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Chinese Chestnuts

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Nuts and Chestnuts

Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page(s): 23, 26, and 36

Outside, the shell is hard and reddish brown, inside is white to tan, and these fruit/nuts are nothing new to the Chinese. This edible nut has been used by the Chinese since neolithic times. For many centuries it was probably the most important and/or the most popular nut used in their culinary. There may be many reasons. We know of one, and that is the word for chestnut is li tzu. The Chinese adore words that are homonyms, and this one sounds like two others; one meaning 'favorable,' the other meaning 'sons.' With those same-sounding meanings, how could they not adore them.

Three species are known for the Chinese chestnut which is Castanea mollissima. All are in the family Fagacea, and all indigenous to China. There is a lesser known one, Castanea vulgaris. Remains of these chestnuts have been found earlier than in Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) times.

One of many food items in tombs in Hupei were chestnuts. That makes sense as many chestnut trees grew wild there and are now cultivated in and around Hupei and elsewhere in China. Chinese chestnuts were also indigenous to other places, particularly in the north, in western areas, and in some places in the south. Earlier than during the Han, chestnuts were found in a Yang-shou site dating back to the fifth millennium BCE, and found in neolithic sites dating thousands of years earlier. Tombs in Honan and Chejiang, and in one of the most famous of these early sites, Homutu, are a few of those places.

These findings make the chestnut an exceptionally early part of China’s food culture, perhaps one of, if not the earliest nut used in antiquity. How they used the chestnut then can be disputed, but in dynastic times there are ways, and they are fascinating. Those early Chinese, besides using them for food, included giving them to the emperor as tribute foods, and using them as gifts for his noble lords.

Writings about the chestnut have been found on oracle bones along with the mulberry, the apricot and the jujube. There are early writings about them from Zhou (1046 - 256 BCE) through Han Dynasty times; often mentioning them as important food. Many years later, they are recorded as that and more in the Shih Ching or Book of Odes (circa 700 BCE) and in the Li Chi or Book of Rites (circa 100 BCE)

Other things known about the chestnut include that they are considered a good omen, and that chestnut trees were planted near court mansions. They were also planted near alters at temples dedicated to earthly spirits. Then and now, the chestnut has religious roles as temple offerings. Their use as such was and is particularly popular in the ninth moon or month, along with oranges, bream, and small red beans.

In the culinary, fresh chestnuts are adored when available, mostly in fall and winter. Anyone visiting Beijing during those seasons knows their aroma. Tourists and locals that line up on street corners to buy some, also know how delicious they can be when purchased hot and from vendors roasting chestnuts over charcoal. No one seems to mind almost burning their fingers after doing so.

Fewer people know that in ancient times, chestnuts used to be stored sun-dried and sand-covered under a pottery dome. Now on some corners they are roasted gaining that flavor by heating them in sand and covering them with molasses. As a popular snack, they can be purchased that way, and they can be found boiled and sprinkled with any number of seasonings (salt, pepper, cumin, etc.). A lesser known way is eating them after pickling and salting. Not as easily available now, they were popular made that way during Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE).

The chestnut is very perishable when fresh. So the Chinese preserve them in many ways. Most are given a quick boil then peeled and dried. Many peeled ones are cooked in a thick sugar syrup. Others are canned in water. And some are still pickled in salt or vinegar or both. Most recently plain cooked ones can be found in Asian markets. They are peeled and in an air-free or nitrogen-added multi-plastic-and-foil-layers in a retort-type package, as is illustrated in the hard copy of this issue.

The Chinese use chestnuts for more than just snacks. They cook them in soups, stews, and casserole dishes, and they use them in dessert-type items. Those Chinese not enthusiastic for lamb and mutton dishes make them palatable and enjoyable by adding chestnuts with these meats. They claim that doing so reduces what they consider, the meat’s offensive aroma.

All Chinese use dried chestnuts ground into flour. They use this chestnut flour in a myriad of ways from adding some to wheat and rice flours when making dumpling skins to putting whole chestnuts or chestnut flour in bean curd and other sheets used as wrappings. Chestnut flour is found in a myriad of other foods as part of their fillings; and most of these items are made and then steamed.

Chinese, particularly those in Shanghai and its environs, adore chestnuts cooked with poultry. Vegetarians make a plethora of dishes using chestnuts and chestnut flour. Chestnuts are popular in a sweet dish called Eight Precious Pudding, and in other Eight Precious dishes and stuffings. Some sources speak of their popularity in a dish called Peking Dust. We believe that dish is of European or European-influenced origin. While sometimes served in China, it a new use of the chestnut. To the best of our knowledge, it has only been known since about the 1920's.

To Chinese and others practicing traditional Chinese medicine, better known as TCM, they know the chestnut has many medicinal/health uses. Calling it a fruit or a nut, in their dichotomy it is warm in nature. They believe it invigorates the kidney and strengthens muscles. They speak of it helping the spleen and the stomach, and adding to a person’s Qi. TCM speaks of the chestnut as a food to strengthen the spleen and fill the stomach. They see it as a good food to recommend for many conditions including to stop diarrhea.

