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China & Food: Vegetarian Diplomacy
by Valerie Sartor
2008-01-02 09:48:11
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In recent years foreign media has been praising China for opening to the West and stimulating the world economy but actually the country has been going global for centuries. This process has impacted upon all levels of Chinese society and it has also influenced the outside world, yet none but a few specialists have taken note of this procedure. The evidence remains both obvious and opaque, before our very noses but somehow invisible.

According to the Chinese, after 1978 the country began a dialogue and exchange with the western world. True, to some extent, every country is in many ways closed - in the sense of being culturally unique and existing as a nation on sacred land. China was definitely cut off, having adopted a formal attitude of hesitation and refusal toward anything foreign. This isolation process seriously began after the Ming Dynasty ended when the country gradually but firmly blocked its door to overseas influences. Nevertheless, valuable foodstuffs migrated from the South and West into China. These products arrived, not via Westerners and their warships, but voluntarily carried in by enterprising and well-traveled Chinese.

Some people brought foods into China at risk to their own lives. For example, during the middle of the Ming Dynasty Lin Huaizhi, a famous physician in Wuchuan, practiced medicine in Vietnam. He was so greatly respected that the King of Vietnam gave him sweet potatoes as a special gift. Wanting secretly to bring this food back to China, Lin he asked for an uncooked sweet potato. Then the doctor pretended to eat it raw but he kept a chunk to smuggle out of the country because Vietnam forbid the export of this prized vegetable. Lin was caught with his raw morsel at the border. Luckily the guard had pity on him since the physician had cured his illness. Thus, he successfully smuggled the vegetable into China. Since that time, in autumn and winter this ubiquitous vegetable is sold everywhere as a baked, piping hot street snack.

Corn, an American vegetable, also entered China during the Ming Dynasty. This plant was not common; chefs regarded it as a rare and treasured delicacy. Today it is also sold as a hot snack on street corners. In restaurants corn is often served as a cold salad with pine nuts or cooked with egg whites into a kind of hot, sweet, chewy pie.

Sorghum, which originated in Africa, also entered China during the Ming Dynasty. For centuries pregnant Chinese women have consumed this high-iron substance with eggs to ensure health for themselves and their children. Many Chinese now eat it as a dessert, boil it in jam and/or combine it with cereals for a healthy breakfast.

Everybody in China eats tofu and soybeans indeed did originate in China. Today the health conscious Western world is gobbling up this made-in-China food product whose beans once were reserved only for livestock. Millions of acres, notably in Latin America, are dedicated to raising this crop. Mung beans, another popular legume, came from India during the Northern Song Dynasty. Moreover, for hundreds of years the Chinese have cooked with other beans: black, green and flageolet beans. All of them came from the west at various times.

White potatoes also came from the West. North China, like Ireland and Africa, consumes these easy-to-grow starches as a carbohydrate staple in lieu of rice; in other regions it is used a vegetable entree. Legend says that pirates during the Ming Dynasty brought in the potato. Initially this crop was raised in the south, in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces but it grows better in the colder climate regions of northern China.

After the Han Dynasty, vegetable oils: sesame, canola, peanut, soybean, and sunflower, slowly replaced animal fats in cooking. Sesame entered China during the Western Han Dynasty; other oil-bearing crops did not arrive until after the Southern and Northern Dynasties. China's vast array of regional foods has been greatly influenced by a large selection of oils used as cooking bases. Western chefs have now adapted Chinese seasonings: spices, oils and flavor patterns, incorporating them into western dishes and creating novel dishes.

The all important flavor, sugar, first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (617 -907). During the Warring States Period (475 – 221 B.C.), sugar cane was common; Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty is now credited in bringing his people granulated sugar and the process is said to have been developed in Yangzhou. Chinese chefs have always appreciated the color and flavor sugar offers; it is often used in soups, sauces, in sautéed and fried dishes. The modern use of sugar by Western chefs has been greatly influenced by oriental methods. Because sugar is water-soluble, it became an important flavoring used to make food sweet and delicious. It is used in making soup and in cooking all kinds of dishes. Today honey and malt, long ago utilized for sweetening and flavoring, are now are used to thicken Chinese soups and sauces.

Latin America has no monopoly on hot dishes. Sichuan, Hunan and Hebei Provinces in China are all quite famous for their spicy dishes. Hot peppers are eaten in massive amounts throughout many parts of China; peppers are deemed "meat for the poor" because they blend well with rice. Folklore says that hot peppers keep people warm in cold weather and are said to stimulate the appetite. Many species of this vegetable migrated to China from South America via Southeast Asia around the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. Orientals and Latinos blend peppers according to cultural specialties, both use different ways to dry, cure and cook with these spicy condiments.

