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Dongbei: Food Culture and Conditions

by Zheng Nan

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Fall Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(3) page(s): 10, 11, 12, and 14

Culinary resources in the Northeast of China, a region known as Dongbei, include the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, as well as the eastern part of Inner Mongolia. As a result of geography, winter lasts a very long time here. Calendar-wise, this means from the middle of October until well into April of the following year. It is exceptionally cold from December until the beginning of March, a time locally called the 'depth of winter.' To be specific, this region is between the forty-second and fifty-fourth parallel and is China's coldest natural region, one not too hot in summer.

Plants here need water for growth, and sufficient water is available for their crops seasonally and year-round. Lakes and rivers ensure luxuriant vegetation and favorable growing conditions; and there is enough water for animal breeding. This region is ideal for hunting, for animal husbandry, and for fishing. Its forest land makes up sixty percent of China's total forest land and the grasslands are more than adequate for hunting and livestock. Regional plants provide local people with enough food, and the large amount of available water provides many varieties of fish.

Until the end of the 19th century, food resources in this Northeast region boasted more than seventy varieties of poultry, fifty more in other livestock, one hundred varieties of fish, sixty different fruits, more than one hundred vegetables, and more than forty types of grains. By the middle of 20th century, people here were still hunting deer using clubs, fishing while scooping water, and catching pheasants as they flew overhead or ran nearby.

Much early information about the Northeast region comes from the thirty-first year of Emperor Kangxi (1692 CE) during the early Qing Dynasty. At that time, Czar Peter sent a twenty-two-member delegation from Russia along with ninety armed people and other folk. For two years this delegation traveled back and forth along north China's border and they spent about a half year in the Northeast territories.

According to notes made by members of the delegation, the Irtysh River abounded with fish. They wrote that a forty-to-fifty-pound sturgeon had fish oil about three-quarters of an inch thick. They detailed lots of animals for hunting including moose, deer, rabbits, and so on, and lots of pheasants, mountain quail, swans, geese, ducks, and cranes. Rare species of fish were available in many lakes including delicious sturgeon and dog fish, and people could easily get twenty big sturgeon costing a bunch of cigarettes. Sleds pulled by dogs were used to go fishing in winter, they later were used to sell the fish.

It is interesting to note that these notes advise people that copper pans were used for cooking and those made of birch bark were available, too. This latter kind of pan, they advised, was only used to simmer on hot charcoal and not to heat foods in over an open fire.

The Buryat people there, they wrote, had many sheep, oxen, long-haired and more common types of cattle, goats, and horses and lived in log cabins and make a living doing large-scale hunting. As noted by one delegation member, there were many wild animals, bears and wolves among them. Seen from a distance, they reported wild goats covering the hillside like snow. The many sable and lynx hiding in the mountains were a valuable source of precious fur. Besides hunting and fishing, local people had large-size plantations and smaller gardens to raise many Chinese cabbages, radishes, and carrots, and a smaller number of grains.

As fishing in this area is far more important than farming, their reports tell that if residents want to fish, they simply go to the shore with a pocket and a shirt or a pair of pillowcases. Once there, they can get more fish than they want, and apart from chub they find many dog fish, carp, perch, and other fish varieties.

All across this Northeast region, this delegation reported about flourishing grasses, hills and valleys with all kinds of flowers, hundreds of male and female deer, wild goats gathering in crowds, and many geese, ducks, wild turkeys, and chickens. They also wrote that a large number of wild boar, deer, tigers, and leopards were in the mountain ridges.

On the vast fertile grassland, they tell that to relax best is to hunt deer as they are so numerous one can catch them by hand instead of by gun. One incident written about is when they barricade the street with a truck and see several deer jump over it, one of them is caught by hand. They also report that locals engage in agriculture, plant millet, barley, oats, and tobacco, and that they have extra food and salt to sell.

As these delegation members move to the center of China, they state being surprised by its fertility. One writes that for fun they hunt because they can get many wild goats. In the valley, they see endless chestnut and tall walnut trees, and wild grapes. This visiting group says that the Chinese have changed their diet; as visitors they now substitute pork for mutton and eat more rice daily than they did before coming to China. Keep in mind that the above descriptions are made by westerners at the end of the 17th century. No other fundamental changes appear until the 19th century.

This Northeast region is a sparsely populated area with basic natural ecology that remains so until early in the 20th century. Residents there have always lived by animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, gathering, and planting. They eat many kinds of meat including poultry and fish, and they do consume milk. These are supplemented with plant foods including grains and fruits and vegetables. One can say theirs is a balanced diet.

