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Snack on the History of Chinese Snacks

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 29, 30, and 31

Did you ever wonder where dim sum came from? You are not alone. Baked pastries and other snacks are early food items in China. One theory is that they evolved from pre-prepared foods made to join troops in battle. Another is that these foods are too complicated to be made at home and are items that filtered out of palace kitchens. A third notion, related to the second, is that these recipes served at regal tables and made by the emperors’ chefs made it into the mainstream when they left or were kicked out of their regal kitchens. They then sold them to others or they themselves became street vendors or door-to-door peddlers who later open small eat-in or take-out businesses. Bits of historical lore can support all of these theories, draw your own conclusions!

No matter their origin, there is no doubt that Chinese chefs created delicious baked food items, many thousands of years ago. In times best dated as somewhere in the Xia Dynasty (2205 - 1776 BCE), some snacks were baked on hot stones. There were many other ways they were cooked, as well. Early popular techniques for snack-making included cheng or steaming over boiling water and pheng or just plain dropping them into boiling water.

Meat snacks skewered were called chih, and some wrapped were called phao. Snacks of the liquid variety, namely soups and other decoctions, were known as tzuo. Items were also pickled; these were called hsi. Of course, there were many other techniques used, some of which went out of fashion, some remained, and still others went into and out of fashion many times over these many years.

One record of snacks in the Yin and Zhou Dynasties (circa the 16th century to 771 BCE) tells about King Wu of the State of Zhou who wanted to attack King Zhou of the Sate of Yin. When the latter ordered chef Wen Tai Shi to battle, Commander Wen did his own ordering. He advised his culinary staff to prepare foods that could be taken along the way, namely, baked cakes.

Since that time, China's pastry trade has deemed Wen its titular father. They worship him and do him honor erecting statues of him. Not too many years ago, we saw one of these statues in a temple in Beijing. There was a group of men, bakers all, lighting incense in his honor. So this feeling of baking paternity still exists. As a matter of fact, the tai shi bing or flat cakes covered with sesame seeds are made in his honor. Bakers refer to them as ‘Wu cakes.' Ones we have eaten are found all over China’s north filled with sweetened sesame seed paste.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BCE), a poet in the State of Chu named Qu Yuan, wrote about a baked honey cake and a fried round cake called mier and zhanghuang, respectively. These simple pastries were popular then and then improved upon near the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). At about the same time, the Chinese began to use yeast as a leavening agent. It improved these and other pastries. So did their method of lightening dough layering each one with oil.

Concurrently, pastry chefs ground their wheat and mixed it with rice, also ground, and boiled these two flours together. They then placed the resultant dough near the fire until it gave off bubbles, as they had seen in wine making. They would pour off the excess liquid and mix it with more flour and let that mixture rise, then make it into cakes. Early literature said this dough was also used to wrap 'mutton, green onion whites, some liquid, and salt' to be baked or fried. That was not all that was wrapped in those days. The Notebook of Local Customs, an undated item, reports that it was customary before two holidays (never indicating which ones) to wrap millet in bamboo leaves. These were baked, too.

Clearly, just as wrapping is not new to the Chinese, so snacking is not new to them. Much later than the above illustrations, namely in the Ming and Qing periods (1368 - 1644 and 1644 - 1911 CE), pastry chefs expanded and made even more items popular. They had more than two thousand years to do so. In these two later periods, they made and perfected moon cakes (yue bing), New Year cakes (man gai), fried cakes with honey (mi guo), and even birthday cakes (shou gao). They also made feng cheng xiang or dragon and phoenix cakes, said to bring luck to their consumers.

There are many other dim sum items made by China’s pastry chefs. Early on, many were baked, later they expanded their repertoire to handle all dough be it steamed, boiled, poached, wrapped, even skewered or pickled. They also handled soups because many of them have pastry/dough items in them.

