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Yi People and Their Food

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 29, 30, and 31


The approximately seven million Yi people are a varied group. They are one of the largest of the fifty-six Chinese Minzu or Chinese ethnic nationality population groups. Most of them live in the southwest of the country; and they are the largest minority population there. They live in the Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and in a special Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and the Liangshan Yi Autonomus Prefecture.

Archeological finds indicate that the Yi are a very ancient culture who were living in Yunnan thousands of years before written records. There is later written documentation in their language, and that was a couple of thousand years ago in the early part of the Han Dynasty, some time between 206 BCE and 23 CE. Later, in the eighth century of the Common Era (CE), the Yi and the Bai nationalities founded the 'Kingdom of Nanzhou.'

This Nanzhou Kingdom, when founded, encompassed not only most of Yunnan, but also the southern part of Sichan, and the western parts of Guizhou and Guangxi. Nowadays, about four and half million Yi people live in Yunnan, two million live in Sichuan, a half million in Guizhou, and considerably fewer elsewhere in China including in the Guangxi Province.

The Yi nationality is quite diverse both linguistically and culturally. Why and when they were made into one Minzu by the Chinese government is a question worth asking but one this magazine can not answer. The when was probably between 1956 and 1958. But some say that some Yi are more closely related to the Lisu, others say they are closer to the Lahu. Perhaps. In any case, for sixty years they have been considered one ethnic population group even though groups of Yi disagree with this designation, the Nouso and others among them. Certainly there are differences in dress, food, housing, and transport between some of the different segments of Yi; but it is not the purview of this magazine to detail them, as most are not food related.

Agriculturally, Yi ancestors who migrated to the southern part of Yunnan began cultivating tea. They also began drinking it to please the spirits and also to please themselves. Tea culture and many early Yi tea practices have survived. One of these is the 'Weishan Eight Steps Tea.' Also surviving, is their practice of serving chicken, pigs, and cattle when entertaining guests. They make eight different dishes out of these three animals for guests and for worship rituals.

Eight is a very important number to the Yi, as it is to most Chinese. At ordinary feasts, they serve eight bowls of different meat dishes, and call them 'The Eight Bowls.' After eating them, guests are entertained with 'Eight Steps Tea,' which is a singing and dancing presentation of this beverage. And, their banquets are called Three-Eights. These huge meals can have as many at one hundred twenty-four dishes; and at them, there is considerable liquor consumption.

This ancient group did divide over time, mostly because of generational rules about marriage and other genealogical issues. Later, they became a union of thirty-seven tribes. However, when the Qan’s, Qubilai (Kubla) and his brothers and his extended family were in power, the Yi collapsed or as some say more visually, they 'wilted like a flower.'

Yi people respect black and always have thought that things black are precious. Many parts of their dress are black; and their wooden bowls for food are painted black, yellow, and red. They do fine embroidery, lots of it on black fabric or done with lots of black threads. This is not their only talent. They developed considerable ability making very early bronzes, and developed a written language somewhat more that a thousand years ago. We know this from Yi documents and know that ritual sacrifices to ancestral spirits and maintenance of distance or nearness to one’s kin is important to the Yi.

Early Yi people were subsistence farmers who grew rice and vegetables and kept their animals in their homes. Some findings show they did this for ten thousand years. Theirs was a caste society with a Nzymop at its head; a name that translates to ‘one who wields power.’ When their organizational structure began is hard to say because while the Yi have a long oral history, it was first written down some time in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE).

Wooden serving bowls and short spoons; tea and rice, and respect for tea have a long history with the Yi. They offer tea to the spirits; grow it and grow and eat lots of oats and bitter buckwheat. They hunt, as they have for hundreds of generations, and each Yi person can recite at least seven generations of their kinship. A Bimo, their male--always a male priest, deals with sickness, death, and misfortune. He is the village keeper of Yi documents. He performs rituals and offers permission for marriage, funerals and other important events.

Yi were once considered and known as the 'Man' people. At that time, they included Miao, Yao, and Yi people. The Nouso and the Niso are said to be Yi, as are the Sani. They were also once called 'Wuman' and were targeted for assimilation by the Han. The government moved thousands of Han into their areas, and assimilation began. It is still going on. To confuse things even more, they were also called 'Luoluo.' The written character in this word contains the radical for 'dog.' That was cause enough for the Yi to get rid of that particular name. There are four subgroups of Yi: Nisu, Nasu, Sani and Yi, and in addition, the northern Yi are often called the Nuosu. Confused? So are others. A First International Yi Studies Conference supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation; they and others met in Seattle in 1995, gave papers, and shared what people thought.

