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Wheat and Other Flour Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Rice, Noodles, and Other Grain Foods

Fall Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(3) page(s): 23 - 27

Botanically known as Triticum twigidum, wheat is popular and plentiful in both the south and the north of China. It was an important ancient grain though not the country's first nor its most important grain. Domesticated some time around 8000 BCE, it was not easy to use until people learned how to grind the wheat kernels into flour. That made it easier to use and more digestible, too. Wheat kernels were first mentioned on oracle bones during the late Shang Dynasty. That ended in 1045 BCE; and their uses increased rapidly thereafter.

Many Chinese believe wheat was their first grain but that is not so. During the early Shang, also called the Erligang Period which was somewhere between the 16th to the 14th centuries BCE, and the late Shang or Yin Shang Period, also called Anyang Shang which is around the 14th century BCE, that is when historians tell us it was called hsiao mai or 'lesser grain.' Then it started to become popular when boiled and used as whole kernels. Grinding it came a few centuries later.

By the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), wheat and other foods that used flour were called shih, li shi, or words sounding like that. The earliest Chinese grain foods were millet-based and rice-based and boiled or steamed. These were easily digested when prepared these ways.

The Chinese probably did not eat a lot of wheat early on, but with each passing year after they learned to grind its kernels, consumption increased, but we do not know by how much.

A 1929 - 1933 survey was the first time we know rather accurately how much could have been consumed. More than twenty-nine percent of China's crop land was planted in wheat during those years, eighty percent of that was consumed by families in China. Today, wheat provides more than fourteen percent of every person's calories. China is the world's largest wheat producer growing more wheat than either the United States or Russia.

Most Asian countries use wheat for noodles and most of their breads, be they baked or steamed. They also ferment and distill wheat, make vinegars and some wines with it, and other flour foods too. Thus, they use wheat in many ways.

The United States and Russia consume most of the wheat grown in China; and they make it into bread. In China's far North, they also make and eat bread. They help it rise with yeast or sourdough, and bake it leavened or unleavened in or on the sides of their ovens.

Oracle bone inscriptions written during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE),tell us that most people did not eat wheat as bread then but consumed it boiled by crushing or not crushing the wheat kernels. They called them wheat berries, and used them in dumplings and other foods that were boiled. And that was long before they knew how to grind these kernels into flour.

Breads in China are called nan, ping, shao, or fan. They are made with wheat, rice, and other ground grains, and most often they call them fan if they are made with rice flour. To the Chinese, fan also means a 'meal' and when they eat a meal they say they chi fan.

There are many words for chi, shi or other flour foods. Nowadays, ping or mien are most popular, especially when using them for noodles or other filament doughs. Different grains are used in different ways in China, not all use wheat flour in their breads, but all Chinese do grind grains into flour when making bread.

The word ping was the earliest word used for pastry. It was printed in the Mo Tzu or the Book of Master Mo in the 4th century BCE. At that time, they might have meant pastry also when using rice flour. Most foods used as offerings at ancestral altars were made with ground millet or ground rice, some boiled first and then called tzu, others were steamed and called er. The word ping was not documented until after 40 BCE.

In early days, Chinese may have known how to pound rice, millet, and barley and use that as a ground flour. Historians agree that grains, after being pounded or ground were mixed with water and boiled or steamed, some with whole or ground sesame seeds. These seeds were also sprinkled on top of their finished baked products/ They still use them that way. After the Han Dynasty, probably after 220 CE, wheat, rice, and barley made into noodles became popular, so popular, that Shu Hsi wrote a poem to honor them. These noodles or filament strings were also used in soups.

In the Chi Min Yao Shu, circa 540 CE, fifteen recipes did use the word ping to mean pasta, two-thirds of them made with wheat flour. Only two recipes used rice flour. One-third fried their pasta in oil, another third boiled or steamed it, and only one did spread the dough for pasta on a hot surface. Made that way, it was called 'pig skin.' Some of the dough mixtures did use leavened dough, one used bone marrow mixed with the flour, and a few are made with honey. A few are made with egg, some baked, others fried or roasted, and some set aside and fermented before using them in these or other ways. Flour foods became more varied as time went on, particularly those using fermented flours.

One early report, pre-dating the above-mentioned items, does mention flours used in liquids consumed as alcoholic beverages and called them li and chu. These are written about in this magazine's Volume 20(3) on pages 11 and 12. Another use during these early times is chi tzu mien; probably a sliced noodle put in congee. While historians believe these food items were developed around the same times, they are not sure of specific dates or of any specific recipe for making them.

Leaven, when needed, was used and made in different ways including as wine residue ferment. Some is made from glutinous rice, some from a ferment needing water that needs ten days to rise. There is a technique that uses wet flour or air-dried cakes called chiao tzu. It is mixed with water, flour, and salt.

The earliest unleavened flour foods are originally flat or flat and then rolled up and cut into thin or wider strips. Some of these are found in excavations near Turfan in Xinkiang, others at Mawangdui. Many are believed to have been eaten as snack foods. These date back two thousand or more years, and some recommended as potions or medicines in pre-Han preparations made by shamans or physicians. Others were made with alcohol. Flour foods have roots in Neolithic times when they are made with black or yellow millet, probably adding hawthorn berries and/or bee pollen. Historians believe they also use other herbal additions as written evidence on silk sealed in tombs on or before 217 BCE indicates.

