CHINA'S northwestern minorities have played a crucial role in transforming the simple fare of the Central Plains into the exciting cuisine that we know today as Chinese food. Li Genpan reports.
The culinary influence of China's northwest minorities can be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). During the Wei (AD 220-265), Jin (AD 265-420) and the Southern and Northern (AD 420-589) dynasties that followed, nomads from the northwest entered the Central Plains, where they substantially changed the cuisines and eating habits of the communities around the Yellow River.
This influence was described in the classic text "Essential Techniques for the Peasantry," written by Jia Sixie, a Han official. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), cross-cultural exchanges were common: Many officials were of minority descent, and the Tang court pursued a harmonious policy between minorities and Han Chinese. Minority cuisines became immensely popular and have remained so to this day.
'Big five' grains
The contributions of China's minorities were duly acknowledged in the "Essential Techniques for the Peasantry." The 10th volume of this text listed almost 200 wild or cultivated species in minority regions. Chinese National Geography used this list as a basis to investigate the plants that were introduced or domesticated by China's minorities. The results were surprising.
Of the five major grains - broomcorn millet, Chinese millet, rice, wheat and soybean - in ancient China, only broomcorn millet and Chinese millet originated around the Yellow River and were domesticated by the Han people. Rice was domesticated by the early Yue people in southern China, while wheat and soybean were cultivated by the minorities from the northwest.
Spread of wheat
Wheat is one of the world's most important crops. In China, it is the second most important crop after rice. Archeological evidence shows that wheat was planted along the Yellow River no later than the Shang (c. 16th century-11th century BC) and Zhou (c. 11th century-256 BC) dynasties, although wheat did not originate from this region.
The early Chinese referred to wheat as lai and barley as mu. In ancient bone inscriptions, the character for lai bears a striking resemblance to a mature wheat plant. Another classic Chinese text, "The Book of Songs" states: "Bestowed with wheat and barley, we are ordered to cultivate," implying wheat and barley were brought in from other places.
So where exactly did wheat come from? Genetic tests and archeological evidence have shown that wheat was first cultivated in West Asia, where there was plenty of rain in spring and snow in winter.
The first wheat in China was probably grown in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where it spread to Qinghai and Gansu provinces - west to east and from north to south.
The remains of ancient wheat fields are mostly found in the northwest - these include 3,800-year-old grave relics by the Konqi River in Xinjiang; and relics from Minyue in Gansu, that are some 5,000 years old.
The Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang regions used to be the home of the early Qiang people, who have a strong tradition of cultivating wheat. The "Stories of King Mu," written during the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), describes how local tribes would present tributes of wheat to King Zhoumu when the ruler was visiting Qinghai and Xinjiang.
Closely related to the Qiang, Tibetans once regarded the day that wheat matures as the beginning of the new year, which they still celebrate with horse races held in June and July every year.
It is known that soybean originated in China, and that minorities in northeast China were some of the earliest soybean growers. This is supported by historical records on soybean cultivation and the remains of ancient soybean fields.
Dr He Bingli, a prominent US scholar, proposed that the soybean was first cultivated by the Shanrong people of northeast China. Soybean was known as rongshu in ancient China - the rong character most likely referred to the Shanrong people.
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-467 BC), Shanrong was attacked by Lord Huan of the state of Qi. Huan brought the soybean back to the Central Plains. During the Warring States Period, soybean was a staple food in the Central Plains, along with millet.
However, with the introduction of wheat after the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han dynasties, soybean lost its role as a staple food; it was used for oil extraction and making tofu instead.
Take a look at the everyday food of the Chinese and you will find many vegetables that originated in the West, or were introduced to the Central Plains by the minorities of the northwest.
For example, carrots came from West Asia, with Afghanistan as the center of origin. Although it was introduced to China relatively late, it quickly spread. According to the great Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) physician Li Shizhen, the carrot came to China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Li also credited the Han Dynasty official Zhang for bringing the cucumber in from India.
As for lettuce, legend has it that during the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), the Sui authorities paid Afghan and Bhutan envoys a handsome sum for the vegetable - this has earned lettuce the nickname of qian jin cai (literally "vegetable worth a thousand gold pieces"). Other vegetables that were introduced to China include spinach, purple cabbage and leaf beet.
Ginger, onion and garlic are vital ingredients in Chinese cuisine. Ginger was domesticated by the minorities of southern China. Onion was introduced to the Central Plains by Lord Huan in the same conquest mentioned earlier. The Han Dynasty diplomat Zhang Qian returned from the West with garlic, coriander and another variety of onion. Also from the West were pepper and fennel.
According to the "Compendium of Materia Medica" ("Ben Cao Gang Mu") a classic text by physician Li Shizhen, rapeseed was introduced and cultivated by northwest minorities in Qinghai and Gansu. Previously consumed as a vegetable, rapeseed has been used for oil extraction since the Tang Dynasty, and was named you cai (literally "oil vegetable") during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Today, rapeseed oil is widely used in southwestern China. Every spring, the yellow blossoms of the rapeseed bring a burst of color to fields across China.
