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China's Grand Canal Moves Food and Folk

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Fall Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(3) page(s): 8, 9 and 11

North to south, China’s Grand Canal once went as intended, Beijing to Hangzhou. That was in the 600s CE, and it was the first waterway to go north-south. All Chinese main rivers go east-west and they were connected to this canal. When finished, it was about eleven hundred miles long, but the section Beijing to Jining is not usable now because it is too silted. This northern portion from Beijing to Jining can no longer be navigated, only the Jining to Hangzhou section can and is.

Canal barges still operate to knit China as they have for fourteen centuries. Then and now, they carry grain, coal, soldiers, and super ideas. Their captains cope with challenging currents and narrow channels that have silted up along the away. Thus, for four decades or more, only part of the Grand Canal is usable. What works well are the three hundred twenty-five miles form Jining to the Yangtze and on to Hangzhou.

The Grand Canal, built by Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618 CE), is now shorter than intended, shorter than when it was completed, ad not as effective as it once was. It still does move rice from fertile regions to places where it is needed to feed people and the military.

To build it, the Emperor needed his army. He pressed an estimated million workers into helping do just that. They were farmers doing this for him because he said it would provide endless benefits to his people. Officially, their work was finished in one hundred seventy-one days in the year 605 CE. However, truth be told, it really took closer to six years to get the job done. While doing so, untold hundreds of farmers starved because there were not enough people left behind to harvest their crops.

This canal was a cultural conduit when it began in 605 CE. More than two million people labored on it digging channels to connect the Yellow and the Yangtze Rivers. They actually completed that in 611 CE. The canal did grow in importance over the next few hundred years up to 1293 CE, when parts of it fell into disrepair, particularly during the time the besieged Song Dynasty moved its capital to Hangzhou in 1279. Kublai Khan, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (1279 - 1368 CE), also known as the Mongol Dynasty began to revive it creating a more direct north-south route to Dadu, the city now called Beijing.

In 1655 CE, the Qing Dynasty inherited the canal that had been expanded and re-engineered in places. In 1751, newer canal inspections began under the leadership of Emperor Qianlong who made six inspection tours. The first was in that very year. By 1855, the powerful Yellow River had changed its course and destroyed parts of the canal and it weakened this emperors dynasty. In the beginning, there were eighteen main cities along the way but every warehouse, dock, and canal-side building needed to be razed and/or moved after they widened and straightened this Grand Canal.

In Hangzhou, there is now a Grand Canal Museum that tells about these and provides other canal information. But, it does not attract a great deal of human traffic because bigger barges are now the main traffic, and they do not stop to visit it. They need to get to their destinations faster than earlier barges did, and current costs are higher then they were when the earliest barges plied this route. These and other things impact their expenses.

This magazine’s Test Kitchen Adviser, Irving B. Chang, is a culinary canal expert. He tells us, and the literature agrees, this waterway is some fifteen hundred years old and may have outlived its usefulness. He is finishing a book of recipes about it, to be reviewed in the next issue. He has lived in many places along the Grand Canal and is saddened by this. Over its many hundreds of years, barges on the grand Canal have carried grain, soldiers, other materials, and much food; most from Beijing to Hangzhou. This canal did bind China’s north and south; it was important because most of China's rivers carry freight or folks west to east.

Throughout, the canal is watched over by chuanmin or barge captains who are often aided by their wives. They are mostly uneducated and illiterate, and have problems moving their cargo and knowing how to set their fees. They also do not know how to make all the needed technical, loading, and unloading decisions.

They do worry about weather, what to carry, and when. Most of them are married, their wives and families traveling with them. The women cook simple meals, clean as needed, and watch that the ships remain a good distance from the shore, from other barges and boats, and from children swimming near land.

These wives and captains need to deal with the bureaucrats who set prices for what they carry. Most are not based upon actual costs. Many captains do complain about the canal fees they must pay, and about these lonely trips.

The recipes that follow are from Irving Chang’s book titled: Chinese cuisine Along the Grand Canal. it is soon to be published. For information about it, do contact: a.j.Chang@cox.net.
Sesame Sauce for Noodle Dishes
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons sesame paste
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1. Mix sesame oil and sesame paste until well blended.
2 Add other ingredients and mix until smooth; then pour on any hot noodle dish.
Glutinous Rice, Pine Nuts, and Mushrooms
2 cups glutinous rice, soaked in three cups of warm water for half an hour, then set this aside.
4 black mushrooms, soaked in warm water for twenty minutes, stems discarded, water set aside, caps diced, everything set aside
3 Tablespoons peanut oil
3 slices fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Chinese sausages, thin sliced or diced
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
a small bunch cilantro, minced
1. Heat wok, add peanut oil, then mushrooms, ginger, pieces of sausage, oyster sauce, and salt and stir-fry a few times until very aromatic.
2. Add rice and its liquid and the pine nuts and stir-fry a few more times, add the mushroom pieces mixing well, then cover and simmer for twenty minutes or until rice is tender.
3. Transfer to a pre-heated bowl or deep platter, garnish with the cilantro, and serve.
Li Tai Bai's Duck
1 four-pound duck, blanched for five minutes in boiling water, then discard the water
2 teaspoons salt
3 Tablespoons light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 ounces crystallized sugar, crushed
3 scallions
1/4 cup Shao Xing wine
1. Rub salt inside the duck and on its outside.
2. Mix the two soy sauces and brush the duck inside and out, then put it on a heatproof platter.
3. Combine sugar, scallions, ginger, and wine and pour this into the cavity of the duck.
4. Steam the duck over boiling water for two hours, remove and cut it into pieces, then serve on a pre-heated platter.
Pork with Water Chestnuts
1 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and diced
2 scallions, diced
½ pound ground pork
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon peanut oil
1. Mix water chestnuts, ginger, scallions, and the pork and make into a flattened meat loaf shape, half-inch thick. Place this on a heat-proof platter.
2. Put this platter in a steamer over boiling water and steam for twenty-five minutes, then serve.
Winter Melon Casserole
1 wintermelon, about the size of a volleyball, cut off the top about one-inch down, discard the seeds and any spongy matter
½ cup dried black mushrooms, soaked for twenty minutes, stems discarded, soaking water reserved
3 ounces canned bamboo shoots
18 ounces chicken soup or stock
4 slices fresh ginger
1 teaspoon bouillon powder
4 ounces medium-size shrimp, each cut in four to eight pieces
3 ounces Virginia ham, slivered
4 ounces chicken breast meat, diced
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with one Tablespoon cornstarch
1. Put winter melon in a large heat-resistant bowl and put that bowl into a steamer basket.
2 Put the mushrooms, bamboo shoots, chicken soup, ginger, and the bouillon powder into the melon, cover it and steam for two hours.
3. Remove cover from the melon and add the shrimp, ham, chicken, the mushroom water, and the cornstarch mixture. Recover the melon and steam for another fifteen minutes.
4. Serve scooping out some of the melon and its soup and ingredients into every person's bowl, and serve.

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