However, TCM practitioners warn that too many chestnuts can cause indigestion. That may be why in cooking, rare is the Chinese recipe with many of them. When treating diarrhea, TCM practitioners like to recommend a paste made with ground hyacinth beans and chestnuts, fresh if available. To strengthen the kidney they say to mix duzhong and dried chestnuts and cook them for a long time. They also say tha chestnuts and pig kidney long-cooked is of great medicinal value. When starving, their recommendation is to chew, swallow, and digest three cooked chestnuts. Doing so, they advise, and pangs of hunger will quickly disappear. Then going back to regular meals is what they say to do.

Chinese grandmothers have other recommendations. They sew dried chestnuts into the hem of a granddaughter's bridal dress. They also like to pack chestnuts into the boxes of clothes to be taken to a bride’s new home. They want to assure early and easy childbirth. They use the chestnut as an omen for many sons. They sometimes add hair vegetable to the hem or the box of clothing. The reasoning here is that during birth their granddaughter will not lose much hair, and that her offspring will have jet black hair in abundance.

We recommend many chestnut dishes, but space requires a judicious selection of half dozen. We hope you make and enjoy them.
Stewed Chicken with Chestnuts
2 Tablespoon corn oil
4 slices fresh ginger
2 to three pounds of chicken, with bone, chopped into three-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1/2 pound peeled chestnuts, boiled for twenty minutes
1 scallion, cut into one-inch pieces
1. Heat oil in a wok or heat-proof casserole and fry ginger for one minute, then add chicken pieces and fry until lightly browned (can be done in two batches, if crisper caramelized skin is preferred).
2. Add soy and oyster sauces, sugar, rice wine, chestnuts, and six ounces (three-quarters of a cup) of water. Bring this to the boil, reduce heat, and simmer for twenty minutes.
3. If not in a serving casserole, transfer to a pre-warmed one, sprinkle scallions on top, and serve.
Chestnuts and Hair Vegetable
1/2 cup hair vegetable
1 Tablespoon corn oil
2 slices fresh ginger, each cut into three or four pieces
1/2 pound pork tenderloin or boneless chops cut into three-inch pieces, then tossed with one tablespoon water chestnut flour (or cornstarch)
1 Tablespoon dark or mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster or vegetarian oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound peeled fresh chestnuts
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh coriander
1.Blanch hair vegetable in boiling water for one minute, drain, then soak in cold water for fifteen minutes. Then cut these strands into two- or three-inch pieces.
2. Heat oil in wok or heat-proof casserole and fry ginger for thirty seconds. Add flour-coated pork pieces and cook stirring, until browned, about three minutes.
3. Add both sauces, sugar, salt, and chestnuts and bring almost to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for one hour, then add hair vegetable and simmer another half hour.
4. Thicken with cornstarch mixture and stir-fry until thick, then if not already in a serving casserole, pour this into a pre-warmed one, sprinkle coriander on top, and serve.
Chicken Wings, Mushrooms, and Chestnuts
1 pound chicken wings, tips removed, and one and two bone pieces separated, each part chopped in half
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 pound fresh chestnuts, cooked
10 large dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and stems removed, cut in quarters
3 Tablespoons corn oil
1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
3 Tablespoons Chinese wolfberries (dried cranberries can be a substitute)
2 sprigs fresh cilantro
1. Mix chicken wing pieces with rice wine and cornstarch and set aside for half an hour.
2. Boil chestnuts for five minutes, then drain, and mix with the chicken wings. And add the mushroom quarters to this.
3. Heat oil in wok, then add chicken wing mixture and stir-fry for five minutes until chicken pieces are browned. Remove from the pan and drain.
4. Warm a heat-proof casserole and add the drained chicken mixture and two cups of water, the two sauces, and the wolfberries and simmer for an hour.
5. If serving in another casserole, warm it then add the chicken mixture, put cilantro on top for decor, and serve.
Sugared Chestnuts
1 pound shelled whole fresh chestnuts
3 ounces rock sugar, crushed
2 Tablespoons maltose or molasses
2 cups corn oil
1. Boil chestnuts until almost tender.
2. Slowly heat sugar, maltose, and two cups boiling water, add chestnuts, and in one minute, reduce to a simmer. And cook until all this liquid is absorbed, or for about twenty minutes. Then drain chestnuts and put them on a slightly oiled plate.
3. Heat oil in a deep pan or wok, reduce the heat slightly and add half the chestnuts, frying them until golden. Drain and put in a serving bowl. Then fry the remaining half, drain, mix both batches together, and serve.
Chestnuts and Celery Cabbage
1/2 pound fresh peeled chestnuts, or boiled and reconstituted dried ones
10 large dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in two cups warm water, drained and liquid saved, their stems removed
3 Tablespoons corn oil
4 to 6 cups celery cabbage, cut in one-inch wide pieces
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
1. Blanch chestnuts in hot water for three minutes, drain, and cut each one in half.
2. Cut mushrooms in quarters. Strain any solids out of the reserved mushroom water.
3. Heat oil, and stir-fry the mushrooms for two minutes, then add half the celery cabbage pieces and stir-fry them for about four or five minutes, each minute or two adding some from the other half of the celery cabbage pieces.
4. Add the mushroom water, sugar, salt, and vegetarian oyster sauce, cover, and simmer for three more minutes, then serve.

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