29 May 2011, Posted by Dustin J in China, 1 Comments

Chinese Cuisine

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?

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15 May 2011, Posted by Dustin J in China, 2 Comments


China is home to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations, with over 4000 years of written history and a past made up of dynasties, warlords, exploration, culture and trade. This part of East Asia has been of extreme importance since the beginning of documented time and beyond, dating back to the Peking man 500,000 years ago, already using stone tools and cooking over open fires. With tribes continuing to pop up inside the Yellow & Yangtze River valleys, there was no other option but growth in this cradle of Chinese civilization. We could spend a lifetime studying the history of China and another discussing it. So instead I will sum up 4000 years of history in the pages below, sorting it into the most influential Dynasties, important times in history and any interesting culinary occurrences.

Xia Dynasty – is believed to have been the first true Dynasty in China even though there is very little evidence left behind. We do know these early settlers were located in modern day Henan province just north of the Yellow river. We can’t connect much to them directly, but the Xia are believed to have been the first bronze workers in China having found matching artifacts from over 4000 years ago.

Shang Dynasty – an important dynasty during the ancient times of China, and with agriculture being the base for the empire, they realized the value of growing their own food becoming a form of currency across the country. They became skilled working with varies types of bronze, jade, stone and even using Oracle bones for divinations. They were also the first to practice animal husbandry and hunted in between to satisfy their need for protein. This was a foundation for the following dynasties and gives us a taste of early Chinese civilizations.

Zhou Dynasty – with the overthrow of the Shang, the doors were open to growth and a desire to become more skilled and efficient people. First iron was introduced, leading them to produce better weapons, tools, utensils and more. But during the same period they gained recognition for their skill in forging bronze. The written script evolved closer to its modern form and they created the “Mandate of Heaven” doctrine, considered the zenith of the dynasty.

Spring and Autumn period & the Era of Warring States – the Zhou finally gave way to the pressure of politics and divided into separate states. With movements like Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism being erected, it marked the “Spring & Autumn period” which eventually lead to “The Era of the Warring States”. This Era was a big transition point with iron replacing bronze and knowledgeable philosophers making their mark. With war present and leadership divided among separate states, it was only natural to begin trading and production of weapons and tools also beginning mass construction of shelters for protection. Warlords were born, creating a presence during this time of struggle and power.

Qin Dynasty –they were the first ruling dynasty of Imperial China and the ones who pushed towards the fall of the Zhou and the defeat over all the other 6 states. With war and a newly formed dynasty on their hands, currency was introduced along with a system of weight, measurements as well as a more proficient written language. With power comes threat, so they began building a large wall to keep invaders out, just north of the city that would later be know as the “Great Wall of China”. Trying to cover the past, it ended up leading to the “burning of books and burying of scholars incident”. At the same time the man known as “the Divine Father” pushed that all households should grow their own food, preaching “In ones prime if he does not plow, someone will go hungry. In ones prime if she does not weave, someone will go cold.” This was the first ruling dynasty of Imperial China, the one that set up a bureaucratic system so the emperor could control vast territories. Although they were one of the shortest ruling dynasties, they left a large and lasting impact.

Note: Up until this point the people were of various different ethnic groups and tribes but the Emperor from the Qin Dynasty united the people under a Legalist government. That started one of the largest ethnic groups in the world, that to this day makes up 20% of our planets population, The Han.

Han Dynasty – having a strong foundation laid by the previous dynasties, forging skills, a developed language and script, agriculture and more, there was only the need to form structure. The Han were the first to embrace the philosophy of Confucianism that became the ideal match for all dynasties to come until the end of Imperial China. Emperor Wu feeling the need to hold ground began pushing out the Xiongnu people into Inner Mongolia, which led to the beginning of Chinese exploration paving the road between the East and the West, later coined “The Silk Road”. Trade finally started to prove lucrative and this fed the war and separation. For the next 400 years China entered the “The Era of the Warlords” and the period of “The Three Kings”. Through this time of separation there were many rulers, kings and even a short-lived dynasty.

Tang Dynasty – this marked the beginning of a new era where Buddhism became the predominant religion with Taoism reaching its official status. Xi’an became the new capital, trading flourished between the east and west while merchants even began settling in China. With a new government being formed the “Equal- field systems” gave families land grants based on need not by status or wealth. With things looking up it did not last, leading into nearly 300 years of war with 5 dynasties and ten kingdoms, separating again until 1234.

Yuan Dynasty – with the introduction of firearms in China the wars took a bloodier path in the Yuan dynasty. Marco Polo reached China bringing news back to Europe of all they had to offer and the importance of making the connection. During this period the Chinese were hit with a tremendous loss of people, first the invasion of the Mongols and second with a devastating plague that combined were said to have taken half of China’s population. They were the first Dynasty to rule all of China based in Beijing and they lasted just under a century.

Ming Dynasty – after the last hundred years of war, death and destruction the Chinese were ready to set off on a new path. With large urban growth came the production of paper, cotton, silk and porcelain, which created an industry spitting out markets across the country to support trade. A large navy was founded with some massive and powerful ships being built, while at the same time forming a standing army of over a million. This marked the era of Chinese exploration, setting out to sea with determination to make connections with far away lands. Reaching the east coast of Africa and later believed to have touched down in the Americas 70 years before the Europeans arrived. This was a time of expansion and trade for not just China but the whole world. Europeans were spilling into the Americas, colonizing everyone they came across while destroying large communities and evaporating the native cultures to build up the mighty Europe that is seen today. During this period “the Great Wall” was repaired plus expanded and iron production hit an all time high at 100,000 tons per year.

Qing Dynasty – was formed after the defeat of the Ming, which was the last of the Han Chinese in power. The Qing were born with the capture of Beijing by “Li Zicheng’s” peasant rebels in 1644, these were the Manchu people of Northeast China that allied with general Wu Sangui of the previous Ming Dynasty. In the next couple hundred years there were several wars, political issues and expansion with the influence over Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia. With opium being introduced from India to the west, it was in high demand not just back in Europe but China, resulting in the British forming the first opium trade. British merchants were bringing opium from Bengal up the coast to China, where they sold it despite the laws prohibiting it. Emperor Dao Guang was aware of the problems involved with opium, a large percent of the population were becoming addicts and it was destroying the community. He lashed out at any smugglers and dealers, which eventually lead to the first Opium War. In exchange the British lashed back in fear of profit loss, ending in the “Treaty of Nanking” and Hong Kong being established. The Qing Dynasty was the last dynasty to rule, bowing down to open the door for a republic China.

Republic of China – with the steady civil unrest and foreign invasions, young officials, military officers and students spotted China’s weakness and began to overthrow the Qing Dynasty to create a republic, forever laying down an Imperial China. Over the last hundred years China has witnessed several wars including their own civil war, which resulted in the dividing into separate countries. The Republic of China now commonly known as Taiwan and People’s Republic of China, the Mainland.

Historically and culturally China’s customs and writing systems have influenced various neighboring countries such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. They have one of the world’s oldest written languages and also claim inventions like papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, printing as well as many other major contributions to the world. China has also had major impact when it comes to food, giving us such wonderful things as the noodle, dumplings, soy products, tea, the wok and chopsticks just to name a few. Currently China has one of the strongest economies in the world as well as being one of the largest in land mass and combined with a growing population, it is finding its place among the world’s most powerful countries.

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