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Artemisia Meals in Enshi, China
Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) pages: 8 to 9
Varieties of wild Artemisia, also known as wormwood, have been widely consumed as food and drink in China. There, they go by their names and botanical ones of aihao (Artemisia argyi Levl. Et Vant), ye aihao (Artemisia vulgaris L.), hunghuahao (Artemisia annua Linn), baibaohao (Artemisia lactiflora), dazihao (Artemesia siever-siana), and yanhao (Artemisia brachyloba).
Enshi is in Hubei Province in Central China, and is one place local people use special festival foods made of wild artemisia. They use it in a dish when celebrating Sheri or their Spring Sacrifice festival. This dish is called Shefan. It is used for the main meal for this Spring Sacrifice and is known as haozi fan or their Artemisia meal. This has been a traditional Chinese festival since ancient times when Chinese people worshiped land deities.
Every year, Enshi people eat this Shefan or wormwood meal during the second lunar month. It is the major or single activity for celebrating this Spring Sacrifice festival. The festival date is not fixed, but local people do know how to calculate it every year. Their method is to find the first wu-day from the day of the beginning of spring. The wu-day will return every ten days, and the fifth one will be the festival date. For instance, the Sheri of 2014 was the 18th day of the second lunar month.
In Enshi, sprouts of wild Artemisia are already visible in the late days of the first lunar month. During the days surrounding Sheri, villagers in Enshi gather wild Artemisia and another key ingredient, their wild garlic known as Allium macrostemon Bunge. I collected some and wild garlic every year when I lived in Hu village in Enshi as a kid. In the spring of 1996, when I lived in the Qi village as an ethnographer in Enshi, I again observed the process of making this meal in my host family.
Since this host family planned to hold a big banquet for this event, a huge steamer was used to cook this wormwood meal. After several hours of cooking, the cook in the host family told me that the steamer did not work and the meal remained raw all the time. He believed this was because of someone’s witchcraft against the steamer. When the cooking tool was changed, the meal did finally succeed.
In the Spring of 2000, also doing fieldwork, I lived in a village in Xuanen which was in the neighboring county of Enshi. The day I moved in to this village were close to Sheri. I heard the sound of firecrackers several times a day, and my host told me that this was the time to worship new graves that were less than three years old.
In both Enshi and Xuanen, new graves must be and are worshiped before Sheri. Families with new graves are prohibited from making an Artemisian meal. However, they can eat this meal if it is sent to them by other families. In Xuanen, I saw my host collect a variety of wild Artemisia with its white stem, though the Artemisia I often collected had red stems. Spring 2001 was the first time I ate an Artemisia meal in a restaurant in Enshi city. That was when I realized this festival food has been successfully marketed.
The main ingredients of an Artemisia meal include wild Artemisia, wild garlic, sticky rice, non-glutinous rice, smoked pork or smoke pig intestines which are the casings for sausages, seed oil, and salt. There may be tiny differences in different villages of the minor ingredients that include dried tofu, garlic, and wild vegetables such as Houttuynia cordata, Capsella bursa-pastoris, and so on.
The long process for preparing this meal begins with gathering the wild Artemisia and the wild garlic. Based on my field observations in different villages and from web information, several varieties of Artemisia have been used, but only their tender leaves and stems. They do collect the entire wild garlic plant, wash these plants, chop, and put the Artemisia in a cloth bag to squeeze out its bitter juices. Then, again they soak it in water, and squeeze out the liquid once more. After several rounds, the chopped Artemisia is dried and becoming Artemisia powder. The washed wild garlic is then chopped.
The families I observed had no strict ratio of these ingredients, though most did use similar amounts of sticky rice and non-glutinous rice. One family used equal amounts (250 grams) of each rice, twice that of smoked pork or smoked intestines, the same amount wild garlic, 10g of seed oil, 3g of salt, 200g of dried Artemisia powder. Some only used 200g of fresh wild garlic. To make this, they did soak the sticky rice in cold water for three or four hours or in hot water for one to two hours. The non-glutinous rice they lightly cooked for five to seven minutes in boiling water, then put it in a bamboo sifter to drain. Then they mixed all these ingredients in this sifter and mixed them well. All the mixed materials went into a big steamer and steamed for about two hours.
Instead of steamers, some villagers did cook this meal in a big iron wok. Those folk first stir-fried the fatty part of the smoked pork to melt it, then added the rest of the smoked pork. Following that, they added the sliced tofu, wild garlic and other ingredients to the wok, and after a couple of minutes, they added the dried Artemisia powder and quickly stirred it to get the fragrance, and they did scoop out all the ingredients in the wok before the powder burned.
Then they put enough water in the wok and put the non-glutinous rice in after the water boiled. After five to seven minutes, they put sticky rice into the wok, and after another five to seven minutes, added the prepared ingredients such as the stir-fried smoked pork, the powder, and other minor ingredients and they mixed them with both rices. They lowered the heat and simmered this another thirty minutes.
This dish tastes soft and sticky, and has a special aroma. From a traditional Chinese medical perspective, Artemisia is bitter and slightly cold, and it is good for curing diseases caused by heat and dampness such as tuberculosis.
In Enshi, there are certain rules concerning this dish such as that families who lost an elderly person in the last three years should not prepare this dish. They can eat it if it is made by others; and they are told not to mix this meal with a soup.
Enshi people think this dish contains both fan and cai, important markers in the Chinese food culture, as discussed by anthropologists such as K.C. Chang. In China, many different areas have dishes, drinks or snacks made of Artemisia, but few have both.
This custom of eating an Artemisian meal has never stopped in Enshi. Even in Mao’s time (1949-1976), this meal was prepared almost every year, though ancestral worship was forbidden. It was labeled ‘the meal for remembering bitterness’ or yiku fan, as wild plant foods were perfect in severing symbols of the old days.
Since the 1980s, it has been used as a symbol of the newly constructed Tujia ethnic minority identity. Wild plants are perfect in severing symbols of otherness. This custom has been warmly welcomed by the new market economy as it carries both old meanings and new ones. It has been used to symbolize a life of ‘original ecology’ that represents a landscape lived by locals or ethnic minorities who forage wild plant foods regularly.
Xu Wi is a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, and the author of the volume: Farming, Cooking, and Eating Practices in the Central China Highland: How Hezha Foods Function to Establish Ethnic Identity.. This book was published by Edwin Mellon Press in 2011.