For thousands of years or even longer, people in the Northeast have eaten lots of meat. The diet the Chinese and other local peoples living here, such as the Manchu, Mongols, Daur, Oroqen, Ewenki, Sibo, Hezhe, Kyrgyzstan, and Kuyi minority groups have maintained, until the late 19th century is based upon staples of sheep, cattle, horses and other meats from herbivorous domestic animals, wild animals, and fish.

These foods are better in terms of their low-fat and high-protein content than the staples of those living in the Yellow River basin where upper and middle class people mainly eat wheat and lower classes eat millet. Those in the Yangtze River area mainly eat rice. This meat diet is better than a diet of corn, and it is indispensable food for the lower classes during the mid-Qing dynasty.

Another dietary feature of the region is that the people eat a variety of and many kinds of bean products. Their king of beans is soy, a traditional food employed and enjoyed by northerners. In this region, they see more than twenty bean varieties including the soybean, red beans, mung beans, peas, broad beans, cowpeas, hyacinth beans, kidney beans, sword beans, and French beans.

Beans here were and are still used for much cooking with rice for porridge, steamed food, other dishes, and/or for making soy sauce, clear sauce, tofu, bean sprouts, soy milk and other products including noodles and mung bean sprouts. Their long-established culinary habits include eating a large amount of tofu, bean sprouts, soybean paste, and soybean milk. The large intake of these products does differ from other Chinese regions.

Ample winter food storage is a positive characteristic available to all people in this Northeast region of China where they have a short frost-free period and local fresh vegetables are only available in the marketplace for six months. In summertime, when varieties of vegetables are plentiful and low in price, people dry many of them. More than ten kinds of vegetables are traditionally dried beginning at the start of autumn, including Chinese cabbages, radishes, potatoes, and other vegetables. They do so in the oven to reserve them for winter; and also prepare varieties of Chinese sauerkraut and pickles for winter, as well.

In the rural areas in spring and summer, locals eat fresh hen, duck, and goose eggs. In wintertime they consume more of them as salted eggs. When they slaughter a pig, it is usually one weighing more than one hundred kilo (two hundred twenty pounds) and one they raised. They boil its lard and put that in jars to use for cooking year-round. Most of the pork from this pig is salted for use throughout the year. About a quarter of the fresh meat is buried and frozen in snow or ice to be eaten during the month of the Chinese New Year.

Tofu and noodles are made from potato starch and are consumed frequently. Generally, every village has a facility to make both of these products. Tofu used to be served for guests, now they and guests eat it more often. This shows that their diet has improved with more foods available since the enactment of current reforms.

Frozen food put up during the long cold winter is a unique gift of nature kept in the giant refrigerator of the outdoors. Limitless, costless, and hygienic, meats can stay a long time buried in snow or ice, or hung after lots of spraying with water to freeze them.

Vegetables stay green and can last in the snow as does tofu, milk, freeze-dried foods including steamed buns plain or stuffed with sweetened bean paste, dumplings, glutinous rice-flour New Year cakes, and fruits. North Easterners keep traditional delicacies such as bing tang hu lu, their crispy sugar-coated fruit put on sticks. They like them made of haw, yam, etc.

Recently, ecological balances and harmonies have undergone major changes. Before the 1970s, the food chain and people's understandings of nutrition were limited and less than they are now. With the population explosion, industrial growth, and increased radio and television, things are changing. Since the 1980s, a series of new policies have had an impact on socio-economic and national culinary life. Production and living standards of ordinary folk are higher than in the past.

There are also changes in staple food intake. Maize, sorghum, foxtail millet, wheat, rice, and other millet consumption has decreased while wheat and rice and flour intake has increased. Low-grade wines and tobacco use have also increased with men loving and consuming more alcohol and women smoking more cigarettes.

Changes in non-staple food intake has increased in Central China in proportion to meat, and decreased in the Northeastern regions. This is more true in cities and towns, especially large- and medium-size ones. The proportion of meats eaten in central regions is almost ten times larger than it was in the mid 1950s to 1970s. Intake of poultry, eggs, soy products, green vegetables, fruits, etc. are also rising. Many people's daily intake outside of the Northeast has been transformed from 'subsistence' to 'better nutrition.'

Since mid-Qing-Dynasty-times, the northernmost province in the Northeast region, Heilongjiang Province, has become a place where those from other provinces are clearly visible. Han residents from all around China and those of various ethnic groups have brought their culinary habits, aesthetic appreciation, and cooking skills to this region. They have made the entire northeast region a dynamic culinary region with more varied diet than ever before.

