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Wheat and Other Flour Foods
Rice, Noodles, and Other Grain Foods
Fall Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(3) page(s): 23 - 27
Botanically known as Triticum twigidum, wheat is popular and plentiful in both the south and the north of China. It was an important ancient grain though not the country's first nor its most important grain. Domesticated some time around 8000 BCE, it was not easy to use until people learned how to grind the wheat kernels into flour. That made it easier to use and more digestible, too. Wheat kernels were first mentioned on oracle bones during the late Shang Dynasty. That ended in 1045 BCE; and their uses increased rapidly thereafter.
Many Chinese believe wheat was their first grain but that is not so. During the early Shang, also called the Erligang Period which was somewhere between the 16th to the 14th centuries BCE, and the late Shang or Yin Shang Period, also called Anyang Shang which is around the 14th century BCE, that is when historians tell us it was called hsiao mai or 'lesser grain.' Then it started to become popular when boiled and used as whole kernels. Grinding it came a few centuries later.
By the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), wheat and other foods that used flour were called shih, li shi, or words sounding like that. The earliest Chinese grain foods were millet-based and rice-based and boiled or steamed. These were easily digested when prepared these ways.
The Chinese probably did not eat a lot of wheat early on, but with each passing year after they learned to grind its kernels, consumption increased, but we do not know by how much.
A 1929 - 1933 survey was the first time we know rather accurately how much could have been consumed. More than twenty-nine percent of China's crop land was planted in wheat during those years, eighty percent of that was consumed by families in China. Today, wheat provides more than fourteen percent of every person's calories. China is the world's largest wheat producer growing more wheat than either the United States or Russia.
Most Asian countries use wheat for noodles and most of their breads, be they baked or steamed. They also ferment and distill wheat, make vinegars and some wines with it, and other flour foods too. Thus, they use wheat in many ways.
The United States and Russia consume most of the wheat grown in China; and they make it into bread. In China's far North, they also make and eat bread. They help it rise with yeast or sourdough, and bake it leavened or unleavened in or on the sides of their ovens.
Oracle bone inscriptions written during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE),tell us that most people did not eat wheat as bread then but consumed it boiled by crushing or not crushing the wheat kernels. They called them wheat berries, and used them in dumplings and other foods that were boiled. And that was long before they knew how to grind these kernels into flour.
Breads in China are called nan, ping, shao, or fan. They are made with wheat, rice, and other ground grains, and most often they call them fan if they are made with rice flour. To the Chinese, fan also means a 'meal' and when they eat a meal they say they chi fan.
There are many words for chi, shi or other flour foods. Nowadays, ping or mien are most popular, especially when using them for noodles or other filament doughs. Different grains are used in different ways in China, not all use wheat flour in their breads, but all Chinese do grind grains into flour when making bread.
The word ping was the earliest word used for pastry. It was printed in the Mo Tzu or the Book of Master Mo in the 4th century BCE. At that time, they might have meant pastry also when using rice flour. Most foods used as offerings at ancestral altars were made with ground millet or ground rice, some boiled first and then called tzu, others were steamed and called er. The word ping was not documented until after 40 BCE.
In early days, Chinese may have known how to pound rice, millet, and barley and use that as a ground flour. Historians agree that grains, after being pounded or ground were mixed with water and boiled or steamed, some with whole or ground sesame seeds. These seeds were also sprinkled on top of their finished baked products/ They still use them that way. After the Han Dynasty, probably after 220 CE, wheat, rice, and barley made into noodles became popular, so popular, that Shu Hsi wrote a poem to honor them. These noodles or filament strings were also used in soups.
In the Chi Min Yao Shu, circa 540 CE, fifteen recipes did use the word ping to mean pasta, two-thirds of them made with wheat flour. Only two recipes used rice flour. One-third fried their pasta in oil, another third boiled or steamed it, and only one did spread the dough for pasta on a hot surface. Made that way, it was called 'pig skin.' Some of the dough mixtures did use leavened dough, one used bone marrow mixed with the flour, and a few are made with honey. A few are made with egg, some baked, others fried or roasted, and some set aside and fermented before using them in these or other ways. Flour foods became more varied as time went on, particularly those using fermented flours.
One early report, pre-dating the above-mentioned items, does mention flours used in liquids consumed as alcoholic beverages and called them li and chu. These are written about in this magazine's Volume 20(3) on pages 11 and 12. Another use during these early times is chi tzu mien; probably a sliced noodle put in congee. While historians believe these food items were developed around the same times, they are not sure of specific dates or of any specific recipe for making them.
