For Chinese people, dining is one of the most pleasurable activities. Therefore, a diverse food culture has been developed over hundreds of years. The following are a few “picks” of this vast country.
Spring rolls are fried pastries from the south of China, with those from Shanghai and Guangdong being the best known.The name is intrinsically linked to the Spring Festival. In the past, the Chinese had the custom of having “spring pancakes” to mark the end of winter. These “spring pancakes” are actually rolled pancakes with different fillings.
By the Yuan Dynasty, fried spring pancakes, an early from of spring rolls, had appeared. Spring rolls are common in south China and can be found not only during the Spring Festival, but also in restaurants at any time of the year. Many people also make spring rolls at home.
Spring rolls are relatively easy to make. Mix flour with a small amount of water and knead into a very soft paste. Spread out the paste to make round and paper-thin sheets on a heated griddle. Cool these sheets, add a filling, and then wrap them into long rolls. Deep-fry the rolls until golden. In cities, spring rolls sheets can be bought in stores, making the job easier.
The filling can be either sweet or savory depending on your preference. For a sweet filling, sweetened bean paste is a good choice. For a savory one, Chinese cabbage and shredded pork is particularly popular, while shredded bamboo shoots and edible fungus can be added for good measure.
The filling should be thickened with cornstarch and left to cool before use, as hot fillings tend to break the outer casing. The skins of perfect spring rolls should be crispy, and the filling tender.
People are eating yuanxiao at the Lantern Festival. The custom of eating yuanxiao in celebration of the Lantern Festival dates back to the Song Dynasty. Yuanxiao are also called dumplings. They are so called because the round white dumplings swimming in the bowl resemble the moon which shines brightly on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
In the past, these dumplings were only available during the Yuanxiao Festival which is how they acquired their name.Nowadays, yuanxiao are no longer available only during the Lantern Festival. Frozen yuanxiao are available at all major supermarkets, while fresh yuanxiao made on the spot are served in many dim sum restaurants.
Yuanxiao are made of ground sticky rice, and are also sometimes stuffed with other fillings. Solid yuanxiao are served in fermented glutinous rice soup or sweet soup, while stuffed yuanxiao are usually cooked in boiling water.
Yuanxiao recipes and flavours vary considerably from region to region. Take Beijing yuanxiao for instance. The first step is to prepare the filling, which is usually sweet. This is molded into small dices and then placed in a large bamboo tray covered with dry ground sticky rice.
As the tray swings, they catch a layer of pulverized rice. Then they are taken out for moistening and put back to catch another layer as the tray swings, over and over again until the dices grow into balls enveloped with multi-layered sticky rice.
In southern China, the making of dumplings involves preparing sticky rice dough, stuffing the filling into dough dices, and molding them into balls. Fillings can be salty if prepared with fresh meat (or a combination of vegetables and meat), or sweet if prepared with sesame, red bean paste, and gingko.
Zongzi or Rice Dumplings
Zongzi is a popular delicacy. Rice dumplings are made by wrapping glutinous rice and fillings tightly in bamboo leaves and then simmered in water. They are shaped like pyramids, bed pillows, or a woman’s bound feet, a common sight in feudal China.
The practice of eating rice dumplings originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty and was limited to certain geographical areas. That it turned into a tradition with gaining popularity was attributed to the death of Qu Yuan.
Legend has it that on the Dragon Boat Festival large quantities of rice dumplings were dumped in the river where the poet had taken his own life to scare away fish and shrimp so that they would not feed on the poet’s body, in the hope that it could kept intact.
Although the tale is no longer much talked about, the delicious rice dumplings have been preserved to this day. As China is a vast country, taste preferences differ between the north and the south. Rice dumplings in northern China have an impressive size while those in southern China, with the exception of Hainan Island are relatively small. Rice dumplings in the north are sweet while those in the south are often salty.
The best known rice dumplings in the north are those made in Beijing, which are large, three-or four-cornered, and filled with red dates and red bean paste, sometimes with preserved fruits or meats.The best loved rice dumplings in the south are those made in Guangdong and Jiaxing, Zhejiang.
Guangdong rice dumplings may be small but they are renowned for their variety, and include red bean paste zongzi, pork zongzi, chicken zongzi, duck zongzi, barbecued pork zongzi, and mushroom zongzi. Sometimes, salted egg yolk is added to generate a deeper flavour.
Jiaxing rice dumplings are nationally known, especially those that bear the brand name of Wufangzhai, which are famous for the choice ingredients they use. Wufangzhai rice dumplings, with a tempting aroma and flavour, are a very popular speciality.
In the past, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, housewives were kept occupied cleaning bamboo leaves in water, soaking glutinous rice, and wrapping rice dumplings. Nowadays, most people, especially city-dwellers, are too busy to make their own rice dumplings, and content themselves with those form supermarkets or restaurants.Today, fewer and fewer people are skilled at wrapping rice dumplings. Those who can do this well are usually advanced in age.
Eating Five-Yellow Meals
In regions near the Yangtze River delta, there is an unusual custom called “eating a five-yellow meal’.
These five yellow foods are eel, yellow fish, cucumber, salted egg yolk, and realgar wine. The most opportune time for eating such a meal is the middle of the day. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the yang force is at its strongest on the fifth day on the fifth lunar month, and particularly so in the middle of that day.
The five-yellow meal is so scheduled as to capitalize on the yang force which negates bad fortune and invigorates the body. The above five-yellow meal combination, is by no means universal. In some places, it may consist of yellow fish, cucumber, egg yolk, soy beans, and day lily, depending on availability.
Scaling heights on the Double Ninth Festival is a fascinating custom, but it is difficult for people living in flat cities to climb mountains or to find any heights to scale.
Double Ninth Festival Cake
Instead, people hit upon the ingenious idea of making cakes, since the two Chinese characters “height” and “cake” share the same pronunciation and tone.
The Double Ninth Festival Cakes are sometimes called flower cakes, chrysanthemum cakes, or colourless cakes. The main ingredient for making Double Ninth Festival Cakes is ground rice, mixed with walnut meat and dates.
Elaborate cakes sometimes consist of nine layers like a pagoda, dotted at the top with two tiny imitations of lambs, or tiny triangular flags.
Back in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it was customary that early in the morning on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, a Double Ninth festival Cake would be cut into flaky slices to be pasted on children’s foreheads as a blessing to ensure that their life would be satisfactory and that their future careers would be successful.
Hand-stretched noodles (La Mian)
La Mian are well-known traditional specialty of Shanxi. La Main-making has become a popular show that can be seen on almost every street in Shanxi. The most intriguing part is when a slab of dough is stretched into countless slim coils of noodles; in the hands of a La Mian master, it can remain as a single amazingly long noodle.
Two La Mian masters are hand-stretching noodles
Making La Mian requires a lot of finesse. Different types of La Mian call for different levels of accomplishments. Da La Mian (big stretched noodles) are usually of less than seven coils. Those with more than seven coils are called Dragon Whisker Noodles, and tend to be fine and slim. Xiao La Mian (little stretched noodles), with more than seven coils, tend to be the ones most often cooked by families at home.
Of the different kinds of La Mian, Dragon Whisker Noodles certainly have the most distinguished pedigree. They originated in the imperial court and later became popular among the common people. A La Mian master can stretch a slab of dough into noodles as fine as single hair. In Shanxi, Dragon Whisker Noodles, a symbol of longevity and happiness, are a must-have at birthday dinners and family gatherings.