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Lisu Food in Wuding County Highlights Five Of Them
Spring Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(1) pages: 11 to 12
Lisu, recognized as a southern Mongoloid race, is one of China’s fifty-five ethnic minority population groups. They mainly inhabit the Nujiang prefecture in the Yunnan Province. Lesser numbers live elsewhere in other parts of China, in Myanmar, Thailand, India, and in others places. There are various estimates of this population in China. One is that they are some 702,839 of them. This is 5.13% of the total ethnic minority who make up just under eight percent of the country's total population of 1,370,536,875 people, according to the 2010 Chinese nationwide census.
This population group are also known as Aung, Lash or Lashi, Lisaw, Shisham, Yaowen, Yehjen, and other names. About two-thirds of them live in Western Yunnan in the mountains between the Salween and Mekong Rivers, while others are in other counties in Yunnan and in Sichuan, and in a few other counties.
Dating back to the mid-700s which was during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), they were referred to as the Wuman-Lisu tribe, and known to live mainly on wild fruits and game along the Jinsha River Valley in the northwest of China. They were written about in several sources as the migrant Diqiang ethnic group; though not so known these days.
Once ruled by other ethnic kingdoms including the Naxi, Bai, Tibetan, Mongolian, and by the Han population, the Lisu generally impress outsiders because they are honest, hospitable, hardworking, and brave. These impressions were probably attributed to their living in the countryside, worshiping nature and to their ancestors, as well as their conversion to Protestantism. They were one of the earliest Chinese minority followers of Western missionaries.
The Lisu are believed to have originated in eastern Tibet before they moved to Northwestern Yunnan. There, they lived in the Baoshan and Tengzhong plains for thousands of years before moving to Yunnan and nearby places. Their culture and their clans are many, as are their foods and drinks. They vary from place to place, perhaps because of these major moves many hundreds of years ago. They speak branches of the Sino-Tibetan language family with Lisu, Yi Lahu, and Akha as major variations. They are all intelligible even among those coming from far-flung regions.
We do know a lot about these people because they were mentioned in Chinese historical records by 685 CE. Early on, some were referred to as 'Southern Barbarians' but that name was dropped after they moved to the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, long before my time.
As a native of a remote and hilly village, namely Beihou in Wuding County in the Chuxiong Prefecture of the Yunnan Province, like my fellow villagers of the same generation, when I was young I could not speak China’s national language before I had some bilingual education and frequent contact with local Han people. Therefore and fortunately, most Lisu ethnic food culture was kept intact even though it is not as popular nowadays as it was then.
My people had no written language until one was developed in 1975 by the then Chinese government, but they did have festivals and holidays set to the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year was the most popular, second was their Sword-Pole Festival. celebrated on the eighth day of their second Lunar month when they climb a ladder made of swords in their bare feet.
Now, I would like to recall, from my childhood in the 1960s, personal observations of five major Lisu delicacies, some cooked in the kitchen, the rest prepared in a fire pit located in the sitting room of their main dwelling. They make and enjoy a big feast at every wedding, after which the groom moves in with the bride’s family until he finishes his bride-service. After that, they move and live with his family and stay their until after their first child is born.
As to their cooking, let me provide a fuller picture locating their kitchen and fire pit where most foods are prepared. A typical Lisu household back then was a quadrangle dwelling in a thatched/clay/tile-roofed wood-framed earthen-walled structure. The elevated main dwelling accommodated grains, meat, and other valuables, and it was on the second floor.
The ground floor had two bedrooms partitioned and separate from the central sitting room where the fire pit was situated. Specifically, it was near the far-end and opposite the entrance, though some were in its middle. As to the two side dwellings, the left one was used as the kitchen, the right one was the gate. This could be reversed depending on a divination master’s location made before any construction began. An opposite dwelling, connected to two side ones, stood across the courtyard, and it stored foodstuffs on the second floor, and kept livestock and poultry in separate pens on the ground floor.
The fire in the pit was never put out year-round, thanks to a sufficient supply of firewood nearby. Thanks to this, the rooms were warm and allowed for some light cooking as well as the preparation of water for making tea.
What follows are five major Lisu delicacies that I recall having at home in Wuding County; but they are not the only ones. Lisu people have a great variety of special foods and drinks including but not limited to these five major ones I am sharing in this article. Many of their foods and drinks are prepared with various cereal and vegetable ingredients, and prepared in unique ways. They are served on different occasions and are closely related to the Lisu culture.
