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Henan Cuisine: China's Culinary Cradle

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) page(s): 10 - 11, and 32

In the past, some spelled this province Honan, but that was using an old Wade-Giles transliteration. Using Putunggua, the preferred transliteration now throughout China needs to be spelled Henan. Close to being a central province, it is not on the east coast. It is near to the middle of China as seen on maps that accompanied this article when it was originally published in Flavor and Fortune. This province is surrounded, starting at its north and going clockwise, by the Shanxi, Shijiazhuang, Shandong, Anhui, Hubei, and Shaanxi Provinces. One notes, Henan is a land-locked province.

Named for the Yellow River which in Chinese is Huang He, the name of this province means ‘south of the Yellow River.’ But even that location is not completely accurate because almost one-quarter of it is north of this river. That waterway has made many people sad because it has flooded often throughout China’s history. When it did, millions of people lost their lives.

The style of cookery in the Henan Province is very old. It probably did start before the Shang Dynasty (1766 - 1122 BCE). Then and now, it was and still is known as ‘Yu Cuisine,’ named after the state of Yuzhou from before and during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Also known as Zhongyuan or Zhongzhou, these names mean ‘central plains,’ a terminology that can mean anywhere or all of China.

Henan is the birthplace of Chinese civilization. It once was the political, economic, and cultural core of the country. It is near four of the country’s ancient capitals: Anyang, Kaifeng, Luoyang, and Zhengzhou. This province is one of China's largest, the country’s ancient capitals said to be the birthplace of its cooking. Some might disagree as they might only give that credit to Kaifeng.

There are also culinary influences from Jiangsu, and a few from Beijing. In Henan, foods are seasonal, meats often prepared with rendered animal fat, and this, a food culture that uses lots of its rice not as the grain, but when ground and used for rice noodles.

Henan’s sixty-four thousand square miles are densely populated, and probably always were. This province is where frescoes were found illustrating foods from earlier times. It has lots of fertile land, and a current population of more than ninety-five million people; it is the largest inland province in China, its capital is Zhengzhou, and almost the entire province is populated by Han Chinese.

‘Yu’ cuisine is their cooking style. It uses lots of steaming, stewing, frying, deep-frying, boiling, and cooking on skewers with steaming and stewing, all early Henanese ways to prepare their food. One feature of their foods is that many dishes were served with a thick sauce, a fact more past than present.

Popular in Henan since early times is a Luoyang Water Banquet with half of its two dozen dishes soups or soupy presentations. In addition, vegetarian food is quite popular at this banquet and at all meals. Monks here have touted these and eaten them for centuries. Henanese people love vegetables, some they call them ‘brewed’ but they really are pickled or stewed.

Lots of local dishes have origins in Kaifeng. They are mild in flavor, and do have many vegetables;they use only a few fruits. Their peony and swallow vegetables are items that look like these foods but do not have a single item in them with these names. Both are lightly fried, and can include bean curd or buns stuffed with vegetables, egg cakes, hand-pulled noodles, braised cakes, and other foods most vegetarians adore.

In Henan, carbohydrates are most often rice, potatoes, and dumplings. Meats are mostly pork with some lamb in their soups and stews, also chicken and smaller portions of river fish and sea foods. Though this is an inland province, its many rivers do supply foods that swim, and eggs are popular, too. So are meat-filled pancakes, mainly pork, and just a little of it. Onions are a favorite vegetable; tofu and mushrooms are, too.

The most common seasonings are ginger, cardamom, garlic, and vinegar, sugar, and salt. Here, stocks are made with vegetables, long simmered, strained, and often clear. One favorite local dish is soup made with lamb and pieces of dough cut into it as it boils. This dough is called dao xiao mian, and folks from Henan often speak of these spaetzle-like inclusions with fondness. They also adore Luo Yang, a soup served as an entire meal. It can appear as one dish in the Water Banquet or a small component of a main meal. Once it was known as the soup in Empress Wu’s Banquet. That banquet was a twenty-four course meal with eight served cold, sixteen others hot and served successively like running water. Its name is shuixi and that means water banquet. That name was changed in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1280 CE), because this meal symbolized part of Tang Empress Wu Zetian’s (614 - 705 CE) royal life.

