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Bai Minority People and Their foods
Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Summer Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(2) page(s): 17 - 20, 33 and 37
By the 7th century, the ethnic Bai minority people established a powerful kingdom called Nanzhao. Initially, strong and independent, they dominate trade routes and at one point unite with Han the Chinese against the Tibetans until the 8th century. Later, in the 10th century, they themselves are replaced by the Kingdom of Dali. In the middle of the 13th century, China, united by Mongols under the Yuan Dynasty and known as the Menggu, or Mongol Dynasty, are taken over by the Ming Dynasty in the year 1368 CE. In 1644 CE, the Manchu or Manzhou take them over, and in 1911 CE, the People's Republic of China takes over all of them begins their own rule. All of these dynasties incorporate the Bai and other ethnic minorities, but it is not until the People's Republic that they gain some stature and some importance. This is in the mid 1950's.
During the above times, the Bai population continues to grow. It is now almost two million strong. Most Bai live in the southwestern corner of the Yunnan Province, a place with a population of forty-two million. Some live elsewhere in the province as do twenty-three other minority groups and the Han. They also live in Dali Bai, Nujiang Lisu, Degen Tibetan, and Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefectures, the Bai-Primi Autonomous County of Lanping, and in the ancient cities of Dali and newer Dali, better one known as Xiaguan. There are also some seventy-five thousand Bai living in Yunnan's capital city of Kunming, and smaller numbers of them in neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hunan.
The name Bai or Baizu became their official name in 1956. Before that, Chinese knew them as Minjia or commoners. They call themselves Baiwazi, Baizi, Baini, Bairen, and some sixty other names. If you know them as Boren or Pusu, it may be because you know about them from Chinese and Western writings before the Christian era.
Most Bai practice Buddhism or Taoism and most speak Chinese and their own language, one belonging to the Yi branch of the Tibetan-Burmese ethno-linguistic group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Bai people never had a written language until 1949. Thanks to efforts of the Chinese government, they now write in what has become their language that uses the Latin alphabet. Chinese experts say their language uses many Chinese words. Everyone says they are the most assimilated of any minority population because of long-term close contact with the Han population. In Chinese, bai means white; in their language it does too. To them, it represents high social status and dignity.
Bai men used to wear white shirts, sometimes white pants. Their women donned white, pink, or light blue long-sleeve blouses and an embroidered vest-like top over the blouse. They wore a red scarf or sash over that, and an embroidered hat with white streamers on their heads. Now, Bai men and women wear these native outfits only on holidays and at festivities. They are particularly proud of those made with tonghua cloth that have bright colored accents and delicate embroidery.
Developed during Nanzhao times when they were part of the Dali Kingdom, their hand-embroidered hats can have camellia flowers, said to be symbols of beauty. Beside doing fine embroidery, women design dark blue tie-dye fabrics using various techniques, some with dyes made from herbs. In the picture on this page, note the woman sitting and selling typical Bai snacks on skewers. Others not seen here are hanging for sale are on a local street in a Bai village.
Not too long ago, Bai people kept quiet about their ethnicity. No longer. Since the middle of the 20th century, most reclaim their ethnic roots, want to have two children, and the want other minority perks. The Bai population in Yunnan is growing rapidly; it is the second largest after the Yi people whose population is twice that of the Bai. Early Bai homes indicate this population is probably descended from Ji people, and that was two thousand or more years ago. Some historians report their ancestors as Heman, some say they are Kunming, and others refer to them as Songwaiman. No matter their names, their early houses were made of stone, their newer ones made of brick.
Years ago lots of Bai lived in substantial homes as many of them earned considerable income mining salt in the Nuodong settlement. That ceased when these mines were closed. We can substantiate lots about their early heritage from things uncovered at Haimenkou in Jianchuan. Recently, additional relics located along the Southwestern Silk Road came from Western Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 24 CE) times. Objects from later digs, circa 1240 to 1060 BCE, indicate the Bai lived in Yunnan in what we call their Bronze Age.