Before telling about them, keep in mind that the Lisu live in hilly villages far from most marketplaces. They usually frequent a market weekly as it can take from two to six hours to reach it on foot. Some, but not all townships and farmlands are accessible by motorbike.
BAKED WHEAT BREAD is the first of these delicacies. It is a thick wheat bread baked on a pan then cooked below the charcoal fire. To make this, they mix proportional amounts of wheat flour and cold water and carefully knead this by hand to form a round loaf about ten inches in diameter and one and one-quarter inches thick. This is lightly baked on both sides on a flat pottery container or on a pan over an iron tripod. After that, it is buried in hot ashes under some burning wood. It can be a snack, used for lunch, or used by those going distant locations. Local people find it delicious and better than plain bread. It is not fermented, has no yeast or soda, and is a thick dough slowly heated, baked, and eaten as a bread-related food.
STEAMED FRESH TWISTED GRAIN FOOD is the second food I remember. These twists are steamed after being shaped into strips. They are made of almost fully matured de-husked wheat that cleaned then ground using a stone mill. One that I recall did have one handle and two huge round hard stones coupled with one hole through the upper one, both somehow connected. It had teeth and was about sixteen inches in diameter. The twisted strips were made after grinding some grain before the winter wheat harvest which was in about March. The twists were shared with relatives and friends; and were sweet and delicious. Some Han friends living nearby called them ‘wheat insects.’
STEAMED MAIZE is a third food; it was fresh ground maize steamed in the leaves of Erythrina variegate or fresh corn husks. They would take fully matured corn cobs off their stalks, remove the husks and silks, then clean the kernels and thresh them. When ground, they mixed them with salt and Chinese red pepper and made this into a paste. It was put into the husks or leaves and steamed for thirty minutes. These were a seasonal food and made before the autumn harvest; that happened sometime around October. These were sometimes shared with friends and relatives; and they too, were sweet and delicious.
BOILED STREAKY PORK WITH SMASHED BEAN PASTE is the fourth item I recall. The streaky pork was sliced and boiled, then coated with smashed bean paste. To make them, people in the countryside first boiled the beans, then ground them into a paste, and finally added some fresh garlic sprouts before heating everything in a pot. This was served only once during the year, usually after a pig was butchered and before the eve of Chinese New Year. Very good, it was not too oily, very flavorful, and most delicious.
BOILED FENNEL LEAVES WITH EGGS is the fifth and last item I am sharing in this article. Fennel was a vegetable found on local terrace ridges, its leaves prepared with eggs. Made after washing the fennel leaves with lots of water, they were then plaited and twisted into circles. The eggs were beaten, whites and yolks together, and the circles then boiled in water with some oil, then the eggs poured into these circles and stirred as one would soup. This dish, available all year round, was tasty, thirst-quenching, and delicious, as well.
The above items demonstrate Lisu food’s distinctiveness in preparation. The first was portable for long-haul trips, and original in taste, reflecting Lisu people’s pursuit of simple, practical, and healthy ways of living and eating. The second delicacy offered freshness, appearance, and good nutrition, and was made with whole wheat grains. It does have one limitation, it can only be made right after the winter wheat is harvested. The third delicacy uses freshly harvested maize; that is only available after the corn kernels are sun-dried. It benefittes from fresh tree leaves; they and fresh husks add flavor to it. It is also seasonal. The fourth delicacy, served before the Chinese New Year was a good item to use when entertaining relatives and friends providing them with something to eat that has fine color, a lovely aroma, and very good taste. It is good for large gatherings and helps strengthen people’s relationships. The last one, believed to be a tasty nutritious soup, includes mixed materials. The chicken eggs and fennel were readily available to Lisu villagers; and each household might raise dozens of hens, the fennel growng along the ridges of their farmlands.
These five foods are delicacies that were part of Lisu dietary culture. Nowadays, some local restaurant owners serve them to visitors, customers, and guests, and to those in the Lisu community. Everyone seems to like them.
Note: The picture of a Lisu lady with a beaded hat and the sword ladder used on that festival occasion are thanks to this magazine’s editor, and the author, respectively. Many Lisu practice wet-land agriculture, raise fruit trees, grow rice, millet, barley, buckwheat, and vegetables, and they collect medicinal herbs, honey, ginger, yams, bird’s eggs, bamboo shoots, pine nuts, and foods from nearby forests; and they like to hunt deer and other animals.
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