While you are picking out the goods back at your seat, the server will be brewing up the caldron in the middle of the table. A mix of house stock, huājiāo pepper corns and chili oil form the base then additional ingredients are used to give it the restaurants’ personal touch, such as goji berries or a particular spice. Huājiāo is the mysterious element that provides that metallic numbness giving off a bitter tingle, while the long red Sichuan chilies are what gives it the spice and heat. Hotpot is not just a meal but also a social event, family gathering or simply a celebration, bringing people together to enjoy a classic that has been running through their veins for a long time.
Dòuhuā – is a type of tofu which is extremely delicate and smooth, most commonly served as a dessert but often makes the transition from sweet to savory depending on the people’s pallet in the particular region. Bean curd or Tofu is an important part of the Chinese cuisine and has been since ancient times. They have used the soybean for over 4 thousand years with it being a major source of protein and eventually becoming a way of life. Although the origin has never been singled out there are several theories of its creation. Tofu was documented as early as the Han dynasty but since the bean is native to China it most likely dates back further. There is a theory involving the possibility of the Mongols bringing the Indian technique of curdling to China, traditionally done with cow’s milk but was applied to soy milk creating tofu. It is said with the rise of Buddhism it began to spread, gaining the reputation of a good source of protein for the vegetarian diet.
This particular dish included Douhua in a vegetable broth, mustard greens, dried soybeans, fried wheat noodles, soy sauce and chili oil. A popular snack in Sichuan province and a great way to display the diversity of the soybean, from ancient China till these modern days, tofu is now eaten all over the world and is of extreme importance in most Asian cuisines.
Lanzhou la Mian – Lanzhou is a city in the Gansu Province of northwestern China, built along the yellow river it has been a crossing and entre point for the northern Silk Road for thousands of years. This portion of the west is heavily populated with “Hui Chinese”, an Islamic group that make up one of the 5 major minorities within China. The Hui have a long and fascinating history consisting of cultural infusion through travel and trade. A product of the Silk Road produced a mix of Turkic, Arab, Persian, Han, and Mongol that are responsible for spreading the East to the West and bringing it back. La mian literally means “pulled noodle” and is a technique of stretching out the dough then twisting it, repeating this over and over again to produce long strains of dough or noodles. Noodles have been made in these parts of China for over 6,000 years and even long before the introduction of wheat, they were using “millet” or rice. When in search of La mian seek out a Halal restaurant, they are popular through out China due to migration of people from the northwest to larger cities in search of work. You can order these fresh noodles and have them stir-fried with various ingredients or placed in a soup. Meanwhile you can watch a master stretch out the dough, twisting and banging it against the table to produce these perfect hand made pieces of art.
Jian Bing – although labeled as “the Chinese crepe” for its similarity in appearance to those thin pancakes, these have nothing to do with the French. Since the beginning of time people have been experimenting with unleavened breads from central Asia to the Americas and were traditionally formed into round shapes for a symbolic reference to the sun. Although the Mayans were forming round breads made from corn known as tortillas, out in central Asia they were making them out of Atta or whole-wheat flour calling them “Roti”. The Roti shares a history split between Pakistan and India and is believed to be the influence for later middle eastern style breads at the same time spreading north to places like Nepal, Tibet and of course, China.
Another version of the roti in China is called “Lao Bing” which is often referred to as Chinese pizza. It’s a thin wheat dough that is baked then spread with chili paste and finished with chives, it truly does resemble pizza in both taste and appearance. Jian Bing is just a thinner lao bing that can be filled, stuffed or rolled up with all sorts of ingredients. A common version consists of this thin bread cooked over a flattop, beaten eggs are poured on, then a fried piece of dough is added for both texture and substance, it is finished with the signature sauce of your vender which can either be a hoisin style, fresh chilies, fermented tofu or a leek flower sauce. This one I sampled was very different from the common version, containing bean sprouts, seaweed, carrots and taro noodles then sauced with both a hoisin and Chili sauce. I believe this is one of those meals that is interpreted by different people in different ways resulting in a forever-evolving dish.
Guo Qiao mi Xian – “Crossing the bridge noodles” is how this would be translated. One of the more well known and popular dishes coming from the Yunnan province, it consists of round rice noodles, pickled and fresh Chinese cabbage, leeks, chili oil, shredded Chicken and the stock it was cooked in. These ingredients are added in a specific order into a small clay pot, brought up to a roaring boil and finished with some spices. The rice noodle is the core of this soup and is a product that has been around since ancient times in China. Rice has been cultivated all across the south for over 10,000 years but has been growing wild since before recorded history. This same species of rice has become an important part in people’s diets across the globe, spreading early on from China through central Asia, the Middle East, reaching Europe through Muslim conquest to parts of Italy and Spain. Oryza sativa or Asiatic rice has become a big part of world renowned dishes like Italian risotto or Spanish paella and eventually becoming a necessity for those in places as far away as Mexico and Brasil. The Chinese have a gift for cultivating, from agricultural to husbandry, these are things they have shared with the world for thousands of years. Also taking credit for such inventions as rowed farming and tools like the plow, they lead the way for people to follow.
The Chinese have a well known reputation for being in touch with both the body and nature, with various beliefs concerning health benefits developed in ancient times and involvement in traditional medicines that are still widely used as opposed to western techniques. For instance, their theory of whatever part of the animal you eat is good for that part of your body, so for liver problems you should consume more liver, heart issues eat more heart, achy joints you should incorporate more cartilage or fat in your diet and so on. So you can imagine that the Chinese eat everything, giving you a perfect reason for indulging in different foods. Since China is one of the largest countries in the world while at the same time having one of the oldest histories, it is impossible to cover every region on this visit. I am well aware of barely touching the famous Cantonese region while leaving out internationally known dishes like Beijing or Peking duck. Chinese food today is up there with Turkish food for being the most popular, accessible and common food eaten around the world. Chinese food can be found on every corner of this planet, like Chifas in Peru for example or any of the China towns in every major city throughout the continents. Most times these restaurants are just a poor knock-off while attempting to adapt to the locals pallet but they still come from the massive collection of thousands of recipes and various techniques that have been accumulating since ancient times from dynasty to dynasty into the last century. This was just a small taste of real Chinese cuisine with the hope this will inspire many to get out and explore one of the oldest and most influential culinary styles around and even though it is one of the worlds most known foods, what do we really know about it?Continue Reading...