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Shandong: Home to China's Earliest Societies, Sages, and Savory Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(2) page(s): 11, 12, 15, and 19


In the Eastern part of China, pointed into and irrigated by the Yellow River as it snakes in from Kaifeng, this province said to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization, was inspired by Confucius and Mencius. Shandong is not only home to these sages, it is home to Qufu, Qingdao, Yantai (once called Cheefoo), Tainan, Jinan, and other cities.

The provincial capital is Jinan, it oversees a province with mountains, fertile flat lands, and access to the ocean. It has a five-thousand year history unearthed with large early societies at Dawenkou and Dinggongcun. Their clay pots are decorated with writing and are some of China's earliest artifacts. Here also, is Longshan City, said by many to be one of if not the earliest inhabited city in China.

Human settlements in and around Shandong existed for thousand of years, their Neolithic remains found at several sites including the famous ones mentioned above. Also, ancient tombs and temples are found atop Tai Shan, China's holiest mountain; that huge holy place is near the center of the province. Slates dating from the Han Dynasty, some two thousand years ago, unearthed in Yinan, show kitchen scenes with cooking procedures and banquet tables. They also show sauces used for dipping and for cooking.

Another exciting Shandong location with lots of history is Qufu, home of China's most illustrious son. You may also know him by the name the Chinese call him, namely Kongfu. He and most of his large recognized family are buried in Qufu, a city visited often in this second most populous province where ninety-two-plus million inhabitants make up some seven percent of China's population. Only Henan has more people. Near Qufu is the Mausoleum of Shao Hao, one of China’s five legendary emperors supposed to have ruled China some four thousand years ago. Most inhabitants in Shandong are northern Chinese.

Modern Shandong has many well-known foreign influences that mix with its ancient ones. There are those of the Germans who set up factories in the port city of Qingdao circa 1898. There are those of the Japanese who arrived later. Land in this province was leased to Germany from 1898 to 1915 to enable and increase its coal mining near this southern port at Qingdao. The Germans presided over its beaches, its buildings, and its beer.

After this major German influence, there is one Japanese, with the building of railroads leased to them from 1937 to 1945. Besides its beer, German architecture brought red-roofed buildings. The Japanese influences are fewer than the European ones, and almost all of them were invited to counteract those of the Russians who had control of the Liaodong Peninsula.

Shandong province and the surrounding region is the rich in foods and finds antiquarian. Jinan, the capital of the province, is one of China's twenty-four important ancient cities and also called Spring City. Qingdao is its largest city. Jinan gained in importance in 2008 when almost eight thousand dinosaur bones were uncovered there; and that find is said to be the largest dinosaur bone haul ever found. Another important find made a dozen years before, was the discovery of more than two hundred buried Buddhist statues; these were at Qingzhou. These were probably dug into this region during Emperor Huizong's regime; and that was during the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE). With considerable repression of Buddhism at that time, they were no longer wanted because Huizong favored Taoism.

Shandong raises many agricultural products, wheat the most famous among them. It grows lots of cotton and grapes, and makes wine at more than one hundred forty provincial wineries. The Jinan Roast Duck Restaurant serves excellent roast duck, Beijing style, and we still remember its crackling rich skin and sumptuous meat. Oriental Gourmet, another well-known restaurant, serves fantastic carp, a very good scorpion dish, and delicious braised shark's fins. Their sea cucumber and a many layered (some say a thousand of them) baked dumplings some call rolls or another name, and their famous steamed dumplings here called guo tie are famous, too.

Shandong food, also known as Lu cai is considered one of China's eight great culinary cuisines. Not well-known outside of China, in the country it is considered the most elegantly presented, pungent but not piquant, richly flavored, and beautifully garnished food. It reflects the region's long and varied history, sophisticated dining culture, and its terrific tastes. The foods here are the root of China's Northern foods, sometimes mixed together with Beijing cuisine. Shandong is famous in and outside of China for its Qingdao beer, its Laiyang pears, the Yantai apples, Leling dates, and Jime grapes.

The cuisine of this province developed long before the Han Dynasty, and is said to be traced to 770 BCE. It has great bao, quick stir-fry dishes, liu or quick-fried foods coated with corn flour, and it pa or stewed foods.