Some of the things they and others documented was that the Yi have many well-known ceremonies. One, called the 'Skirt-changing Ceremony,' is done between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, but only in odd-year-ages. When, depends upon a girl’s physical maturity. After this ceremony, Yi girls are considered adults. At this ceremony, her extended family and local females enjoy a banquet of pork and mutton and help her change her single braid into two of them. Before that event, no male makes advances to her; after it, she welcomes them.

Times are changing for this and all ethnic populations in and outside of China. One apparent change, in the food/beverage category, is that Yi people used to drink a lot of tea. Now they prefer and indulge in wine and spirits, the equivalent of three drinks a day is typical. On New Year’s Day, which used to begin their ten-month annual cycle of thirty-six-day months, and on other important holidays, families used to put a jar of wine at their front door. In it, they placed a long bamboo tube so that passers by could enjoy this ‘tube wine’ offering. The Yi said that nothing is sweeter than tube wine. Nowadays, they have adopted the Han Lunar calendar. However, this makes for confusion between older literature and modern writings.

Yi wedding and funeral banquets used to be held outdoors. Men sat in one line, women in another. Lots of food and wine were placed on the ground before them. These occasions continue in the mountains but are rarely seen in lower terrain. As their staples were maize, buckwheat, oats, potatoes, and rice, there were always some of these and lots of meat dishes there to serve their extended families.

Those Yi who lived in the mountains, and those elsewhere at lower and subsistence levels ate acorns, bananas, banana roots, flowers, and wild herbs. Now it is more common for them to make a bread from buckwheat flour and to raise animals or catch them and boil them with lots of salt. They still gather leaves and make wonderful pickled leaf soups. And, they still eat with short spoons out of their tri-color wooden bowls.

Today, their colorful costumes and their changing social environment have brought about changes for this varied group of people. Educated people are learning about this large population group. They are learning about the birds and other animals and flowers and grasses they still eat. They understand that those seen in their embroidered clothing are important to them. They now also know about these people from their music, dance, books, and films. Hopefully, the Yi will publish a cookbook before most of their foods are mixed with Han foods and are lost among other ancient identities.

Here, we share a few items from their ancient heritage. If you have others, we hope you will send them so that we can share them with all readers.
Corn Pancakes
Ingredients:
1 cup cooked corn kernels
2 eggs
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup celery leaves, minced
1 cup corn oil
Preparation:
1. Mince the corn kernels until quite fine with two cleavers or put them in the blender.
2. Beat eggs until very well mixed and lighter in color, then add the flour, water, salt, and sugar, the minced leaves, and the minced corn kernels.
3. Heat oil and drop a scant one-quarter cup of batter into a wok or fry pan. Cook the pancake until it looks done, then turn it over and cook it on the other side. Keep it warm in a two hundred degree oven, no higher as they will dry out, and repeat until all batter is used up; then serve. This makes eight pancakes.
Date Triangles
Ingredients:
1 cup Chinese black dates
1/2 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons lard
2 eggs
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup rice or buckwheat flour, or a combination of both
1 cup corn oil
Preparation:
1. Simmer dates and sugar in two cups of water for one hour. Remove the pits and mash thoroughly, mix with the lard and cool overnight, in the refrigerator. Take this out two hours before use, and allow it to come to room temperature.
2. Beat eggs, flours and one cup of water, then let this batter rest for half an hour.
3. Pour about three tablespoons of the oil into a hot fry pan and put in one-fourth of the batter. Cook until set, turn over and cook only one minute on the second side. Repeat three more times until all batter is used.
4. Put the cooked dough circle on a plate and put one-fourth of the date paste on half of it. Fold over and cut each half into three pieces and put on a serving plate, and put this plate into a two hundred degree F oven. Complete using all dough and date paste, then serve when hot or warm, do not let them cool.
Yi-style Pickles and Pork
Ingredients:
2 stalks celery with leaves, chopped coarsely
3 cloves garlic, minced coarsely
1 cup minced Chinese cabbage
1 carrot, minced fine
1 large pickle, minced fine
10 Sichuan pepper corns
1/2 cup fortified Chinese wine or sherry
1 Tablespoon Chinese mature black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1/2 Tablespoon salt
1/2 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1/4 pound pork filet, cut into thin strips
1/2 dried red chili pepper, seeded and minced
2 scallions, minced
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
Preparation:
1. Rinse celery, garlic, Chinese cabbage, carrot, and the pickle three times in cold water, then put it into a sterilized jar. Add the wine, vinegar, salt and sugar and close loosely and set this aside in a cool dark place for two days. Then strain the solids and set aside.
2. Heat oil and fry the pork and the chili pepper at a very high temperature for one minute. Add the reserved vegetable mixture and cook another two minutes before adding the scallions.
3. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook only until it thickens and the sauce clears. This recipe can be served hot or warm.

                                                                                                                                                       
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