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Dong: A Chinese Nationality

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Fall Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(3) page(s): 34, 35, 36, and 37

There are more than three million Dong people in China, and their numbers continue to grow. Theirs is more than two thousand years of history, most passed from one generation to another; it is told through song, and is a delight to hear.

Most Dong live in the Sanjiang, Tongdao, Yuping, Xinhuang, and Zhijiang counties. They are where Guizhou, Hunan, and the Guangzi Zhuang Autonomous Regions meet. Others live elsewhere including in the Hunan, Hubei, and Yunnan Provinces; and some live elsewhere in China.

The Dong is not one ethnic group, but rather two, as there are Northern Dong and Southern Dong. They dress differently and each speaks a different dialect of the Zhuang-Dong Sino-Tibetan language. Their religious beliefs are more similar as they revolve around the spirits of their ancestors and those of animal spirits.

Some Dong wear Tang Dynasty hairstyles that wrap their long hair into one or more buns; these they top with gorgeous silver and floral headdresses for their festivities. The buns themselves, on ordinary days, are wrapped in black, blue, and deep purple fabrics, some highlighted with white and other colors. Their clothes are the same dark colors but their ladies' tunics and/or aprons are embroidered with flowers or geometric designs. These fabrics are hand-woven, the embroidered ones called 'cotton brocade' even though they are made with silk threads. On festive occasions, they wear colored sashes over their tunics.

Like the bridges they are known for, their clothes are held together in unique ways. Women's clothes use nary a button while those of the men have up to four. Dong Ladies wear absolutely spectacular silver crowns on their heads, and these ornate items are further enhanced with fresh flowers and small ribbons.

Some Dong festivals are the same as the Han including New Year's Day, Mid-autumn Festival, and Dragon Boat Festival. In addition, they have ethnic-specific holidays such as New Rice Tasting Festival and the Sister's Festival. At all of these, they wear their traditional costumes and they enjoy large family and community feasts.

The Dong are known for their architectural structures. The most famous are their Wind and Rain Bridge and their Drum Tower. These and their homes are made of wood, usually fir, and without a single nail. They are held together fitting pieces into groves. They like to live near rivers and streams and their bridges are built on four stone piers. They go from one side of the water to the other with graceful arches between the piers.

The structures at both ends of these bridges resemble palaces, the three in the middle look like pagodas, each topped with an upside-down red gourd to symbolize luck. The palaces are richly painted pavilions used as meeting places, especially for their youth. Banquets are often held at tables set up for the occasion. The bridges are enclosed, there are benches on both sides, and it is not uncommon to see young folk meeting other young folk there.

Dong are friendly and hospitable though invited guests can be stopped at village entrances. They are allowed to enter after they drink a bowl of proffered wine. Once in a home, all guests are served yaucha. This is a Dong tea made with tea tree oil.

Tea oil is oil pressed from seeds of tea trees. They are relatives but not the same as leaves usually used to make tea. They are in the Myrtaceae family, and botanically known as Melaleuca alternifolia, leaves for all other tea are Camellia sinensis. Tea tree oil is usually produced by steam distillation, and it can be extracted in other ways.

Tea oil, also known as tea tree oil, can be made from the seeds of Camellia oleifera or Camellia sasanqua. These seeds are cold-pressed. Japanese make tea oil from another relative called Camellia japonica and Southeast Asians can make theirs from Camellia kissi. One source, some years ago–location long forgotten--said tea tree oils are the equivalent of Chinese olive oil. We never again found this relationship mentioned.

Getting back to Dong oil tea, this beverage, usually a mix of regular tea and tea oil, is served in a bowl. It can be salty or sweet, the first bowl is always salty. There are many rituals about how and who serves this tea. For example, it is always served by a female who hands a bowl of it to each guest along with one chopstick.

Dong oil tea is made by cooking glutinous rice until it is soft, then drying it in the sun. This dry rice is put in hot tea oil until it puffs; and then it is removed and cooled. When ready to make this tea, put large regular tea leaves in a hot wok and stir-fry them a very short time with a little tea oil until they are crisp. Then add hot water and brew the tea. Peanuts and soybeans are prepared as is the rice, or they just fry but do not puff them. A few of each are added to each bowl with some puffed rice. Note that the boiling tea-water is poured in after the tea leaves are strained out. For additional flavoring, the Dong add pieces of minced or diced fried pig liver, minced scallions, and/or chopped garlic leaves along with some salt. As already indicated, the first bowls are made salty, the last one is made replacing salt with sugar.

Adhering to tradition, oil tea is poured for and served to the eldest first, and then to others in decreasing age. No one takes even a sip until the hostess says 'Please.' Once in a Dong home, when ours was poured, we learned quickly to return our empty bowl for a refill. So did others sharing this mid-afternoon guest-greeting experience. On this occasion we were told that the three bowls following the first would also be salty, and the last one would be sweet. We were told we should be sure to drink all five of them. In a different Dong home, this sweetened oil tea was the fourth bowl, Both times it was served with snack foods that included batter-fried fish, pickled vegetables, nuts, and fried corn.

Only one chopstick is part of the oil tea protocol. We set ours aside, as did others, and noted that no one touched the chopstick for a long while. When we queried our hostess, through an interpreter, we learned that when we wanted no more food we must put the chopstick across the bowl. That says to the hostess that we have had enough.

