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by Jacqueline M. Newman

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Summer Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(2) page(s): 21, 22, 23, and 32

Called mi or fengmi, honey is the oldest and most respected sweetener in China. Some say it was once so important that it was considered a major food item. That may be stretching a point, but there is certainty it was a very common early food, so much so that there are records of its use at banquets during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Earlier than that, honey was fermented with water, yeast, and/or rice or wheat, and it was made into vinegars. How early? Perhaps Neolithic times, and certainly circa 300 BCE as indicated in the book, Song of Songs. Besides it use as a food, honey was used as a prescription, and spoken of as for sale by street vendors with or without honey-sweetened fruits, wines, and other foods.

In those early days, materials and tomb findings show honey used not just with fruits, it was used with vegetables, meats, and noodles. One ancient recipe says to boil the juice of two parts honey and one part juice for a short time, then cool it, add grapes, and set this outside to dry. Another says to add dry grapes and salt to the juice before cooking it. A pasta recipe found in the Qi Man Yao Shi mixes water, wheat flour, bone marrow, and honey. Yet another substitutes rice for the wheat flour.

In those early days, many foods such as bamboo shoots, whole or cut up bananas, knobs of ginger, whole Chinese olives, kumquat peel, and nuts were preserved in honey. These foods were eaten as snacks or prepared with others in main dishes. The honey they were preserved in was a beverage used after dilution with water. Besides these early uses with foods, honey was touted as a tonic, believed good for the complexion, recommended as a cure for colds, and was a way to rid the body of poisonous substances, along with brown sugar and later sugar cane juice.

Was this any kind of honey? Worldwide, there are four main honeybee species. Apis cerana, also known as the Chinese or tropical honey bee, was most popular throughout Asia. This is no longer so because since the twentieth century, these bees have been replaced by Apis millifera. The reason is simple, the latter produce more honey. The former species and Apis dorsata and Apis folrea, though still hived by some farmers, could not keep up with the country’s increasing demand for this sweetener both at home and for China’s exports.

Actually, China uses a large variety of different honeys at home made with the same bee colonies. These include lychee honey, winter honey, multifloral honeys, and others, and they use and export many more kinds as well as many grades of honey. So much is exported that China is now the world’s second largest producer of honey, and all kinds and grades are of considerable economic value.

The first written Chinese use of honey was not as a food, but rather about how to keep bees. That document dates from the middle of the third century CE. Honey was written about then and thereafter discussing its earlier uses and how to maintain good healthy hives. Some time after that written record, honey and batter-coated bananas and apples were written about in their food contexts. The record shows these two fruits fried in oil, dipped in ice water, and served in a honey-flavored sauce. Even more amazing is the fact that relatives of these early fruit dishes are still popular and can be found in upscale Chinese restaurants today. An early medicinal recommendation for honey was for curing a fever. That one said to mix three eggs with the honey. This recipe is not in use today, but the use of honey to cleanse the body of poisons still is. All early writings of honey came into being only after a mention of honey not as a food, but as a luxury from the west, were written about.

Certainly when honey was no longer a luxury, it became commonplace in a number of main dishes and snack foods, particularly in southern China. For example, in Guangzhou a roasted pig is brushed with soy sauce and honey or maltose during the roasting process; this is not done once but rather many times over several hours. Honey is also a component of a meat marinade, think spare ribs, and honey is used when cooking them, ham, and other parts of a pig. Not reserved just for the meat of pigs, honey is brushed on duck before roasting in southern and northern China, and honey is used similarly with chicken and with fruit dishes.

Common folk can purchase honey for any intended use, the price considered reasonable by some, pricy by others. Most do not seem to mind the cost because the Chinese believe that honey prolongs life. This notion emulates that of a noted Taoist doctor, Tao Hung Ching, who lived from 452 to 536 CE. The then emperor granted him and other important Taoist religious folk a monthly supply just for that purpose. Those less lucky or less able to buy their own honey were forced to use an extract of the raison tree, Hovenia dulcis. It, too, was said to elongate life. This longevity-promising popular sweetener was made from leaves, seeds, and small branches of the Japanese raison tree.

Many other longevity sweeteners included honey. They were honey diluted with slabs of brown sugar, and/or honey mixed with sorghum. Grannies minding their children’s children would give honeyed candies to their tiny-tyke charges when they themselves indulged in these longevity-type foods. The elderly also consumed cows milk mixed with honey for the same purpose; and some were known to give that to their charges.

Not all uses of honey were of value nor were they all used to prolong life. For example, the elderly avoided honey cooked with garlic because that combo was deemed poisonous. And, they would not consume anything with honey whenever they felt ill. But they would drink honey mixed with cinnabar no matter how they felt, but only if it was first mixed with wine. This latter mix was considered a stimulating elixir. And, when they could select the kind of honey to use, it was shimi or honey from cliffs. They liked this honey source especially when mixing it with bamboo shoots and ginger.

In the Li Qi or Record of Rites, there are reports of foods for the elderly that include honey mixed with several items, but not necessarily all at once. There was honey mixed with dates, with winter melon and lotus seeds, and with slices of arrowroot, as well as honey mixed with other fruits and seeds. These mixtures were recommended to the elderly while living. There was also a recommendation for them after they left the earth. In the Elegies of Chu, honey is shared with their spirits.

In Tang through Qing Dynasties (618 - 907 and 1644 - 1911, respectively)many wines were manufactured pre-sweetened with honey, and many dishes made with honey served with many sweetened and unsweetened wines. For example, in the mid-Qing Dynasty, circa 1775, there was mention of a dish of rice cakes made with honey that was to be served with wine. In the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), nuts sweetened with honey were a popular mid-meal snack as was taro sweetened with honey. Later, a more main-dish-like preparation made even sweeter with honey was sweetened sweet potatoes; they were reported popular in restaurants and wine houses.

