Food as a Way
Staple foods: rice
Rice and the Chinese
Hoeing fields until noon, The soil is watered by their drops of sweat. Who realises that the food on one’s plate Comes grain by grain from arduous labour.
Many young people of my generation learned to cook before they went overseas to study, and the first thing they mastered was always fried rice. Chinese ingredients could be difficult to find in other countries, so a plate of simple egg fried rice could bring a little comfort to homesick students.
Chinese people around the world see the rice cooker as a life-changing invention, saving them the hour or so that they’d otherwise spend by a stove making rice every day. After washing the rice and adding water, the cooker is seitched on and left to produce fragrant steamed rice by itself.
Rice with braised and poached meat
A simple bowl of braised or poached meat served with rice on the side is a popular comfort food. Braising involves browning meat in oil, then cooking it slowly over a gentle heat in a covered pot. Poached meats are cooked in liquid over a low heat. Both methods can be used to produce a tender, flavoursome dish.
Cooking rice with bamboo
Over the centuries, the Chinese have developed many clever ways of preparing food, including the use of the leaves and stems of the bamboo plant as cooking vessels to create tasty rice dishes.
For breakfast, many people in Taiwan region (including me) love to eat rice rolls, or fantuan – made by rolling cooked glutinous rice around a filling. Fantuan fillings were once very simple, but today’s street vendors offer a wide variety of different fillings, wrapped up to be eaten on the go.
I learned how to make fermented rice from my friend Gong Yonghan. She and her husband run a business produces fermented rice, and they take incredible care with their product, even using an electronic scale designed for weighing gemstones to measure the precise portions of the wine yeast that is used. But one day her father, Papa Gong, showed me a tiny homemade copper scale and, in his heavy Hunanese accent, told me a story about homesickness and fermented rice.
Rice is used to make a variety of hot and cold appetisers, or dim sum – a term that literally means ‘to touch the heart’.
Aunty Yu's rice balls
The first time I met Aunty Yu, I was 14. I’d gone to her home to learn how to make Yixing rice balls (yuan tuan; see page 36-39).
When I was 17, and living in the United States, I took a copy of a recipe book that covered all sorts of rice dishes to a house my friend was renting. Everyone wanted to make the rice noodles featured in it, so we used the juice blender the landlord had left in the kitchen to grind the rice. Not knowing what we were doing, we ruined the blender. I didn’t repeat the experiment for a long time after that.
I often marvel at that ancient tool the mortar and pestle, together with the discovery that grains could be removed from their husks, crushed and then transformed into a variety of foodstuffs. This technique has enabled the Chinese to develop a rich tradition of cakes made from rice that has been processed into flour and milk.
I love the thick, hot rice porridge that we call congee in the same way that I love my children and my dogs! When I’m away from China I miss it, and when it’s poorly made, it depresses me.
Before popcorn and other Western snacks were imported into Asia, rice was the ingredient used to make many of our snack foods. The one I have the fondest memories of is puffed rice.
Culinary traditions: Tea
Memories of tea and teapots
My very first memory of tea goes back to my childhood. My parents didn’t own a formal tea service – instead they used a type of thick glass that was commonly available then, with plum, orchid, bamboo or chrysanthemum patterns painted on the sides. These glasses came with plastic lids – yellowed from tea and time – complete with a small knob on top for easy lifting.
Types of tea by region
The teapots and tea cups shown here, with their use of different materials, reflect our rich heritage of tea drinking.
The art of the tea ceremony
The painting opposite, A Gathering of Literati, shows the Song-dynasty emperor Huizong (1082–1135) taking part in a tea ceremony with members of his elite. Tea-making tools are visible in the foreground, while at the centre a convivial party is underway. Our tradition of joining friends over tea has a long history.
Snacks: Preserved fruits
In April and May, we often pick plums that have not yet fully ripened. They have a slightly bitter taste but, depending on the degree of maturity, they can be preserved in a number of different ways.