The first filament noodles written about are mentioned in the Shi Ming, circa 200 CE. Some believe these are made from wet dough, cut in strips, and used in soups. Either flat or round, one source indicates they are pushed through holes. We wonder if these are the hole at the end of an animal horn; some are some found at the early burial sites?

Called by various names and seen in different illustrations, flour foods are found using radish water, yam water, sesame oil, almond oil, dried and then reconstituted bamboo shoot water, assorted pickled vegetable water, and water flavored with lotus leaves or water left over from cooked meats, cooked fish, or cooked vegetables.

Pulling dough is a much later invention, circa 1500 C.E. This technique is first mentioned in the Chi Yu Shan Fang Cha Pu by Sung Hsi. Today, we see flour foods steamed, boiled, fried, grilled, baked, and roasted, and in all manner of shapes, also in soups after being sliced, pulled, pressed, or cut. We know they are still are made using wheat, rice, vegetable or other cereal flours, also bean, potato, and other flours alone or mixed with cereals or vegetables that are dried and then ground.

Flat noodles spread from China to other places in Asia as did filament noodles, and both were of various thicknesses. In Japan, noodles were and still are called udon. Some in China have adopted this name but only for those that use wheat and are white and thick, hot or cold, dipped into or covered with sauce, and slurped or consumed with spoons or chopsticks. In Japan, all types and shapes of noodles are acceptable while not all are accepted nor appreciated in China.

The technology to make instant noodles is new. It originated in Japan in the mid 1950s. Not initially popular in China, though now appreciated there and world-wide, they are popular because they can be prepared quickly. Li Chi said the Son of Heaven should be served wheat and lamb in the Spring, soybeans and chicken in Summer, hemp seed and dog flesh in Autumn, and millet and pork in Winter. We do not know if the millet was ground or sprouted, malted or not, nor if did come from grains or vegetables, nor how they should be consumed. Every grain can be used whole or ground, and all vegetables can be dried then made into flour, also all used to make wines and/or vinegars. A good number may have been made or used in these ways since Neolithic times; no one is sure.

Originally found in the northern Huai valley in Northern Honan, Northwest Shantung, and in Southern Hopei, wheat now grows all over China. It is exceptionally popular, fermented or not, eaten by rich and poor, and made in many different ways. In early times, it was consumed more by the poor than by the rich because flour was regarded as a coarse grain and rich folk wanted more refined grains in their foods.

In China, one part of the wheat grain, namely the gluten, was not and is not popular as flour. However, it is used in breads and imitation meat-like products, as a substitute for meats, and is cooked in many different dishes by vegetarians. These were popular hundreds of years ago and still are. Rarely thought of as flour foods even though many are made from many different kinds of flours that are high in protein, they are not so categorized though they can be rolled or raised, found in unleavened flour foods and stuffed with meat, fish, vegetables, even with fruits wrapped around them, or other things stuffed into them. These gluten foods can be plain or fancy, shaped as animals, crescents, rings, or anything else. When thinking of flour foods, those made with gluten need to be included.

Below are some flour food recipes popular in China and by Chinese world-wide. More often than not, they are consumed hot, in soups, plain or flavored, and/or dipped or covered in a variety of sauces. The stuffed ones or bao are most often called dumplings, the filament ones called mien or noodles, and others go by a variety of different names.