Only the word 'snack' is new. Written materials from earlier years, many a lot earlier, refer to these foods as 'light refreshments' or 'treats. Included among them are shou mai, hun ton, and zong zi. These round-open-shaped dumplings, closed ones, and triangular-shaped items are still popular. You may have seen the last one made two ways, one wrapped in leaves, the other not. Nowadays, we call these items dumplings, no matter their shape or culinary technique. We also call noodle dishes and noodle soups ‘snacks.’ These were and are what northern Chinese ate at non-meal occasions to titillate their palates.

Dim sum parlors, as we now can call these large eateries where folks enjoy snacking, did not come into fashion until the end of the 19th century. They probably started in and around Guangzhou. The very term, dim sum, has several other names and various translations. In the latter sphere, ‘dot the heart’ or ‘eat items for pleasure’ and most recently ‘order what you fancy’ are but three of them. Not everyone in China calls this snack-type food dim sum; nor does everyone think of these words as Chinese. In China’s south, it is also known as yum cha which means quite literally to ‘drink tea.’ Fine or fancy places offer many excellent tea selections as the beverage of choice; some claiming chrysanthemum tea, the appropriate one. However, usually this is not tea, just flowers in boiling water. In the national language, Putongua, the word for these foods, never mind with which tea, is dian xin.

In the south of China, snacks can be sweet or salty or savory. In the north, savory items are preferred. Of course, any snack can be sweet, spicy, sour, savory, and/or piquant. Most often, people go out to eat them rather than prepare them at home because they are labor intensive, take a long time to make, and they want to eat a large variety or at least their own favorites when ready for a snack. Furthermore, massive modern eateries encourage people to come, save places at their large table for family and friends, read the newspaper, and load up on many of these delightful small snack dishes.

Before health laws disallowed the practice, elderly men used to frequent their favorite smaller spots early in the morning bringing along their song birds. They would show them off, listen to them warble as they ate, read, chatted, and reminisced. Workers would also frequent these places to and from their daily labors; on the way there buying their next meal, on their way home bringing treats to their families. Currently, the large eateries that specialize in these snack foods have huge selections available from mid-morning to mid afternoon. Smaller places start serving them earlier and some are open into the wee hours, or around the clock. The small places specialize in a few, the larger ones serve anywhere from sixty to a hundred different ones.

How do the Chinese categorize these ‘dot the heart’ foods? Usually by cooking technique as they did in earlier times. They also call them by their main ingredient, and also divide them by price. Nowadays, they even have some at regular meals, even at banquet meals; but there, they are much fancier. What makes them fancy? Ingredients and technique, of course. They can be made to resemble rabbits, fish, even hedgehogs. They can be filled with sea cucumber or pieces of sharks fin. Plain or fancy, most folk have favorites and favorite places to eat their snacks. And those in the know, prefer theirs made in traditional bamboo steamer baskets.

One of the most popular items, in the United States at least, is char sui bau (also spelled other ways). This steamed or baked sweetened pork-filled bread-item is joined by simple man tou in China, just plain steamed bread. Other popular items in both countries include shrimp crackers, marinated peanuts, shrimp dumplings called har gau, turnip cakes, shrimp toast, onion or scallion pancakes, steamed or barbeques spare ribs, spring and egg rolls, beancurd sheets rolled with chicken, ham, and mushrooms, jiao tze and dumplings of every description, glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or lotus leaves and then steamed; braised chicken and duck wings; tea eggs; crispy pig's ears; steamed rice noodles filled with shrimp or beef; barbecued duck; roast goose; almond jelly; egg yolk tarts; sesame seed buns; etc.; etc.; etc.

There is also juk or congee, call this rice gruel what you want, roast pork and noodles, noodles with spicy bean paste, soup dumplings, turnip and brisket soup, and a myriad of other soup dishes. And there are the health soups such as apple-pear soup, field frog and pumpkin soup, braised pigeon and shark’s fin soup, quail with monkey-head mushrooms, etc. These and other health or tonic soups can be sweet or bitter, and mostly intended for a medical condition.

Many think these the only food standard for breakfast. Not so. In the south of China, home snacks served at breakfast or found when eating out almost always include a steamed rice porridge served with salted peanuts, pickles, salted egggs, fried meat or fish, and more. Northerners prefer a long fried wheat cruller called yao tai and they dip this into hot soy milk and have it with similar things used by their southern cousins.