A selection of sweet treats
Staple foods: flour
Noodles from the northern plains
Today, China is the world’s biggest consumer of wheat, but in ancient times the Chinese also grew corn, millet, soybeans and hemp – together with wheat, the so-called ‘five grains’. Archaeological findings prove that by 7,000 years ago, stone plates and rolling pins were used to turn these grains into flour.
The Zhuangzi, a collection of Taoist texts from the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), tells us, ‘Do not eat the five grains. Breathe the wind and drink the dew’.
Famous noodle dishes
China is vast, and its many regions have their own preferences when it comes to noodles – their shape, size, method of production and, of course, how they are served.
I moved to the United States when I was 16, and the
thing I found hardest to adapt to was the Western notion of bread – plain in flavour, chewy and eaten as a staple food.
The man who ate a tiger
My parents were born and raised in southern China, so they always ate rice, as opposed to the noodles made from wheat flour that the northern Chinese favoured. Later they moved to the Taiwan region, where they met mainlanders who’d moved there from the north, and they quickly grew to enjoy the noodles that their new friends served them. When I was little, my parents always told me that if a man from the south married a woman from the north, he’d find himself presented with foods made from flour rather than rice. It sounded so romantic – this vision of a newlyweds’ dinner table, loaded with exotic items.
Culinary traditions: Breakfast
Rice milk, soy milk, youtiao (long fritters), to enjoy every last fragrant seed that they’d slap sesame flatbreads, egg crepes and congee (rice porridge) are the standard fare on a Chinese breakfast table. These traditional favourites are like trusted friends – always there, unchanged through the decades.
Cantonese yum cha
When I was a young, I attended extra classes on Saturdays that ran until very late, so on Sunday I was always allowed to sleep in. By around five o’clock that day, a dark cloud would come over me – as usual, I would’ve failed to finish my homework, and Monday would be looming – but those relaxed Sunday mornings, with the day still ahead of me, were always the best part of the week.
Taiwan-style street food
Street food from the Taiwan region is renowned throughout the world for good reason – if you visit one of our night markets and sample something from every stall, you’ll not eat the same thing twice.
Culinary traditions: Bamboo
Bamboo and the Chinese
When I was a girl, my parents had a painting of bamboo – done in a rich black ink – on the wall of our staircase landing. It was by George Yeh, and I passed by it every day. Each time we moved house, the painting was always hung in a prominent spot. Consequently, whenever I thought of bamboo, I always thought of George Yeh.
Edible bamboo shoots are available fresh, tinned or dried, and dried shoots are named for their many available shapes – elephant-trunk shoots, flat-tipped shoots, needle shoots, and so on. There are numerous varieties across the various regions of China, and many ways of preparing them.
Snacks: Ice desserts
When I was young, the streets of Taipei were full of shops selling shaved-ice desserts. My own favourite was ice with four kinds of preserved fruits, drenched in brown-sugar syrup, with a taste that was both sweet and sour.
Making an ice bowl
I learnt how to make ice bowls from a Martha Stewart recipe, but I decided to take the idea a step further by creating a version of my favourite four-fruits shaved ice that could be eaten bowl and all.
Staple foods: Vegetarian food
The incomparable art of Chinese vegetarian cooking
Root vegetables and wheat gluten
For many years, Chinese restaurants serving vegetarian food strived to make their dishes look like chicken, duck, fish or red meat, which never made them seem particularly appetising. In recent years, though, as the health benefits are becoming increasingly recognised, the image of vegetarianism is changing.
Leaf, stem and seed vegetables
Doctors recommend that we eat five palm-sized portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Luckily we have all kinds of colourful and nutritious vegetables to choose from, many of which are unique to our part of the world.
The three treasures: spring onions, ginger and garlic
These three ingredients are not only crucial to Chinese cooking, they are also invaluable for health.
Tofu and glass noodles
Tofu, or bean curd, is the curds resulting from coagulated soy milk. One of several legends claims that it evolved out of an episode of filial piety more than 2,000 years ago.