Then and now, Bai are known for their different foods and different festivals. There are some thirty to forty of the latter every year. At many, they burn offerings of clothes, money, food, and other things deemed necessary in the afterlife. And in a Bai village on a festival day, one sees elderly ladies making paper offerings of the clothes to send to their relatives in heaven. We are told the Bai have the largest number of festivals of any minority group. Many are religious such as Buddha's Birthday, Sakyamuni's Festival, etc. Their most important holiday is the March Fair, also known as the Guanyin Fair. It is in the third lunar month, usually in mid-March, and sometimes called the Third Month Fair.
This annual event began in early years of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). Now, it is a prosperous commercial bazaar where tens of thousands come to see, participate, buy, and sell things. They also come to savor the many Bai foods for sale.
Bai have many places of worship, the Xingjiao Buddhist Temple is their largest and best preserved one It is from the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) and has thirty wooden statues set in a semi-circle. Buddhists from all over the world come to see it and worship there, particularly during the Pilgrimage and Song Festival in the seventh lunar month. On its first day, it is not uncommon for more than one hundred thousand to gather on Shibao Mountain singing and celebrating. While there, the like to gather herbal medicinals and mushrooms. Others celebrate at the foot of the Cangshan Mountain west of the city of Dali. The holidays are opportunities for dancing, horse racing, meeting suitors, and other events. An important one is the Torch Festival. It ushers in a good harvest and a time to bless people with good health and good fortune. Bai and other minorities celebrate this holiday during the sixth lunar month when they enact a 'planting of the sun' ritual. Young mothers with infants on their backs walk three times around a large torch and pray for their children’s health.
Other festivals include but are not limited to the March Fair, Yu Tan, Tomb Sweeping Day, and the Rice-glue-ball Festival. Most are popular trading days. People of many nationalities come to them, too. They all gather or purchase medicinal herbs, participate in races and song fests, mingle, celebrate, and eat local foods. Butterfly Spring Day is another holiday with flowers on some trees; they look like butterflies flapping their wings. On this day, Bai like to hang real butterflies from many treetops.
Bai not only love festivals, they love eating sour foods, spicy foods, and cold foods. Many congregate at or near Erhai Lake or in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture to enjoy eating fish and meat, rice, corn, and buckwheat plain or with many seasonings. Another favorite Bai food is almost raw meat mixed with piquant seasonings. It is actually baked a very short time but looks quite raw. They also like fried cakes, particularly those made with loofah which is a silk squash, and they like piquant fried sea foods with sour sauce, and many snacks. Do note the women shown on this page selling them along a village street.
Many Bai scenic spots and historical places are worth visiting as are their fertile fields of rice, winter wheat, corn, buckwheat, beans, millet, rape, sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco. So is hiking in nearby forests gathering herbs as they do for cooking and medicinal purposes. We did not get to see how they raise their animals or how they fish, but did see lots of hemp and tea growing, and young women tending bees for their honey.
Bai food and clothing varies from one area to another more so than their food. Pork is their main meat, and lots of dishes are served with flour sauce, seaweed sauce, even lobster sauce. We taste many of them including smoked pork sausage, smoked liver, and smoked intestines, and learn the first cup of tea they serve assures fine aroma, the second is for taste, and the third is to quench thirst.
A favorite Bai soup is made with beef and shallots, radishes, and fresh or pickled turnips. We have some at a Bai home with fried potatoes and a green vegetable. Their Milk Fans, called dengchuan rushan, are thin and pancake-like. They can be milky white or milky yellow, rolled and eaten plain or stuffed with minced fish or minced meat and minced pickled vegetables. A family we visit tells us they like theirs fried, str-fried, braised, or boiled, and often with winter mushrooms, pea sprouts, and chicken. They used milk fans in Three-delicacy Fan Shreds stuffed them with chicken, cured ham, and/or with vegetables. By the way, they are called 'shreds' but are more pancake than strip.
Bai are hospitable and like to serve guests tea and what they call 'eight bowls; and these are different dishes, and 'three plates' and these are fruits. They like to and did take us to their market which in some towns is on Fridays, in others every five days. They also like to show off their children, particularly in the second lunar month on a holiday called Festival Enhancing Children's Appetites. On this day, they also show off their oxen and feed both of them very special foods.