Currently, honey consumption in China is low compared to what it may have been and to what it is current in the western world. But it certainly is not absent. Think of recipes with the word honey in them such as Honeyed Walnuts, Honeyed Spare Ribs, Banana Pancakes, Lamb in Honey Sauce, Honey Soup Elixir, Honey Casserole, Pork in Honey Sauce, Chicken with Honey, and Oysters in Honey Sauce, to name but a few.

These days, honey can be used in every part of a Chinese meal, appetizer through dessert, and with every food category fruit through meat. Some recipes with honey are provided for your pleasure.
Honey Soup Elixir
2 Tablespoons sweet almonds, paper shells removed
2 Tablespoons bitter almonds
2 pounds watercress, washed and dried with paper towels or in a spin dryer
2 Tablespoons wolfberries
1/2 cup honey
1. Put almonds and watercress in a large pot. Add two quarts of water, bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for one hour.
2. Strain and set aside for one hour.
3. Reheat and add wolfberries and simmer for fifteen minutes, then add honey and cook another two or three minutes. Can be served warm or cool.
Honeyed Congee
1/2 cup black or red rice, soaked for two hours, then drained
1/2 cup white glutinous rice, soaked for two hours, then drained
1/2 cup chopped peanuts
1/2 cup dried pit-free longans
1/2 cup rice wine
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon oil
1. Mix all ingredients and put in a large heat-proof bowl, then add eight cups of water.
2. Steam over boiling water for two hours, remove from steamer and cool slightly. Then serve.
Honeyed Nuts
4 cups raw shelled nuts such as cashews, walnuts, peanuts, even ling nuts
1 cup brown slab sugar
1 cup honey
1/4 cup corn oil
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1. Boil nuts for five minutes, then drain.
2. Heat two cups water, brown sugar, and the honey until all are dissolved, then add nuts and simmer, watching the pot carefully, until the nuts begin to turn a light brown color. Then drain and dry on paper towels.
3. Heat oil and keeping it at a low temperature, fry the nuts until they darken slightly. Drain, then mix nuts with one tablespoon of the honey water and the sesame seeds, tossing well.
4. Spread out on a large platter and allow to dry overnight, then serve or store in a closed container in a cool place.
Honeyed Potatoes
3 Tablespoons corn oil
3 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons honey
1 pound white or sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into thin sticks
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
1. Mix oil and sugar and cook on low heat until golden.
2. Add honey and simmer for two minutes, then add potatoes and stir-fry for two minutes.
3. Mix cornstarch and sesame seeds and sprinkle over the potatoes, stirring continuously, and stir-fry another two minutes, then serve.
Steamed Taro Bread
1 and 1/2 cups flour
1 and 1/2 cups taro, cooked, cooled, and mashed
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon Chinese baking powder
1 Tablespoon lard, chilled
1/4 cup honey
1 egg
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1. Mix flour, mashed taro, salt, and baking powder, then using two knives or pastry blender, cut in the lard until it is quite fine.
2. Mix honey and egg, then add one-quarter cup of cold water, and gently mix this into the flour mixture.
3. Oil a heat-proof dish with at least one-inch sides, and pour flour mixture into it, smoothing/evening the top.
4. Place in a steamer over boiling water and steam for twenty minutes. Remove, cool somewhat, and cut into eight serving pieces. Then serve
Note: Thebread can be eaten alone, fried, or most commonly, served with the Lamb in Honey Sauce.
Lettuce-wrapped Ovsters
24 large oysters, shells removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 toothpicks
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon Chinese rose or rice wine
1 Tablespoon black bean paste with garlic
1 cup corn oil
12 small lettuce leaves
1. Boil water and oysters and salt and blanch the oysters in it for half minute, no longer, then drain well, and skewer two oysters to a toothpick.
2. Mix honey, wine, and black bean paste, and spread this mixture on the oysters.
3. Heat oil, deep fry the oysters in two batches, for only one minute, ten remove and drain and set on serving platter with the lettuce leaves. Repeat with the second batch. Then serve using the lettuce leaves to hold oysters, removing the tooth picks, and thus eating them wrapped in the leaves.
Honeyed Lamb
1 pound boneless lamb, cut into half-inch slices
2 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon ginger juice
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon black vinegar
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1. Mix lamb, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, ginger juice, honey, vinegar, soy sauce, and cornstarch and cover and refrigerate overnight, turning three or four times. Remove lamb and reserve its marinade.
2. Pre-heat wok, add oil and fry lamb, turning it often to cook evenly, for two or three minutes. Remove lamb and then discard any oil in the wok, returning the lamb and all reserved marinade and continue to stir-fry cooking another three minutes, then serve. If wok seems too dry, can add one or two tablespoons of water for the last stir-fry period.
Chicken with Chili and Honey
1 chicken, about two and a half pounds, cut in quarters
3 slices fresh ginger
1 scallion, knotted
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold tea
1 cup corn oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon chili paste with garlic
2 Tablespoons honey
4 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons mushroom soy
2 Tablespoons corn starch mixed with three tablespoons of cold water
1. Bring half gallon water to boil, add chicken pieces ginger and scallion, and simmer chicken for fifteen minutes, remove and brush skin sides with cornstarch tea mixture and set aside for half an hour.
2. Heat corn oil and fry chicken pieces, two at a time, until golden in color. Drain on paper towels, and when cooler, chop into two-inch pieces, and put on a serving plate.
3. Heat sesame oil and stir-fry ginger in garlic for half minute, then add chili paste, honey, rice wine, and soy and bring to the boil. Then add cornstarch mixture, cook until thickened, and pour over the chicken pieces. Then serve.

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