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Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Winter Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(4) page(s): 19, 20, and 32
The Manchu are taller, lighter-skinned Mongoloid people who are descendants of warrior groups in northern China, They are considered the earliest inhabitants of this region. What their origins were and where they came from is an important question that needs answers for a ten million plus ethnic minority population who were the last imperial rulers of China.
Historians believe they originated along the Heilong and Wusuli Rivers thousands of years ago. Anthropologists say that two thousand years ago they were the Sushen tribe. Later they became members of the Yilou, Huji, Mohe, and the Nuzhen tribes; all native to regions north of the Changbai Mountains and drainage areas of the above-mentioned rivers. Very early findings include radio-carbon dated stone arrowheads and pomegranate-wood bows and arrows sent as tribute items to rulers of the Zhou and earlier dynasties (11th century to 221 BCE).
In more recent times, these Nuzhen, sometimes spelled Nuchen, were scattered throughout what are now China's three most northeastern provinces. Those who study the Manchu say some of them have Mongolian forebears with Jurchen ancestry. Written records tell a lot about them, but they are more recent as some no doubt came from the Song (960-1269 CE) and Yuan Dynasties (1279 - 1368). By the end of the 1500's, no matter their origins, these people were unified and beginning to consider themselves a single nationality.
Manchu are no easy group to trace by name, place, or time, but by the 15th century there were large groups of them, farmers mostly, living in communities in Liaoning and other northeastern provinces. There they grew sorghum, millet, and corn, tended their apple trees, raised tobacco, and cared for their silkworms. They also hunted boar, raised pigs, wove linen, and made small river boats.
These people were sedentary and lived beyond the Great Wall until Nurachi (1559-1626) of the Jianzhou Jurchens united them and much of their land in China's northern provinces. One unifying item was their belief in a form of shamanism. They worshiped the goddess of the sky and gods of the earth, moon, and sun. They honored these gods in many ways including waving banners of blue, yellow, white, and red. The colors represented their sky, earth, moon, and sun gods, respectively.
Nurachi believed the Ming Dynasty was corrupt. After he and his band of conquerors coalesced, they expanded into the existing capital of Nanjing and talked of and worked on moving it, circa 1621. His son Hong Taji, in 1636, reorganized the Manchu, forbade their using his paternal Jurchen heritage, and expanded so that they included Mongolians, Koreans, and Han Chinese.
His son changed their name to Qing, and in 1644 with all their conquering bands, they invaded Ming strongholds. This success led to moving the capital to Beijing. Because the Manchu were mostly outsiders, this clever son designed a system of dual leadership appointments. He selected one Manchu and one Han for all important government ministries. This political accommodation helped him rule a multi-cultural Chinese society. This duality in government had a major impact on the people and on their cuisine. It also helped many Manchu move more southward. Descendants of early Manchu still live in the Liaoning, but also in the Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Hebei provinces, and in Inner Mongolia and in and around Beijing. They began the last imperial dynasty in China in 1644, and they ruled until 1911 CE when they were deposed in the power struggle with Sun Yat Sen and the Nationalists.
Qing, the name the Manchu gave themselves, did not start with the start of this last dynasty. Actually, it began in the early 1600's making the name Manchu short-lived. Nonetheless, many people still refer to China's last dynasty as the Manchu Dynasty.
The Qing Dynasty had ten emperors. The first one, Shunzhi, ruled until 1661. The last was Xuantang who ruled from 1908 to 1911. Together, the accomplishments of all ten of them were both loved and hated. An example of the former is by the mid-19th century the population tripled to four hundred and ten million while under the Ming, it had only doubled, from sixty to one hundred twenty-five million. More importantly, under these Qing rulers there was an ever-expanding food supply. It kept up with the growing population expanding crop lands growing corn, potatoes, and peanuts. Available vegetables increased as did foods made from their flours. These included more noodles, dumplings, and other pastries.
Less appreciated at least by some, was that Qing rulers tried to make puppets of others, such as several Dalai Lama. In 1721, they claimed that Tibet had been under their political control at least from 1696 when Galdan was defeated; thus they claimed that Tibet was a protectorate.
Literary and cultural explosions occurred along with culinary ones. As our interests are in the latter, we focus and discuss distinct Manchu foods and food behaviors. In early times there were considerable differences. Less so now as Manchu and Han foods are more similar than different. Similarities are likewise true with the Manchu language. It is modernized Mongolian and with their own script.
Actually, the Manchu language was a Tungusic tongue on its way to extinction. There has been some reprieve by China's government with funding trying to revive and maintain it, but overall, Manchu now read, write and speak China's national language and live and eat as most Han do.
One can see how they did live visiting museums that show their unique tri-part houses. The middle section was a kitchen area where cradles for infants hung from ceilings and people cooked and ate their meals. The two side sections were combined bedroom and living areas with each outside wall having a kang or heated sleeping platform. Usually, elders lived on the north side, younger family members on the south, guests and young children on western sides.
It is interesting to note that on her wedding day, a Manchu bride would sit on the south kang the entire day; this expressed her current and anticipated future happiness. That night, two pots of wine and two cups were set on a table next to this kang. When the groom would first enter, they both would walk around the table three times, then they would sit on the kang and drink their wine by candle light. Guests peered in and would sing to them and throw peas into the bridal chamber before leaving them for the night.
Other general differences between Manchu and Han were they did not bind the feet of their women, did not kill nor eat dogs, and did not wear or use dog skin for clothing. They did adore and eat lots of mushrooms and herbal foods, and they did eat many different staple foods. Another differences, the Manchu like wine made of ginseng and deer antler and consume these and many other foods for virility,
Main Manchu staple foods are steamed millet and steamed glutinous rice. They like them steamed and plain, and they grind them into flour. They use the flours to make lots of pancakes, steamed breads, buns, and dumplings. The Manchu also like sticky foods including sticky rice and pickles. They eat wine-preserved meats, especially wine-marinated pork. They drink bean milk, milk tea, sour tea, honey water, and burned rice water. And, they like their boiled water mixed with fruits such as the haw-fruit.