Peanuts also originated in South America around the Amazonian Basin. Portuguese seafarers distributed this legume around the world and brought it to southern China in the 15th century. It spread from there throughout the country. Chinese sailors took it to Japan where it was known as "Chinese beans" and Chinese settlers were probably responsible for introduction to the rest of Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

Spinach, a delicate vegetable, came early to China from old Persia, now modern Iran. The culinary inclined Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty promoted this plant. Most chefs called it the 'Persian red – root vegetable'. Cheap and abundant, Chinese cooks flash boil this tender green to retain its nutritional value and then marinate it with sesame oil, serving it as a "liang cai" or appetizer.

Carrots came to north China via Europe and are one of the few vegetables enjoyed raw. The Chinese consider the carrot a kind of red radish and use it in many dishes, often with another very popular vegetable, eggplant - this food plant actually originated in India and migrated to China along with Buddhism during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Gradually eggplant traveled to Japan with Buddhism and, like the philosophy, evolved into a unique hybrid.

Conversely, Song, or what Westerners know as Chinese cabbage, has migrated around the world. This vegetable is a staple in northern regions. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms and winter melons, are other native Chinese plants now common in western groceries while cabbage, tomato, broccoli and cauliflower have also become ordinary staples in Chinese cooking in the last fifty-year migration period.

The above vegetables clearly display the inevitable process of globalization between nations. China, although closed to most Western influences, did not refuse the advent of foreign foodstuffs. Today, as the economy booms, the Chinese are avidly seeking to borrow, copy and learn from foreign sources. And Chinese ideas, including foreign culinary styles, have immigrated to major cities: Chinese ambassador Li Hung Chang's cooks invented ‘chop suey’ for his American guests at a dinner party in New York on August 29, 1896. The dish was meant to delight both Chinese and American tastes and the ambassador well knew the value of good food in creating good relationships. Conversely, centuries ago the now ubiquitous Chinese bao zi (steamed bun filled with meat) entered China via Central Asian nomads traveling on the Silk Road. In the past Western countries and China have had unique opportunities to exchange and learn from each other, and not just in terms of food. Today, more than ever, this exchange is vital for world peace.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-02 12:41:43
Fascinating subject: follow the food and you can explain the path of civilization around the world.

There is however a common misconception about pasta however, that Marco Polo brought back pasta to Italy from China way back in the 13th century. The fact is that pasta-making machines have been found in the ruins of Pompei. However, if you are talking of certain types of pasta, there could be a grain of truth in the legend. The method of making won-ton and tortellini is exactly the same.

Sand2008-01-02 14:33:58
This is a rare article chock full of interesting facts. As a child growing up in New York my family made regular trips to Chinatown to enjoy the exotic Chinese meals which included, not only vegetables but meats and shellfish and fish prepared in a way unique to us. But in those early days there was none of the variety now available from the various cuisines in the very large country of China. Chop suey, which, as noted in the article, is not a genuine Chinese dish, was on every menu. There always was much semi-humorous speculation as to whether the meat was from a cat or a dog or something other in the delicious but mysterious dishes.

But there are differences in some of the common dishes that were served then in New York and are available here in Helsinki. I miss the butterfly shrimp which were large shrimp about 10 centimeters long split open and spread, coated with egg and bread crumbs and deep fried. Also the spring rolls were wrapped in a thin sheet of dough that, when deep fried, had a crisp bubbly texture which differs markedly from the smooth spring rolls available now in Helsinki.

When I was in Manhattan in New York at the end of the last century there was a Chinese take-out restaurant on every other block of the main thoroughfares where one could pick up a freshly prepared meal from a large menu for between three and four dollars. I assume the prices have risen in the interim but the food is probably still the cheapest and best hot meal available of reasonable quality.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-02 15:00:45
My father, who was born in New York’s Little Italy in 1912 used to reminisce that since China town was next to Little Italy, there were inevitable culinary exchanges between the Italians and the Chinese to mutual benefit, in the tradition of Marco Polo. Indeed Marco Polo and the whole of the Italian Renaissance had a genial idea: that it is better to trade than to fight and that xenophobia is a real obstacle to the material, intellectual, artistic and spiritual welfare of any culture. That great movie “Babette’s Feast” has a great insight too: people become less irritable toward each other, even kind, after a good meal. An apt metaphor for the precarious health of the mind and soul of so called “enlightened” modern man.

Jack2008-01-02 22:52:08
Well put Sand. The number of Chinese restuarants and in fact their establishments, attests to their long history and thousands of years of experience and that there are absolutely so many wonderful dishes that these meals alone have reached out to all points on the globe.

China has such a veritable buffet for both the palate and the mind. I took two courses in Chinese History and have never regretted it. To me, the early dynasty's are most impressive.

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