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Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Fall Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(3) page(s): 16 and 30
Did you know that one Chinese national minority group named themselves? It is the Dai, and the the year they did so, 1949. Their ancestors, who lived in and near what is now Yunnan, are called Dianyue way back during the Han dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE). Then they were called Pu, Yue or Liao in the Wei and Jin Dynasties (200 - 589 CE). And they were known as Baiyu, Jinchi, or Yichi in the Tang and Song dynasties (618 - 1279 CE) and known as the Baiyu in Qing dynasty times (1644 - 1911 CE).
When talking to some Dai people, they tell us that though China considers them as one minority group, they consider themselves as at least three different minority populations. We are told these are: the Water Dai, the Dry Dai, and the Huayao Dai. Each of these three groups have different clothing, hairstyles, and other cultural items that distinguish them from the others.
These days, the Dai live in compact communities and are mostly in Xishuangbanna Dai and the Dehong Dai-Jingpo Autonomous Prefectures and in the Dai-Wa and Menglian Dai-Lahu-Wa Autonomous Counties. These are all in Yunnan Province in western China. There are lesser numbers of Dai people who live in at least thirty other areas in China.
Census data says there are more than a million Dai people. History books say theirs is a culture with a long history in China beginning during the first century, if not before. There are records of Dai-related populations in Yunnan and surrounding areas as early as Han Dynasty times. Some records say that in the Eastern Han (25 - 220 CE), ancestors of current Dai are members of art troupes sent to the then capital of Loyang.
Many things are unique to the Dai. They have their own language, it is considered in the Sino-Tibetan language family. They have their own alphabet, and their own calendar. One of their calendars dates them as beginning in 638 CE. Maybe that is when they first record things. There are earlier books that record and explain Dai lunar and solar eclipses and others that record their legends and poetry. Still others tell about other aspects of their early culture.
In Xishuangbanna, where the largest number of Dai live, they refer to their area as 'tranquil and beautiful' and they call it 'bazi'. This land is near river basins in a lush subtropical land where the soil is very fertile. No wonder they stay there in a virtual botanical garden considered one of China’s granaries.
Traditionally, the Dai and their ancestors live in homes built on stilts. These houses are six or seven feet off the ground, and they have a large sunny veranda on which food is prepared. They also eat on these porch-like extensions or in the main living space. It is in the latter that they entertain guests. Depending upon the size of the family, their houses have two to a half-dozen bedrooms, all off-limits to outsiders. An important protocol when entering the accepted visitor living areas, is to go in without shoes.
The Dai enthusiastically welcome their shoe-less guests, and when we visit, they put bowls and plates of food out for us on banana leaves, their tablecloths. The rice is served in a variety of ways. The most traditional kind is glutinous and has been soaked for an hour or more. After that pre-preparation, it is packed into freshly cut sections of bamboo, each almost two feet long, wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with long grass. This rice is then roasted over the fire and when served, everyone eats it and all the other foods with fingers, or with a spoon. In the region we visit, glutinous rice is the favorite type, but not all Dai people like this sticky rice. However, it is the kind they cook in those bamboo tubes. Other types are made other ways.
Dai people use rice plain and in other ways. We have some ground and made into thin patties, then grilled on sheets of metal. They call this ‘rice threads’ because of the way they are cut, into long thin sections, before they serve them. It is likely that all guests get these and something called Roasted Moss Pie, as we did. That pie is made using a green seaweed found growing on rocks at the edge of the river near their stilted houses. They roast the seaweed after wrapping it in banana leaves. One person advises that sometimes it is mixed with leftover rice.
At a second meal, we have it both plain and mixed. We also eat boned and stuffed river fish halves rubbed inside and out with sesame oil. The filling is a mix of coriander, onion, very sour pickled olives, hot peppers, and some of the moss-like seaweed minced. We are told that they often add minced beef or thin slabs of beef to the same stuffing, actually stuffing that inside of the fish; and they roast that, too.
Along with these dishes, we have many other sour-tasting ones. They adore that flavor and pickle bamboo and other fruits and vegetables and incorporate these foods into their dishes. With lots of palm, banana, and bamboo, these are most common. They also grow breadfruit, papaya, pomelo, and other subtropical fruits and many, many vegetables. And, they collect wild plants, mostly herbs, to flavor their staple of rice, and the meats and fish they eat with it.
The home we visited dried their vegetables on the roof of their house and in the sun. Most other families do, too. Then they boil them and mix them with soured papaya juice. They cook these vegetables alone or stuffed into fish or meat in much the same manner as the moss, and then they roast the final product.
