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Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods
Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 15, 16, 1nd 17
The Yao ethnic national minority, previously known as Mian, Jinmen, Bunu, Lajia, Bingduo, and by other names, now number more than three million people. Their ancestry can be traced beyond two thousand years ago, perhaps more, when they were among the Wuling tribes that lived near Changsha in what is now the Hunan Province. Their origins are thus from before the start of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE). Some say they are related to the Miao, and perhaps so, but that is hard to determine because the Yao today are a composite of many smaller ethnic populations, maybe as many as three hundred different ones. Thus, they speak different dialects, wear different clothes, even have different costumes for their festivals. They also have many different customs and different religious traditions mixed with some that are somewhat similar.
After the Han Dynasty (220 CE), many of the tribes of this population now called Yao were called Mayao. As time went on, ties with many others and many intermarriages to Han people occurred. Twelve hundred years ago, during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), many Yao people lived in Yungming and other counties where these contacts were made, relationships cemented; and they lived in many mountainous regions.
This group of people officially became Yao in 1949 after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Today they are considered China's twelfth largest national minority group after the Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uygur, Yu, Tyujia, Mongolian, Tibetan, Bouyei, and Dong population groups.
Overall, there were one hundred eighty-three ethnic nationality populations mentioned by the Chinese government in 1964; but only fifty-five of these were officially recognized, the Yao among them. Of the remaining ones, seventy-four were believed part of one of the recognized ethnic groups with other spellings and/or pronunciations. Twenty-three were classified as 'other nationalities' and thirty-two were not considered an ethnic nationality at that time, nor since. The Yao, one of these recognized fifty-five, live in mountainous communities in the five South China provinces of Guangxi, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, and Guizhou, and in one autonomous region. Small numbers of others live scattered elsewhere in China.
Historically, most Yao pople spoke a Sino-Tibetan language, while others spoke Miao or Dong or Zhuang languages. Now, almost all Yao speak Mandarin Chinese better known as Putonggua, the national language. Prior to 1949, these peoples did not have a written language, now they all use the country's official language, and they write Chinese as do all Han Chinese. A good number speak Cantonese and other local dialects as well as this country's national language.
Traditionally, Yao were agricultural folk who raised cattle and farmed rice and other food items. In addition, they loved to hunt, collect medicinal herbs, and work at irrigating their lands digging ditches. In earlier times, the Yao people were ruled by hereditary herdsman and during those times they did practice communal farming.
After a hunt, Yao hunters would share what they caught giving some to the elderly and to others unable to join that particular hunt. They gave double portions to the lucky hunter or hunters who bagged the catch. Others on that particular outing shared equally. In the past, when they went on a hunt, they particularly liked to bag bear, boar, wild cats (civets), and monkeys. These days, capturing or killing these animals is frowned upon, some even outlawed, so hunts are now confined to collecting wild fruit, local herbs, and as many fungi as can be found.
Most Yao worshiped a dog spirit known as Panhu. That means that eating dog meat is an important taboo. As dogs come on hunts, Yao needed to take care not to capture or hurt them. Returning to their villages, Yao cook fungi collected with bamboo shoots and honey, often distributing them raw or cooked communally.
The staples of their diet are rice, corn, sweet potatoes, radishes, bamboo shoots, and their beloved mushrooms, especially wood ear and cloud ear types. They also like to eat all manner of fowl salting their birds or pickling them six months or more before or after cooking them. They like ducks wine-fed before slaughter and stewed with ginger, garlic, sweet, and particularly with hot peppers.
Their love of birds is a mixed blessing. When farming season comes, they celebrate an 'Expel the Birds Festival' held on the first day of the second month of the Lunar calendar. Before that day, they prepare rice balls made with glutinous rice. These are put on sticks in the fields feeding the birds before shooing them away. The day after and beyond the festival day, Yao are known to put grains with things that poison any birds returning to the fields.
Yao like lots of other foods besides those already mentioned. They like to mix them stir-frying them with rice or other grains at lunch. At dinner, they cook them with pig fat, black beans, and pigs ears in a clay pot. At any meal, Yao like pig intestines and pig penis stir-fried with garlic and chili. They pickle chickens in salt and rice flour, sealing them in a crock, and they pickle beef and mutton the same way. However, they are not as fond of these meats as they are of their pickled birds.