In one Dong home, an elderly lady did use her chopstick to pick up some of the food. With her advanced age and palsy, she probably needed to pierce food to get it to her mouth. We later found that Dong women pride themselves in eating these snacks with but one chopstick and not piercing the food with it; but we never saw this done.

We also learned that with no woman in a household or none there at tea-serving time, men will serve guests wine instead of tea. They like to drink tea or wine at the Drum Tower or another community location. Long after these visits, we also learned that wine and oil tea were mostly served in odd numbers, rather than an even number of bowls or cups of either beverage; so maybe we miscounted on one occasion.

Before leaving the topic of oil tea, let me advise that the Chinese believe it is antiseptic and a valuable treatment for burns, acne, cold sores, etc. Be aware that they never use it alone, but dilute it with tea, almond oil, or some other liquid. Dong meals have protocols, too. They center around a pot of food simmering over a fire. It is almost always filled with meat and/or vegetables. These can be 'sour meat' or 'sour vegetables.' Pickled lamb and pickled beef are commonplace. Potted foods are served with one or more colors of glutinous rice balls and with dishes of room-temperature pickled vegetables. The rice balls are colored because they are made with white, red, brown, purple, or black glutinous rice. Other dishes at Dong meals can include crisply fried lamb cutlets, pickled fish--called sour fish, and sour ginger.

Dong diets used to be mostly glutinous rice, hot peppers, and pickled vegetables. Now they eat meat and fish and many more pickled vegetables. Some thousand or so years ago when the Dong traveled south and west and needed to preserve foods for the journey. They learned to like pickled foods even when not traveling. Nowadays, they pickle fish, meat, bamboo leaves, and other foods by using rock salt. They prepare them many times during the year, and they like their pickled foods kept half a year before they use them.

Dong people still eat lots of glutinous rice. They also eat rape leaves, wheat, millet, corn, and sweet potatoes. They like festivals, love to dress for them, and they like to prepare large amounts of food to enjoy at them. At main meals and at feasts, oil tea is served, and it is considered rude not to drink yours.

At one Dong meal we had, there were many foods on the table, all in little dishes. With help of notes taken on that occasion, we recall they included bamboo shoots, garlic cloves, cucumbers, radishes, green and red peppers, and green papaya. These were served with glutinous rice balls, lamb cutlets, stewed chicken, oil tea fish called yueshang, and a pot of stewed sour meat. We did not have any fruit with or after them, and everyone stood shortly after the sweet bowl of tea, and left promptly after offering their thanks.

What follows are our renditions of what we had, as best as we can remember, and as best we can imitate those tastes.
Crispy Fried Lamb--Dong-style
1/2 pound boneless lamb, cut into cutlets
3 Tablespoons glutinous rice flour
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 egg, beaten until light in color
3 cups vegetable or tree oil
1 Tablespoon minced scallions
1 Tablespoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons lamb or another broth
1 Tablespoon thick soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Hit the cutlets with the side of the cleaver to thin them evenly and make them tender.
2. Mix rice flour, salt (if using it), and beaten egg to make a batter.
3. Heat oil, put one slice at a time in the batter, allow excess to drain off and deep fry each slice for about half a minute (or longer if preferred). Remove and drain on a paper towel and put on a serving plate. Repeat until all are fried and plated. Reserve all but one tablespoon of the oil for another purpose.
4. Heat reserved tablespoon of oil and stir-fry scallions, ginger, and garlic for half minute, then add vinegar, sugar, broth, and soy sauce and stir for one to two minutes until it thickens. Add sesame oil and pour this over or serve it alongside the pieces of lamb.
Dong Vegetables
2 Tablespoons Chinese clear hard liquor
2 Tablespoons coarse or pickling salt
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon rock or granulated sugar
2 cups Chinese white radish or celery cabbage
1 chili pepper (optional)
1. Bring six cups water to the boil. Use two of them to rinse out a clean mason jar and its cover, and set the others aside to cool to lukewarm.
2. Put liquor, salt, rice wine, and sugar into the jar along with up to one cup of the somewhat cooled water. Stir until salt and sugar are completely dissolved. Then pack in the radish or the celery cabbage and fill with the water that was set aside. If using the chili pepper, rise it with some of the set aside boiled water and put it in the jar before adding the vegetables. Cover and put the jar in a cool dark place for twenty-four to thirty-six hours.
3. Remove the vegetables, drain well, and serve.
Note: Additional vegetables can be put into the jar, the first four ingredients replenished, if and as needed, and another batch of vegetables inserted and set aside to sour. It is best to use the soured vegetables in one or two days.
Yue Shang Fish with Tea Oil
1 pound boneless thin flat fish filet, cut into six pieces
2 Tablespoons tea or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white Chinese rice wine vinegar
6 bowls cooked rice noodles
1/2 teaspoon chili paste with garlic
2Tablespoons puffed or dry roasted peanuts
2 Tablespoons chopped chives
1. Rub fish with oil, then the salt. Put it in a bowl and pour rice wine vinegar over it, cover, and set aside in the refrigerator for six hours or overnight. This pickles the fish.
2. Pour boiling water over the noodles and set them aside for a few minutes. When ready to use them, drain, mix with the chili paste, and put some in individual rice bowls.
3. Remove the fish from the refrigerator, drain and discard the vinegar, and put one piece on top of the noodles in each bowl.
4. Sprinkle some peanuts and chives on each piece of fish, and serve.

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