Bai bake tea leaves before brewing them and serve them three times to a guest, each in a different way. First it is a strong cup, the second a sweet one, and the third cup is a mint version. They like to take tea after getting up and call that 'waking tea.' They like tea again about noon and call it 'relaxing tea.' This noon-hour tea often includes popcorn and/or milk. Rarely do they have tea later in the day, that is, unless they have guests.
There is a tea ceremony called 'Sandao' which is served for guests. The put large tea leaves in a small teapot placed over a charcoal fire. They shake the teapot several times to keep the tea leaves from burning, and when it gives off a strong aroma, boiling water is added. That makes loud noises and so this tea is called 'thunderous tea' and when the noise stops, they pour it for their guests.
Bai like to serve guests a 'Three Delicacy Dish.' It is often red, green, and white, and it is delicious. These days they also say this dish is nutritious and refreshing. Its red color is for the cured ham, green is its added vegetables, and white is the milk fan. This dish used to include a carp from Erhai Lake, but when we were there, fishing was not allowed as there was need to replenish Crucian carp or any fin fish, taking fish from the lake. One lady told us those for sale were from Lake Jianhu, near Shibao Mountain.
Erhai lake fish are mostly Schizothorax taliensis, or Crucian carp. Locals like it minced, seasoned, rolled into their beloved milk fans, then steamed or fried. Other special Bai dishes include Boiled Crucian Carp eaten either in a sour soup or a spicy sauce with or without local broad bean leaves, broad beans, and cubes of preserved ham.
For those who want to learn more about the Bai, we recommend two books and one article for starters. They are Francis Hsu's Under the Ancestor's Shadow written in 1967; and CP Fitzgerald's Tower of Five Glories published in 1941. There is a fine article, David Wu's: Chinese Minority Policy and the Meanings of Minority Culture: The Example of Bai in Yunnan, China. It was published in Human Organization's, Volume 49(1) in the Spring 1990 issue.
Now for general information about some Bai foods, and a few specific recipes:
PICKLED FISH is adored and the sour they crave. They also like pickled vegetables, and pickle them separately in earthenware containers. To prepare the fish, they scale and gut it, then add salt along with Sichuan peppercorns, some fried rice flour, and a dash of rice wine. They eat some cold, cook some usually steaming it, sometimes they braise it. Another way is to prepare some in an unused earthenware pot. In it, they mix all kinds of fish and sea food, particularly sea cucumbers, squid, and carp, then steam or braise them and serve them these foods straight from that earthenware pot. After this dish is cooked, it is popular to mix in some cold pickled fish. That reduces the temperature making it tepid, neither hot nor cold.
FISH IN EARTHEN POT is popular in Dali where it includes sea cucumber, squid, fish, and some pork. In the past it included leftover dishes but now it is only made with salted pickled carp, doufu, carrots, cabbage, and small amounts of sea cucumber and squid. The fish is always cooked before mixing it with the other ingredients; and this dish is always served cold.
FRIED ER KUAI is eaten for breakfast or for snack, or it can be sliced when cold and stir-fried into a hot dish. Most often made with cooked rice or glutinous rice pounded and put into a round form, it is dried, fried, and cooled. In the morning when reheated, it is stuffed after spreading mashed red bean curd and other seasoning pastes on it, then a fried cruller called a yao tiao is folded in half and put on the rice pancake and it is rolled and eaten. A hard-cooked egg can be cut in half and put in with the yao tiao. We see many people eating theirs on the way to work, we find a table and sit to eat ours. The cooked rice can made from white or purple rice, we enjoy the one the lady seen on page 37 is making for us.
COLD RAW MEAT is made with minced or shredded pork, minced fresh ginger and onions, and some vinegar. Small amounts are picked up with the fingers or a piece of er kuai, then popped into the mouth. A substitute for pork can be raw minced snails mixed with pickled cabbage and boiled, stir-fried, marinated, or pickled mushrooms. One lady told us these are raw mushrooms, we believe they pickled and not really raw.
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