Mountain treasures: mushrooms
Mushrooms have long been highly valued by the Chinese; historical records verify that the practice of cultivating them by impregnating logs of wood with spores was already taking place centuries ago.
Eggs, eggs, broken eggs – who will buy a broken egg?
The sophistication of a food culture can be judged just by looking at its treatment of eggs, and the Chinese have myriad ways of preparing this humble ingredient.
Culinary traditions: Hairy crabs
Magnificent golden autumns
My awareness of the golden colours associated with autumn began with my first experiences of crab feasts. When I was young, hairy crabs (or mitten crabs) – named for their furry pincers – from the Chinese mainland could not be brought back to the Taiwan region. But the Shanghainese living there loved them so much that if they know someone was visiting the mainland, they‘d ask them to bring some back.
There is a saying: ‘Above us is Heaven; on Earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou.’ For thousands of years, these two southern Chinese cities have produced an abundance of fish and rice, and the crystal clear waters and gravel bottoms of two freshwater lakes – Yangchenghu and Taihu – are particularly favourable to hairy crabs, which are farmed for their creamy roe and delicate flesh.
Making crabmeat sauce
Culinary traditions: Preserved foods
The air-drying corner
In every house I’ve lived in, there has always been a corner protected from rain and sun, but where air can circulate freely. That treasure store is where we hang the ham, sausages and preserved pork that enliven our dinner table from time to time.
I love my friend Xisong Huiyu’s painting Pickle Jar (page 117). The painting itself constitutes a beautiful work of art, as does the earthenware jar at its centre – not only in its design, which is perfectly suited to its purpose, but also in its representation of a wonderful culinary tradition. This jar also has qualities that are not found in the jars you commonly see in restaurants, either; it somehow expresses the warmth of family, and the loving hands of a provider.
A simple era, overflowing with happiness
In 1981, Sylvia Chang’s recording of ‘Childhood’ – written by Luo Dayou – could be heard all over the region of Taiwan.
Staple foods: Meat
Every single part of a chicken can be put to culinary use. The breast has the most tender meat, and can be sliced, diced, shredded or made into a puree. Chicken wings can be braised in a rich sauce. Drumsticks can be barbecued. Chicken feet, rich in collagen, can be braised or used in a hotpot. Bones can be boiled up with spring onions and ginger to make a stock. Even the head, neck and internal organs can be eaten.
Ducks are larger than chickens, so they’re not easy to cook at home, but there are many regional specialities that can be purchased or enjoyed in restaurants.
Pork is the most commonly eaten meat for the Chinese. As with chickens, pigs can be eaten from head to tail; nothing is wasted. There are some special ways to cook each part, and many famous associated dishes.
Beef and lamb
Beef and lamb are far less commonly eaten than pork, and there are still people who follow the tradition of not eating beef at all – in earlier times, cows played a valuable role in the fields as draft animals; they were not raised to be eaten.
The island of Taiwan is surrounded by waters that provide a profuse variety of fish and shellfish – a walk through a fish market is like going to a marine biology class. Approximately 200 different kinds of fish are commonly eaten, but fishermen are familiar with even more unusual fish and edible fish viscera.
Culinary traditions: alcoholic beverages
The Chinese term jiu (酒) is often translated as ‘wine’, but it generally refers to a much broader group than this indicates in English, describing wine, spirits and other alcoholic drinks. In fact, the character for jiu shares the radical酉with more than 60 other characters.
Culinary traditions: Chinese hotpot
A hotpot is a casual style of eating that involves cooking raw pieces of meat, seafood and vegetables in a pot of simmering stock, then flavouring them with a variety of dipping sauces and condiments. At the end of the meal, you’re left with a soup that has absorbed all of the cooking flavours.
Snacks: New Year treats
A festive snack platter
Chinese New Year is a very exciting time for children, with new clothes to wear, red packages with gifts of money, and the chance to let off fireworks. But best of all is an unlimited supply of snacks in the house!