Yao make great steamed red bean dumplings and dip them in soy sauce or in diluted chili oil. Some add herbs to the dumplings, others do not, but everyone does add herbs to their main meal dishes. Preference is given to medicinal ones including cinnamon, tea leaves, honey, sweet grasses, etc. They also like to add these herbs to their congees and stews, the latter made with many root vegetables. In their love for herbs, it is not uncommon to simply fry them with corn or sweet potatoes or both.
Besides the taboo against dog meat, Yao do not eat snake meat, cat meat, and meat from a sow. They worship and venerate these animals, also their ancestors and a number of other gods. Which ones does depend upon which community of Yaos in question. Which foods they eat also varies.
In northern Guangxi, Yao adore an oily tea, in other communities they shun it. For those that do consume this beverage, they fry the tea leaves in oil, then add liquid and a starch and boil these leaves making a thick soup. Many add puffed rice or puffed soybeans to this soup.
Some say the Yao have a festival at least once a month. These, too, vary by community and region. The vegetables this ethnic group eats with their staple foods varies, as does foods eaten for lunch or dinner. For some, the oily tea is a lunch item, for others it is only consumed for dinner. For others, this beverage is a special item only consumed at festivals.
Many Yao communities hold lavish gatherings every few years. At them, they chant scriptures and offer sacrifices to Panhu, to a plethora of other gods, and to their ancestors. There are some festivals that take place monthly, others every other month.
The Yao cherish their large oral traditions, practice them frequently along with gong, drum, and horn playing accompaniments, and they prepare many foods for the regular festivals and for those that do not occur regularly. For example, the Danu Festival, also known as The Ancestress Festival, takes place at one, three, or twelve year intervals. It can be a five-day event venerating ancient Yao battles. Whatever and whenever it is, they dance, participate in scripture readings, enjoy picnics, chat and do their beloved embroidery. This particular festival, when held, is usually scheduled on the 29th day of the fifth Lunar month.
There is also a Shuawang Festival every three or five years during the 10th lunar month, and a Panwang Festival held every year. At all festivals, there is much opportunity to cook, court, kid around, and chat. After one of them, we had the chance to ask a young Yao bride about her eating habits. She spoke about learning to make a special rice-noodle soup and eating it with beet greens and preserved eggs. She said she eats three meals a day and her husband always takes his bath in the evening, usually directly after dinner, and so never helps with clean-up. She also said she makes pigs feet in chili sauce, rice cakes, and eats the preserved long beans they set aside in season.
Just before her marriage, she told about going to her husband's home, chopping the head off a chicken to scare away evil spirits, serving tea to her in-laws, and having two glasses of wine with them. One of the glasses had a red thread which her husband pulled away, one glass had a green one, which she pulled off. When asked their significance, she said showing off those threads told the in-laws and other relatives they were officially married.
That particular Yao bride said that some of her friends did not eat for three days before they wed, one refrained from food for an entire week, but that she thought that old fashioned. However, she and they had their first meal after their marriage of winter melon soup and that she thought was an OK custom. She had short hair, some Yao women have long hair, and when asked about this custom she said: "I am young, just nineteen and Yao women usually cut their hair only twice in their lives." When asking if this was before the marriage, "sort of" was her answer, then she turned away. Turns out her husband indicated women cut their hair at eighteen and again at thirty-eight. Neither she nor he knew why not.
Her oldest friend just became pregnant, and she told us she no longer eats chicken, garlic, hot peppers, lamb, fish, scallions or onions, and no bittermelon. She quickly added, that she will not adhere to that because "what is left to eat," she asked? That same friend told her that after the baby is born, her mother-in-law said she will not be allowed to sleep with her son for a hundred days; "that I won't do either." Later she said, "I hope my mother-in-law will make me newborn soup of ginger, peanuts, and lots of liquor for at least a month or two." Seems that tradition was one she was hoping to enjoy.
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