Bordered by the Yellow River and the Bohai Sea, the land and sea resources are plentiful, the cuisine known from at least the Spring and Autumn Periods (770 - 476 BCE), and many afficionados say the cuisine is divided in three. The first is Jinan foods, also called Qilu and it uses many inland foods. Second is Jiaodong which includes more seafood that inland foods. Third is Confucian food that is elaborate and intended for feasts and imperial events.

This province, second in size to that of the Henan Province, has mostly Han people of northern origin. There are also Man, Hui, and other nationalities, but they are less than seven percent of the total, at last official count. The Hui are Muslims, members of China's largest Islamic minority. They came to China by what is now called the Silk Route. The year 651 CE is the oldest historic date when those believing in Islam entered this country.

Shandong is mostly flat and is an Eastern coastal province with origins from the State of Lu. That explains why its cuisine is called lu cuisine. It is in the lower reaches of the Yellow River with the Bohai Sea to the north, Hebei to the northwest, Henan to the west, Anhui followed by Jiangsu to the south, and the Yellow Sea more to the southeast. As one of the most important grain-growing regions of China, wheat, rice, and millet are plentiful here, and said to be practically perfect. With much fertile land, it has many other terrific agricultural products, a few already mentioned, boasts bountiful beef, barrels of Qingdao beer, and a steady flow of spring water from its many springs. The four main ones come together enabling the bottling of the beer and its famous and fantastic Laoshan mineral water. There are other springs with Jinan said to be home to seventy-two of them.

Were that not enough, there are other famous products including Longkou noodles and local and famous donkey-hide gelatin. Aquaculture is excellent, fresh, and considerable with much and marvelous abalone, king prawns, rock oysters, and sea cucumber.

Confucian cuisine here, a culinary provincial treat, is known for its 'three skills and four beauties.' The former are: ingredients, knife skills, and appearance. The latter are: flavor, shape, color, and serving utensils/dishes. Every Confucian dish has a fine mixture of ingredients and garnish, its presentation said to be an artistic ideal. Confucian feasts are fabulous and divided into four main parts. These are appetizers, cold dishes, banquet dishes, and sweet dishes. The banquet we had in Qufu was gorgeous and delicious, had nearly forty dishes not counting the cold appetizers, and was presented one at a time.

Cold dishes can include a crunchy vegetable such as daikon or lotus root, a cold shrimp dish, and chicken legs prepared with duck egg yolk, jellyfish, and shredded chicken. There can be as many as nine cold banquet beauties including those with shark's fins, sea cucumber, bird's nests, and fancy dumplings, along with other lovely well-presented dishes. Our notes are no longer legible, our slides faded with age, but our thoughts of that late afternoon and evening still bring smiles of delight.

Dishes elsewhere in the province boast lots of onions, soups, stir-frying, and deep frying, and include lots of seafood. They often have local corn which is starchy and chewy, lots of peanuts, many grain dishes including millet, barley, and oats, steamed and fried breads, and not as much rice as is popular in southern China. We recall many seasonings and flavorings in all dishes eaten in Qufu and in Jinan, and lots of dark complex vinegar not unlike balsamic vinegar. Recall a sweet bean sauce, a mustard sauce, and a sesame oil-flavored sauce, too, and a boiled mutton dish served with many different sauces thick and thin. We were amazed that boiled meat could be so tasty. And, I remember savoring a sea cucumber dish with guilt as this food is my husband's favorite and he was not there to enjoy it with me.

As to specific information what I and a native of Qingdao recall, refer to an article specifically about this important seacoast city in Volume 17(1) on pages 30 and 31.