Snacks have even spawned holidays such as one called Tai ping Qing jiao; it is neither old nor universal, but it does revolve around a bun-type snack. Some snacks are regional, some ancient, some new, and all are popular somewhere in China and in Chinese eateries around the world. Have you eaten items such as yuan xiou which is osmanthus-flower-stuffed cakes? What about five-flavored eggs? Or braised duck tongues in red wine lees? Then there is another of my favorites, abalone dumplings. If these never made it to your snack plate, get you to a big noisy dim sum place. Taste them and others and let them 'dot your own heart!'
Braised Duck Tongues in Red Wine Lees
24 duck tongues
1/2 cup corn oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 slices fresh ginger, minced fine
1 small hot red chili pepper
1 Tablespoon fermented red wine lees
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chicken broth
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Boil duck tongues in four cups of water for ten minutes. Remove, cool, and then remove bones and cartilage from each tongue.
2. Heat corn oil and fry duck tongues for two minutes, then drain and set aside, reserving one teaspoon corn oil.
3. Heat corn oil and stir-fry garlic and ginger for one minute, then add all the rest of the ingredients and half cup of boiling water. Add the duck tongues and simmer for twenty minutes, stirring during the last five minutes. The liquid should have evaporated and the sauce coated the tongues. If not, raise the heat and reduce the liquid to nil; then serve.
Salted Egg and Wonton Soup
1/2 pound ground pork
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
3 raw Chinese salted eggs, peeled and chopped
24 wonton wrappers
6 cups chicken broth
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
24 medlar (optional)
1. Mix pork, rice wine, soy sauce, and eggs.
2. Put one teaspoon of the mix on each wonton wrapper, wet edges with wet fingers and seal then fold in your favorite style (pillow, nurses cap, etc.).
3. Bring four cups of water to the boil and boil wontons until they float to the surface of the water, remove with a slotted spoon and ladle three each into eight soup bowls.
2. Bring the broth to the boil, add medlar and white pepper and pour over the wonton, then serve.
Jade Dumplings
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
2 slices fresh ginger, minced fine
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 cup bok cai or any Chinese green, blanched then minced
3 black mushrooms, soak, then minced
1 Tablespoon water chestnut flour or corn starch
2 scallions, cut into long thin strips to be used as string
24 round dumpling wrappers
1. Mix garlic and ginger, heat sesame oil and fry in hot oil for one minute, then put all three into a bowl.
2. Add soy sauce, blanched minced green, mushrooms, and flour and mix well.
3. Put one teaspoon of vegetable mixture on each wrapper, gather up like a purse and tie a scallion strip around the top to hold it together.
4. Heat boiling water in the bottom of a steamer, put dumplings on a steamer rack and steam for fifteen minutes, then serve.
Baked Chicken Wings
2 pounds chicken wings, tail-bone section removed
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons thins soy sauce
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy
2 Tablespoons orange juice
2 Tablespoons sugar
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 slices fresh ginger, minced
1. Mix all ingredients in a plastic bag, tie shut and refrigerate over night.
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, put wings and sauce into a roasting pan and bake for fifty minutes, stirring every ten minutes until all of the sauce is coating the wings and no liquid remains in the pan. Then serve.
Baked Beef Pastry
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 pound ground beef
2 scallions, minced
2 slices fresh ginger, minced
2 sprigs coriander, minced
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil (or Tabasco sauce)
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1. Mix flour with enough water to make a soft dough (about half a cup) and knead for two or three minutes until soft and elastic. Cut the dough into four pieces.
2. Mix beef, scallions, ginger, coriander, soy sauce, hot oil, and cornstarch gently, but until well mixed, and divide into four parts.
3. Flatten one batch of dough and roll out until a quarter-inch thick and put meat in the middle. Bring edges together, and pinch shut, then flatten with seam side up. Repeat until all four are made.
4. Grease baking pan with corn oil and put four stuffed cakes on the pan, seam side up and put into an oven preheated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
5. Bake for ten minutes, then turn pastries over and bake another fifteen minutes, then serve.

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