Leaven, when needed, was used and made in different ways including as wine residue ferment. Some is made from glutinous rice, some from a ferment needing water that needs ten days to rise. There is a technique that uses wet flour or air-dried cakes called chiao tzu. It is mixed with water, flour, and salt.
The earliest unleavened flour foods are originally flat or flat and then rolled up and cut into thin or wider strips. Some of these are found in excavations near Turfan in Xinkiang, others at Mawangdui. Many are believed to have been eaten as snack foods. These date back two thousand or more years, and some recommended as potions or medicines in pre-Han preparations made by shamans or physicians. Others were made with alcohol. Flour foods have roots in Neolithic times when they are made with black or yellow millet, probably adding hawthorn berries and/or bee pollen. Historians believe they also use other herbal additions as written evidence on silk sealed in tombs on or before 217 BCE indicates.
The first filament noodles written about are mentioned in the Shi Ming, circa 200 CE. Some believe these are made from wet dough, cut in strips, and used in soups. Either flat or round, one source indicates they are pushed through holes. We wonder if these are the hole at the end of an animal horn; some are some found at the early burial sites?
Called by various names and seen in different illustrations, flour foods are found using radish water, yam water, sesame oil, almond oil, dried and then reconstituted bamboo shoot water, assorted pickled vegetable water, and water flavored with lotus leaves or water left over from cooked meats, cooked fish, or cooked vegetables.
Pulling dough is a much later invention, circa 1500 C.E. This technique is first mentioned in the Chi Yu Shan Fang Cha Pu by Sung Hsi. Today, we see flour foods steamed, boiled, fried, grilled, baked, and roasted, and in all manner of shapes, also in soups after being sliced, pulled, pressed, or cut. We know they are still are made using wheat, rice, vegetable or other cereal flours, also bean, potato, and other flours alone or mixed with cereals or vegetables that are dried and then ground.
Flat noodles spread from China to other places in Asia as did filament noodles, and both were of various thicknesses. In Japan, noodles were and still are called udon. Some in China have adopted this name but only for those that use wheat and are white and thick, hot or cold, dipped into or covered with sauce, and slurped or consumed with spoons or chopsticks. In Japan, all types and shapes of noodles are acceptable while not all are accepted nor appreciated in China.
The technology to make instant noodles is new. It originated in Japan in the mid 1950s. Not initially popular in China, though now appreciated there and world-wide, they are popular because they can be prepared quickly. Li Chi said the Son of Heaven should be served wheat and lamb in the Spring, soybeans and chicken in Summer, hemp seed and dog flesh in Autumn, and millet and pork in Winter. We do not know if the millet was ground or sprouted, malted or not, nor if did come from grains or vegetables, nor how they should be consumed. Every grain can be used whole or ground, and all vegetables can be dried then made into flour, also all used to make wines and/or vinegars. A good number may have been made or used in these ways since Neolithic times; no one is sure.
Originally found in the northern Huai valley in Northern Honan, Northwest Shantung, and in Southern Hopei, wheat now grows all over China. It is exceptionally popular, fermented or not, eaten by rich and poor, and made in many different ways. In early times, it was consumed more by the poor than by the rich because flour was regarded as a coarse grain and rich folk wanted more refined grains in their foods.
In China, one part of the wheat grain, namely the gluten, was not and is not popular as flour. However, it is used in breads and imitation meat-like products, as a substitute for meats, and is cooked in many different dishes by vegetarians. These were popular hundreds of years ago and still are. Rarely thought of as flour foods even though many are made from many different kinds of flours that are high in protein, they are not so categorized though they can be rolled or raised, found in unleavened flour foods and stuffed with meat, fish, vegetables, even with fruits wrapped around them, or other things stuffed into them. These gluten foods can be plain or fancy, shaped as animals, crescents, rings, or anything else. When thinking of flour foods, those made with gluten need to be included.
Below are some flour food recipes popular in China and by Chinese world-wide. More often than not, they are consumed hot, in soups, plain or flavored, and/or dipped or covered in a variety of sauces. The stuffed ones or bao are most often called dumplings, the filament ones called mien or noodles, and others go by a variety of different names.
Enjoy them and invent others to use in soups, dumplings, made into baskets, made flat or raised as in breads, and in many other ways, some illustrated on the pages of this article. Flour foods can be rolled, stretched or pulled, cut from loaves, shaped or not. Matters not how they look but it does matter how they taste. There are many ways to make them look and taste terrific, and we suggest you try making many of them.
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