Recipes from Jinan and elsewhere in the province are below. They have multiple origins including some from the culinary schools I visited in the 1980's when teaching a course to chef-instructors in the capital city of Jinan. Others are from elsewhere in the province. This is a very small sampling of a large set of great foods from this outstanding Chinese culinary region.
Pickled Lotus Root
Ingredients:
2 sections lotus root, peeled and cut into thin slices
2 thin slices fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 small fresh chili pepper, seeded and cut as a flower
2 leaves crisp lettuce, shredded
Preparation:
1. Blanch lotus root slices for one minute, then immerse in ice water until chilled, then drain.
2. Mix all ingredients except the lettuce and the chili pepper. Toss this with the lotus root, and set aside for one hour.
3. Put lettuce and into a lovely small bowl, top with the lotus root, then the chili pepper, and serve.
Swmming Gold Fish
Ingredients:
10 boneless duck feet, simmered for one hour, then their bones removed and discarded
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Chinese black mushroom, soaked for half an hour, then stem removed and discarded
2 whole fresh chili peppers
1/2 pound fresh shrimp, shells and veins removed and discarded, then minced
1 inch cube pork fat, minced
1 egg white
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
dash salt and ground white pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
3 Tablespoons chicken broth
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Preparation:
1. Soak boned duck feet in sesame oil for half an hour.
2. Sliver mushroom and set aside.
3. Cut chili pepper across the width making circles, and set aside.
4. Mix shrimp and fat, add egg white, rice wine, and salt and pepper, and the cornstarch and make into ten oval-shaped pieces. Stuff one boneless duck foot into one end of each one making the tail of the fish. Then make two eyes with the chili pepper slices and push them into the other end of the shrimp mixture, add a short piece of mushroom pushed between them for the nose.
5. Oil a heat-proof plate, and put the swimming fish around, tails facing center. Steam over boiling water for five minutes, remove and drain any liquid, then serve.
Shrimp in Egg
Ingredients:
1/2 pound small shrimp, peel and veins removed
2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon Chinese green tea leaves
1 Tablespoon agar agar or a commercial gelatin powder
10 eggs
1 scallion, minced
2 slices ginger, minced
1 tomato, exterior cut into one-quarter-inch cubes
30 very small frozen peas
2 cups small beans for supporting the eggs
Preparation:
1. Dice the shrimp into one-quarter-inch pieces and simmer for one minute, then drain, and set them aside.
2. Boil the chicken broth with the tea leaves for five minutes, then remove and discard the tea leaves.
3. Mix agar agar or gelatin in cold water, let sit for five minutes until thickened, then add to the chicken broth and set aside.
4. Remove a small amount of peel (about one-quarter inch circle) from the large end of the egg. Make a pin hole in the other end, and blow out the egg from each one, and refrigerate these for another use, standing each one on the large end to be sure it drains well. Then pour one cup of boiling water into each egg and then drain it out.
5. Put the beans in a soup bowl, then stand the eggs up in then large whole up. Add five pieces of scallion, shrimp, tomato, and peas into each large opening in each egg. Make a paper funnel or use a small one and fill with the cooled chicken stock mixture. Allow these to stand and cool in the refrigerator.
6. Before serving, carefully roll then peel each egg, place the solidified egg mixture in a lovely bowl, and serve.
Scallions and Sea Cucumber
Ingredients:
1 pound small soaked or frozen sea cucumber
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided in two parts
2 cups two-inch pieces of scallions
4 slices fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic
4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1/2 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
Preparation:
1. Soak the sea cucumber overnight, drain and soak another six to ten hours, then drain and set aside.
2. Blanch sea cucumber in boiling water for one minute, then rinse in cold water.
3. Heat half the oil and stir-fry the scallions, ginger, and garlic over low heat for three minutes until soft but not browned. Discard the garlic and ginger, but keep the oil.
4. Heat the chicken broth, and add salt and wine, add the sea cucumber and simmer covered until tender.
5. Deep fry the scallions in the reserved oil until brown, then put them and one cup of broth in a bowl, add wine and soy sauce and steam for three minutes.
6. Heat the unused oil then fry the sugar until it caramelizes, and when it does, add all the steamed ingredients and the rest of the chicken broth. Bring almost to the boil, stir in the cornstarch mixture and stir until thickened and clear, then serve.
Sea Cucumber and Roe
Ingredients:
1/4 cup crab or another roe
4 large whole pre-soaked sea cucumbers, preferably those with spiked exteriors, intestines and other interior parts removed
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 scallions, minced
1 slice fresh ginger, minced
1 cup reduced fish broth
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon abalone soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with twice that amount of cold water
Preparation
1. Steam roe for five minutes, mash with a fork or fingers, and set them aside.
2. Blanch sea cucumbers for ninety seconds, then remove and rinse well.
3. Heat oil, stir-fry the scallions and ginger until fragrant (about half minute). Add fish broth, both soy sauces, and the rice wine and simmer the sea cucumbers on very low heat for three to five minutes, then remove the sea cucumbers to a platter.
4. Mix cornstarch and water, stir into the fish broth, add the roe and the sesame oil and bring to the boil stirring until thickened. Pour over the sea cucumbers and serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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