Let us return to the Han Dynasty envoy Zhang, whose trip to the West is associated with the introduction of several crops. It may lead us to conclude that Zhang made the greatest contribution in bringing these crops to China.
However, do note that he obtained his seeds from the northwest minorities, who played a key role in the introduction and cultivation of these crops. Also, the purpose of Zhang's visit to the west was to join forces with other kingdoms to fight against the Xiongnu people of the north; he only hastened the already ongoing exchange of culture and crops as a side effect.
We find that history often glorifies a few "celebrities" like Zhang without giving due credit to the efforts of unsung heroes such as the northwest minorities.
The minorities in the northwest introduced and cultivated more fruits than vegetables. One of the most famous is the Hami melon cultivated by the early Qiang people of the northwest. Another is the crab apple, which is distinct from the western apple. The walnut also originated in western China, and arrived at the Central Plains during the Han Dynasty.
Fruit and wine
It is also known that the pistachio, pomegranate and watermelon were introduced from the west via Xinjiang. Meanwhile, new species were created in the northwest through crossbreeding. One example is the Korla fragrant pear, which many experts say is the best known hybrid between a Chinese pear and Western pear.
The grape is a prominent fruit due to its wide distribution. Grape originated in the region between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea in Asia Minor, and was already cultivated in Xinjiang, long before it reached China's Central Plains.
Much literature exists on grape cultivation and wine production in Xinjiang during the Han and Jin Dynasties (206 BC-AD 420). In 2003, a grapevine specimen 1.15 meters long was discovered at the Yanghai Tombs in Turpan in Xinjiang. This finding, estimated at 2,500 years old, indicated that grape was cultivated in China as early as the Qin Dynasty.
Introduced at the same time as the grape, grape wine was highly favored by the Chinese. Due to its scarcity, it used to be exclusive to royalty and senior officials.
Legend has it that in Shaanxi, a wealthy man named Meng Tuo - also known as Bo Liang - bribed the eunuch Zhang Liang with a bottle of grape wine, and was immediately appointed governor of Liangzhou.
The poet Su Dongpo wrote a poem on this story: "A hundred battles could not make a general a nobleman, but Bo Liang became the Liangzhou Governor with a bottle of grape wine" - a direct criticism of corrupt officials. The drinking of grape wine became popular during the Tang Dynasty, when the wine-brewing process was introduced. Even the troops at the frontier could afford grape wine at that time.
There were also many "western maid pubs" in Chang'an, the Tang capital, where beautiful girls from the west sold grape wine. Similar to today's pubs, these were a favorite place to hang out, especially for scholars and travelers.
The grape wine and "western maid pubs" fall under the scope of food processing and cuisine culture - areas where northwest minorities have also made significant contributions.
The "six domestic animals" of ancient China were the horse, ox, sheep, pig, dog and chicken. The horse and cattle were used mainly for labor, while the other four were raised for food - which means the dog used to be an important source of meat.
During the Wei, Jin and the Southern and Northern dynasties, nomads from the northwest entered the Central Plains, where they substantially influenced the cuisine habits of the Han people. As the nomads favored sheep meat over dog meat, the business of rearing dogs for food declined.
The text also regarded sheep as the most important source of meat. It provides detailed descriptions on the production techniques for dairy products. This document serves as a collection of the accumulated knowledge from the northern nomads, and is a recognition of their important contribution to China's cuisine culture.
The hu bing, or "foreign pastry," is another significant food from the northwest minorities. Although most of the world consumes wheat in the form of bread, this was only introduced to China by missionaries many centuries ago. It was popular among Chinese at the time. But hu bing was different. Unlike today's pastry, bing could refer to noodle, dough, bun, stuffed bun, dumpling, griddle cake, fried cake, crispy cake or steamed cake. These foods were quite different from the original cuisine of the Central Plains.
At first the common folk of the Central Plains prepared wheat the same way they did with millet - by boiling it. This produced a rough, unsavory brew, which was considered difficult to digest. But this changed with the introduction of flour and dough.
"The Egyptians and West Asians invented milling and cake production techniques earlier than the Chinese," says historian Qi Sihe. "It is likely that China's western minorities spread these techniques to the Central Plains, improving the cuisine in China."
This hypothesis is supported by archaeological evidence. In two tombs in Astana and Harahojo, at the ancient city of Gaochang in Turpan, several nang pancakes, dumplings, wonton and pastries made of wheat flour were discovered. Ranging from the Han to the Jin Dynasty, these show the tradition and dough-making skills of the western minorities.
During the Tang Dynasty, hu bing became even more popular. A variety of cooking methods emerged: baking, frying, grilling or steaming.
The northern minorities also brought with them cooking techniques such as boiling and roasting.
Using simple tools, they preferred to cook an entire sheep or deer. This was possibly the precursor of the roast duck and pig that is so popular today.