One speciality that we enjoyed is minced raw meat blended with salt and pepper and lots of minced lemongrass. They roast ours on a piece of metal as they are concerned because they have no refrigeration. Together we eat this dish called ‘raw cuts’ washing it down with a low alcohol drink called shu jiu. The one we taste is fermented glutinous rice and papaya juice; it is delicious. The custom with each mouthful is to say tibado which is the Dai equivalent of saying ‘cheers.’
The Xishuangbanna region is called the ‘Hamlet of the Peacocks.’ It is dense jungle with clearings near the rivers, a place where we see monkeys jumping from tree to tree. We are told that elephant, bear, and other large and small animals wander freely here, and that a few are caught and used for special celebrations. We do not see nor eat any of these.
We do see lots of fish in the nearby rivers, and the ones they caught for us are roasted over that fire on the veranda using both green and dry wood. The sizzling and smoke from the green branches flavored the food. Their cooking fire burns atop a large thick piece of metal. We think they usually cook under the porch or veranda, but do it this way as a convenience for us to view the process and not need to climb down and up their bamboo ladder.
Dai homes have small gardens next to them and they pickle this produce and others that they gather in the dense forests near their homes. Many houses, as this one, are surrounded by betel and other palms, bamboo, and bananas, even a few fruit trees. They chew the betel nuts, so everyone has blackened teeth from them. They preserve and eat the fruits and vegetables that are served cooked more often than raw.
On our visit, we enjoy a fashion show as they don their festival clothes, men putting on short collarless shirts and tight-fitting trousers and putting on a waistband along with a silver belt. They wind a long piece of blue or white cloth around their heads. They look like fancy headdresses. The women have short tops with colored sleeves, use colored waistbands, wear their hair in a chignon and festoon it with jewelry made of gold, silver, pearls, and jade. They have on many bracelets, hanging earrings, and multiple necklaces of silver and pearls. Some wear adornments of bone or colored glass.
Dai people worship a simplistic ancient form of Buddhism called Hinayana. They lead simple lives, eat only two meals a day, and always have them together with all the family members living together in one house. The afternoon we are there, our meal together includes the four of us and the twelve family members living in that four-bedroom house.
We begin eating after enjoying one small cup each of very old pu-er tea; they say it is fifty years old. Our meal starts with some fried thick skin from a cow. Everyone dips this crispy delicacy in what is translated as ‘cattle bile.’ This reddish-green liquid is used as a dip for this and later poured on lots of different foods as one might use soy sauce. We dip our crunchy skin into it and enjoy this very sour lip-puckering sauce. Later, we have trouble eating with our fingers, as they need be from the right hand, and we are lefties. The rice is hot, most of the other dishes are rather warm but cooler than the rice. We are to dip some rice into a saucy dish and get both to our mouths with nary a drip. They do; we are less successful.
Overall, the meal is rich, sour, and flavorful, and there are all too many dishes we need taste. They are a sign of their generosity. They adore guests and delight in making ever so many different dishes for us to try and they to indulge in. After the ‘raw cuts’ and the rice in bamboo, there is ‘thread cuts’ and a spicy roast chicken and some baked dried beef chopped small. This last dish is accompanied by a pile of small pieces of red radish. There is also a bamboo-leaf-wrapped baked pineapple filled with fish slices and fruit. Just before serving it, some juice is splashed in.
There are several kinds of pickled vegetables and herbs, some dried beef skin in a soup, and more ‘thread pancakes’ to dip in it. We drink the fermented beverage and we have lots of pu-er tea, the best of which is grown in Xishuangbanna. The one we have with and after the meal is twenty years old. After finishing all the dishes, they serve boiled dried shrimp, then give each of us a Dai-brocaded purse with a peacock and an elephant woven in as part of the design. They are made with silver and gold and various shades of red thread. To the Dai, the peacock symbolizes peace and prosperity, the elephant longevity and strength.
We leave this gorgeous place, believing as the Dai do, it is enchanted, beautiful, and tranquil; and that it is blessed with warm and wonderful people. One day we want to return for their most important festival, the Water-splashing Holiday.
Festivals only the faithful might come for are the Close Door and the Open Door Festivals. Between them are ninety days when they go to temple and stay there the entire time listening to prayers and sermons, and meditating. Hence the names: Open Door and Close Door festivals.
The Water-splashing Festival is a more joyous occasion, they really do splash water on everyone, they play courting games, and sing and dance a lot. This holiday starts the New Year on the Dai calendar and includes dragon boat races and three days of merrymaking. Firecrackers are heard sending diseases and disasters from the previous year away. They also provide noisy wishes for a bumper crop in the coming year.
There are very few printed recipes for Dai food, which can best be characterized as sour, hot, and crisp. We suggest making the roasted fish below, it is very representative of the taste and texture of Dai food.
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