The eight cold dishes were chicken, beef, preserved duck egg, lotus and other vegetables, the hot ones were specialties combining meat and vegetables in a single dish. The soup was made from chicken, duck, fish, or pork along wih fresh vegetables. This banquet always began with a dish called ‘Peony Bird’s Nest,’ so named but without any real bird nest in it. It did have shredded radish, soup stock, and an egg that did look like a peony. All who tasted it, and we once did at a Henan restaurant on the way to Changsha, said it was tasty and nutritious. One could imagine eating peonies.

The use of onions in Henan is popular, they are used with whatever vegetables are fresh and in season, and particularly popular with poultry. The most famous bird-dish is Kaifeng Tao Si Bao, a four-treasure wrap that uses duck, chicken, pigeon, quail, and vegetables. Each bird is deboned, the smallest is the quail which is stuffed with vegetables and goes inside the next larger one, the boneless pigeon, and so on. In actual fact, making this dish means stuffing the biggest bird first; diners eating it first, too. Inside it, is a chicken, then a pigeon, then the quail, all boneless, and finally the vegetables. This dish was made famous in Kaifeng when presented to Empress Cixi at the end of her reign in the 19th century. Michael Gray wrote about it at a restaurant in Elmhurst called Uncle Zhou. The owner/chef here made it for his party; and we did not attend.

Yellow River Croaker is another famous entree that originated in Kaifeng. This usually has a fresh carp fried, then topped with baked rice noodles covered with a sweet and sour sauce. There is another famous dish called ‘Shaolin Vegetables’ named after the Shaolin Monastery in Zhengzhou. It almost always includes bamboo shoots, mushrooms, onions, tofu and other soy foods; and it can have some fruits, as well. They and all vegetables are fried quickly in oil, which ones depend upon the season.

In Henan, another loved carbohydrate is five-spiced bread called wuxiang shaobing, and another is made with fruits and simply called: Mashed Sweet Potatoes. It is prepared with sugar, oil, rose petals, hawthorn fruit, cassia flowers, and other fruits. Many are confused by its name because Chinese food here is mild, different, and often not stir-fried. Actually, this place uses very little oil, perhaps the least in all of China. It is the mildest and simplest to make in this country.

Do read and cook some of the items suggested in Volume 19(2), and do enjoy them all. Also, try some Henan restaurants when in Hong Kong or in Queens. There is WO KEE LOONG at 19-21 SHAN MEI STREET, SHATIN, HONG KONG; phone: (852) 2342-7106, and one called HENAN FLAVOR at 136-31 40th AVENUE in FLUSHING NY 13555 and their New York City branch just east of Chinatown. This last one was reviewed in this magazine and they probably are the only, or certainly the very first Henan restaurants in the United States. Also, get to UNCLE ZHOU at 83-29 BROADWAY, ELMHURST NY; PHONE: (718) 393-0888. It was already mentioned and was recently reviewed in Volume 21(2) on page 26.
Chicken with Vinegar Glaze
1 pound boneless chicken thighs, cut into one-inch slices
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
5 thin scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon peeled and minced fresh garlic
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinkiang or another black vinegar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
4 cups hot freshly cooked rice
1. Mix chicken, soy sauce, wine, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and the ground pepper and let rest for half an hour. Then add the oil and stir-fry for two minutes, remove the chicken, and dry out the wok or pan.
2. Reheat the wok or large fry pan, then add the scallion pieces, ginger, and the hot sauce and stir-fry for half minute, then return the chicken mixture to the pan, and stir-fry for one minute more before adding the black vinegar and stirring that for another minute, add the cornstarch mixture, stir until clear, then serve over the hot rice.
Shrimp Balls, Henan Style
1 pound shrimp, shells and black veins removed and discarded
2 Tablespoons al-purpose flour
9-ounce can of water chestnuts, drained and chopped
2 scallions, minced
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 egg, beaten
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
2 cups vegetable oil for deep frying
any dipping sauce desired
1. Mix all the ingredients except the oil and make this into one-inch balls. Set them aside for half an hour to dry a little.
2. Heat oil in a wok or deep pot, and add half the shrimp balls and fry them until light golden in color. Drain and set them on paper towels and repeat with the rest of the shrimp balls.
3. Serve with any optional dipping sauce, as desired.

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