The Manchu love sweet bean paste and they eat lots of deep-fried rice and bean paste mixed together; and they love rice pastries. Congee from rice or millet is a common breakfast food. It reappears as all or part of their evening meal. A favorite congee eaten in the eighth month is Eight Treasure Congee. Now it is eaten all year long while traditionally it was reserved for that month alone. The eight ingredients are millet, regular rice and glutinous rice, sorghum, red beans, peanuts, brown sugar, and walnuts.
For Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year, the Manchu make hundreds of their beloved rice-bean paste pastries to have enough to last for the entire fifteen-day festival period. On New Year's Eve their meal includes fish wishing for an abundant year, chunks of boiled meat for many meat meals to come, bowls of meatballs in brown sauce for family unity, and jillions of jiaotze filled with rice, meat, and vegetables. The latter are shaped like crescent moons, the desire implied for them, is to thrive for many moons to come.
At that reunion meal, Manchu eat stewed, boiled, and/or roasted meats for all of the above reasons. They also eat an all-time favorite fried food, saqima. This round candied deep-fried fritter is made from flour, noodles, and syrup. When one sees them on any table at any time, one knows that Manchu people are here. It matters not if they are made in a wok or oven-baked, made with rice or broom-tail millet, they are always indicators of Manchu heritage.
All Manchu festivals are celebrated with rice and meat-filled dumplings, lots of boiled and stewed meat or roast pork, and some baked items often translated as cookies. Ask a modern Manchu why, and he or she will say "because many contain sugar or honey or both." Some Manchu buns are made with glutinous rice flour. They often are wrapped in linden or perilla leaves. They like these sanzi made with rice, buckwheat and broomcorn millet flour, sometimes adding soybean flour and a sweetener. Their candied fritters are year-round favorites made with cooked rice and several flours. These and other staple foods can be plain or fancy, and they can be baked, steamed, or fried.
The Qing Dynasty was well-known for its imperial banquets. Under the Manchu and the Han they became known as man han quan xi. In English they were called Han or Manchu banquets, also Manchu-Han Banquets. Their popularity was elevated during the reign of the fourth Qing emperor, Qianlong (1736-1795 CE).
These banquets were very special meals. Today, they can be found in restaurants such as the Fangshan Restaurant in Beijing's Beihai Park. We did enjoy one years ago at this very restaurant founded in the mid-nineteen twenties by chefs from the Qing Dynasty's Imperial Palace. They might have any number of the more than two hundred dishes known to be potential banquet treats, but ours only had twenty dishes, and we still recall their beauty and phenomenal tastes.
It is written that during Qing Dynasty times, imperial banquets were fantastic events, many held for special reasons. They might celebrate a new emperor's ascension to the throne, a battle won, a royal family member's special birthday, and of course, special holidays such as Spring Festival. There were some half dozen different banquet types. Some were served as one meal at one sitting, others lasted several days. No matter their duration or their number of main dishes, they were referred to as the 'Complete Manchu-Han Banquet.'
Some of these banquets had special names. One such to entertain royalty was called the Qinpan Banquet. Those held annually to award scholars who made major contributions to the government were called Tingcen Banquets. Those to honor the emperor's birthday were Wanshou or Longevity Banquets. In 1713, Emperor Kangxi, on his own sixtieth birthday, hosted one for a thousand senior citizens; he called it the Qiansou Banquet. There was a Jiubai Banquet when Mongolian tribes were conquered; a Jeling Banquet for reasons we could not learn, and there were special solar calender holidays.
At all of them, Han and Manchu foods took center stage, or you might say center table. In later Qing years, some of the banquets had a second name, such as one called the Five-nation Banquet. In these later times, the banquets added Tibetan, Hui, and Mongolian dishes.
No matter their name or year, most banquets began with many assorted and very decorated cold dishes. These were followed by hot preparations, and then there were the individual main dishes, served one at a time. No wonder some were not one day events, but rather two, three, or even more long-day festivities.
The imperial food feasts were fests that served richer and fancier foods each year. They were glittering grand events showing off the majesty of their royal houses. They showed off antique and elegant serving, eating, even literary styles. At the latter, poems and play readings, singers and jesters were some of the accompanying entertainment. At virtually all these banquets, dress was royal and regal and matched the spectacular food presentations. So did the clothing of the service staff.
The overly formal overly fancy food associated with this dynasty was not the way the general populace enjoyed their food. Many were just lucky to have enough to stave off starvation. Some were hungry often while royalty dined. The common Manchu man that could afford, ate pork and other meats, enjoyed fish and wild animal food such as deer, and consumed many, many vegetables and herbs. They boiled and roasted their meats, stir-fried their vegetables, drank herbal and non-herbal decoctions, and enjoyed satiating themselves whenever possible while poor people barely had enough to eat.
Some farmers added hunting to their talents and shot their prey with the firm straight pomegranate wood arrows of their ancestors. While on the subject of wood and ancient practices, the Manchu people kept quite a few ancient belief systems. For example, when a person died, they carried the coffin out a window. This was important as they believed doors were only for the living, After this window exit, they did bury their dead.
On the lighter side, the Manchu adored and held many horse-jumping competitions. Theirs were different from most as they rode camels or horses. The largest of these events were reserved for bumper harvest times. At these events and others, Manchu foods were featured at the end of a day's event. A few recipes they were said to enjoy are provided for your enjoyment.
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