As more and more people from other provinces come to the Northeast region, they engage in the restaurant and catering industries. They make up more than two-thirds of all immigrants, and they are accompanied by a larger influx of foreigners than ever before. This has resulted in historical exchanges of peoples and their food behaviors. Many cities in the Northeast more than ever are inhabited by a large number of Europeans. Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, is now nicknamed 'Oriental Paris' while at the beginning of the previous century it was called 'Oriental Moscow.'

The influx of people from Russia (now the Soviet Union), and from France, Greece, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Hungary have been joined by Jews from many of these and many other Eastern European countries. Asians came from Japan and Korea and continue to practice European style businesses here. According to a survey done in Manchukuo in 1937, many enterprises with foreign capital, including western restaurants are run by Europeans; there are more than two hundred and sixty in Harbin alone.

Large-scale and deluxe restaurants are now found in the American Hotel, Ya La Hotel, Fan Daji Hotel, Golden Horn Hotel, and so on. In addition to these western restaurants, there are others, many run by the Chinese. At the beginning of the 20th century, European food could be tasted in Harbin, especially Russian food. Dishes there included memorable soups, boiled, braised, and sauteed meats, and many kinds of pickled cucumbers.

Northeastern Cuisine has won universal praise and is making its way into more people's hearts. Dishes such as Sauteed Meat with Mung Bean Vermicelli, Streaky Pork with Blood Sausage, Pickled Chinese Cabbage Hot Pot, Dongbei Hot Pot, Braised Pork with Beans or with Vermicelli, and Catfish Braised with Chinese Mugwort, Sauteed Dried Tofu with Hot Peppers, are among the appreciated dishes.

One local recipe, Sauteed Meat with Pickled Vegetable, is made with pork, starch noodles, oil, soy sauce, wine, salt, sesame oil, scallions, ginger, garlic, and broth. Another, Braised Chicken with Mushrooms, is made with wild mushrooms and free-range chickens; some say it is the most famous and most traditional Dongbei dish. Everyone makes each of these dishes with an amount of each ingredient that suits them.

Two other dishes, Dongbei Cai and Northern Napa Cabbage, are popular as well, and the editor of this magazine was kind enough to provide exacting recipes for them below. Note that this picture is of a pickled vegetable, Chinese napa cabbage; preparing it was discussed more than three thousand years ago. Thick salty soybean sauce, also called soybean paste, is recorded about the same time. The ci lao ya are shoots of an herbal medicinal root originating in the northeast of China; and it was referred to as: Many Prickle Acathopanax Root.

Information for this article comes from several articles by Zhao Rongguang, by this author, and others. They were written in Chinese, Russian, and/or Japanese; and should you want more information about them, do contact me at: zhengnan126@126.com
Zheng Nan has a doctorate from the Heilongjiang University of Harbin, China where she specialized in Chinese food culture and history, and in specific Chinese and foreign cultural food topics. Now, she cooperates with Professor Zhao Rongguang at Zhejiang Gongshan University in Hangzhou, China, and asks that you forward any requests directly to her at the e-mail address above.
Dongbei Cai
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 leek, white part only, cut into half-inch pieces
1/2 pound finely shredded green cabbage
1 cucumber, seeded, quartered the long way, and thinly sliced
1 carrot, peeled then shredded
1/4 cup roasted peanuts, paper skins removed
1 cup fresh bean sprouts, their tails removed
1/2 cup shredded form tofu or brown or white tofu noodles
2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated or crushed Chinese brown sugar
1. In small sauce pan, heat vegetable oil and just before it smokes, remove from heat, drop in pieces of leek, and stir for one minute, then set aside for half an hour. Strain out the leeks, and use or discard, as preferred. If using them, put them into a medium size bowl with two teaspoons of the oil. Save the rest of the oil for another use, or use it for cooking a vegetable dish.
2. Put all other ingredients into the bowl with the leeks, if using them, and the oil, toss well, and serve as a cold vegetable.
Northern Napa Cabbage
1 small napa cabbage, about one pound
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 carrot
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Put cabbage in a heat-proof bowl. Heat the oil and pour it over the cabbage and after ten minutes turn it over, and let rest another fifteen minutes, then remove and discard the oil or use it for another purpose, and return the cabbage to the heat-proof bowl.
2. Make one end of the carrot come to a point, then make hole in the stem end of the cabbage and insert the carrot there. Then put the bowl and the cabbage and the liquid into a steamer over rapidly boiling water, and steam for one hour. Then remove the cabbage and set it on a serving plate, and pour one half cup of the liquid into a small saucepan.
3. Pour the cornstarch mixture into the sauce pan, bring to the boil stirring and when thick, pour this over the cabbage, and serve.

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