Enjoy them and invent others to use in soups, dumplings, made into baskets, made flat or raised as in breads, and in many other ways, some illustrated on the pages of this article. Flour foods can be rolled, stretched or pulled, cut from loaves, shaped or not. Matters not how they look but it does matter how they taste. There are many ways to make them look and taste terrific, and we suggest you try making many of them.
Chestnut and Yam Soup
12 dried chestnuts
6 fresh chestnuts, peeled
1/4 cup dried Chinese yam
1/2 cup yam flour
1/2 pound lean pork, cut into thin strips, blanched for ten minutes, then drained, the water discarded
1/2 cup fresh yams, peeled and cubed
1/4 cup goji berries
1. Soak the dried chestnuts in warm water for one hour, then drain, peel, and discard any outer and inner shell material.
2. Soak the dried yams and simmer them for fifteen minutes.
3. Put both kinds of chestnuts, both kinds of yams, the yam flour, and the pork into a pot, mix well, then add three quarts of cold water and bring to just below the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for two hours.
4. Add the goji berries, simmer for ten minutes more, then serve.
Rabbit Dumplings
1/2 pound wheat starch
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/2 pound shrimp, minced very fine or mashed
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
dash of ground white pepper
2 Tablespoons finely minced bamboo shoots
2 Tablespoons finely minced water chestnuts
1 teaspoon crab roe
1. Mix starch and two cups of boiling water quickly, then set this aside for about three minutes.
2. Add three teaspoons oil and knead into the dough, then roll it into a long cigar-shaped piece, and cut it into one-inch pieces, Flatten each one, and roll each one as thin as possible, stacking them after brushing every other one with oil. Cover the stack of them.
3. Mix shrimp, salt, bouillon powder, sugar, sesame oil, and the two minced vegetables, then cover this mixture and put it in the freezer for half an hour.
4. Remove from the freezer and take half a teaspoon of this filling and put it on one piece of dough, oiled side to the inside. Then fold the dough into a crescent shape. Pull one end out and cut it in half to make the rabbit ears, and bend them back toward the big round piece of dough which is the rabbit body. Also, press the neck of the rabbit down, the rest of the dough into a round.
5. Use the crab roe to make two eyes just before the ears.
6. Steam these rabbit dumplings over boiling water for four to five minutes, remove, and serve them.
Egg Noodles and Vegetables
1/2 pound fresh boiled egg noodles
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 scallions, minced
3 slices fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 Tablespoons mo-er (cloud ear) fungi, soaked half an hour, then squeeze out the water, and chop them coarsely
1/2 carrot, coarsely shredded
3 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked in half-cup warm water for half an hour, the water squeezed out reserving that liquid. Discard the stems and slice the mushrooms
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Shao Xing rice wine
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
4 baby corns, each cut in quarters
1. Boil the egg noodles in three quarts of boiling water for two minutes, then drain them and toss them with half the vegetable oil. Set them aside until needed.
2. Heat a wok or large fry pan, add the oil, and in half a minute, add the garlic, scallions, and the ginger and stir-fry for one minute before adding the shredded carrot, the mo-er, and the Chinese black mushrooms and stir-fry them for one minute.
3. Now add the drained egg noodles, the soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, oyster sauce, and reserved mushroom water, and stir-fry for two minutes. Then add the sesame oil and the baby corns, and stir-fry these together for one minute. Now serve them.
Shanghai Thick Noodles
1/8 pound pork belly, cut into coarse cubes
1/4 pound pork, cut into thin strips
1 carrot, cut into thin slivers
2 baby bok cai, leaves separated, each stem part cut in half the long way
1/2 pound thick fresh Shanghai noodles
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shao Xing rice wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1. In a wok or large fry pan, fry the pork belly cubes until almost crisp, then remove them to a paper towel. In the same wok or fry pan, add the strips of pork and fry them until no longer pink, then drain and set aside with the belly pork pieces.
3. Stir-fry the carrot and the bok cai for one minute, drain, and add to the pork mixture.
4. Stir-fry the noodles for one minute, then add eight cups of boiling water and cook until tender; then drain and discard the water.
5. Add the pork mixture, sesame oil, and both soy sauces. 6. Mix the rice wine, cornstarch, and sugar, and stir into the noodles mixing these together until they are well-separated. Then serve.
Rice Noodles in Claypot
3 ounces mung bean noodles
4 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided in half
1/2 chicken, cut into two-inch pieces
4 slices fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons red fermented bean curd, mashed
1 Tablespoon Shao Xing rice wine
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 Tablespoon crushed Chinese brown slab sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 carrot, cut into strips
6 baby corns, each cut into three pieces
1. Separate mung bean noodles into one and two ounce sections. Soak the two ounces until soft, then drain them.
2. Heat half the oil and deep fry the one once amount of mung bean noodles turning them over a soon as they start to swell. When both sides have swelled, remove and drain these noodles on paper towels.
3. Put the remaining oil into the claypot and stir-fry the chicken, carrot, and ginger for one minute, then add the red bean curd and mash it into three cups of water in the clay pot, and stir with all in the pot, then and add the wine, sesame oil, sugar, and the pepper and stir then reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes.
4. Add the carrot strips and the corn pieces, and both batches of mung bean noodles on top of the chicken and liquid in the clay pot. Bring to the boil, and cook for ten minutes until the sauce is reduced by half; then stir and simmer for three minutes more, then serve.
Spinach Noodles and Dumplings I
2 ten-inch squares of thick spinach noodle dough
20 plain dumpling skins or won ton wrappers
20 shrimp, peeled, veins removed and discarded, shrimp coarsely chopped
10 dried shrimp, soaked until soft, then minced
1 cup ground pork butt
3 large wood ear fungi, soaked then coarsely chopped
2 Tablespoons peeled fresh ginger, coarsely minced
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon chicken bullion powder
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
4 cups chicken stock
10 gai lan stalks, peeled and cut into two-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons yellow chives
1. Cut the noodle dough into 1/4-inch strips and boil for five minutes, then drain. Set these noodles aside in cool water.
2. Stir-fry the drained wood ear pieces in a dry wok for two minutes, then mix them with the shrimp, pork, ginger, oyster sauce, bouillon powder, egg white, and the cornstarch and stir until gluey; then set this aside.
3. Put a teaspoon of this mixture into one wrapper, seal with cold water. When all are made, put them into three cups of boiling water and boil for five minutes or until the dumplings rise to the top of the water. Then drain them, and set them into a pot with the sesame oil, ground pepper, and the chicken stock.
4. Bring this to the boil, add the thick noodles and the meat dumplings and the gai lan pieces and simmer for four minutes. Serve in individual soup bowls.

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