CY­CLE OF GIV­ING AND EAT­ING

It is part of the cul­ture to bring back gifts from a hol­i­day or a visit to an­other city or coun­try, and it is also the cus­tom to of­fer some­thing de­li­cious. Han Bing­bin looks at how both fac­tors com­bine to cre­ate a whole range of ed­i­ble sou­venirs from arou

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY SPECIAL -

FTh­ese may range from nat­u­rally air-dried yak meat from Ti­bet or In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, to freshly steamed Can­tonese wa­ter-ch­est­nut cake or packs of pick­led veg­eta­bles from Tian­jin.

What th­ese gifts rep­re­sent is more than a bite of fun, but also an in­ti­mate greet­ing from a dif­fer­ent culi­nary way of life. That’s how China’s var­ied re­gional cul­tures meet and meld.

In my home­town Yangzhou, we also have a tra­di­tion when we visit those who are older, to show re­spect. We bring some­thing called za­ocha, which lit­er­ally means “morn­ing tea” — usu­ally sev­eral bags of pas­tries such as wal­nut cakes and se­same pan­cakes.

Ev­ery re­gion has a dif­fer­ent eat­ing cul­ture, and the vari­a­tions form a very wide spec­trum.

In Bei­jing, roast duck is al­ways the first choice as a sou­venir. Since the freshly roasted birds are not easy to bring around, en­ter­pris­ing restau­ra­teurs pre­pare vac­uum-packed birds that are pret­tily pack­aged.

They may not taste as good as the birds carved at the ta­ble, but, none­the­less, their pop­u­lar­ity is tes­ta­ment in the long line of tourists in front of Quan­jude’s take-away win­dow at Qian­men. Af­ter all, most tourists want a bird from Bei­jing’s most well­known duck restau­rant.

In times past, when the duck was way be­yond most tourist bud­gets, an­other more af­ford­able Bei­jing spe­cialty was brought home. Then as now, can­died fruits, usu­ally a col­or­ful mix­ture of ap­ple, peach and apri­cot packed into a lit­tle bam­boo crate, make a con­ve­nient take-home gift.

There are also can­died haw fruits, the fa­mous bing­tang hulu, and the no­to­ri­ous luda­gun, “don­key rolling in the dust”, a sticky yel­low gluti­nous rice cake stuffed with sweet bean paste and rolled in yel­low bean flour.

In Shang­hai and neigh­bor­ing Jiangsu and Zhe­jiang prov­inces, most vis­i­tors take home a dif­fer­ent kind of gift — fresh­wa­ter pro­duce. The best known is an ex­pen­sive and much sought-af­ter sea­sonal treat, mit­ten or hairy crabs freshly caught from Suzhou’s Yangcheng Lake and in peak sea­son around the Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val in Septem­ber.

Th­ese rather odd-look­ing crea­tures with a mat of fur on their claws are farmed un­der strict con­di­tions, and each weighs in at about 250g. They are sold fresh, tightly swad­dled in straw and packed neatly in bas­kets as de­li­cious sou­venirs to bring home to val­ued friends and rel­a­tives.

An­other pop­u­lar gift from Shang­hai, and a trea­sured lo­cal fa­vorite, is the huang­niluo or yel­low river snails, pick­led in yel­low liqueur, salt and sugar. They have very thin, trans­par­ent shells and are eaten with rice or con­gee. They now come packed in pop-top con­tain­ers, while some of the larger snails are stored in ex­quis­ite bot­tles, ready to im­press.

The list is longer than your arm, and it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to count all the foods and snacks that the Chi­nese would think of as good gifts.

In ac­tual fact, some may seem odd to Western eyes, such as salted fish from the south­ern coastal towns or the fa­mous spicy duck necks from Wuhan in Hubei, sweet-fla­vored duck tongues from Wen­zhou in Zhe­jiang, or even more chal­leng­ing — mar­i­nated rab­bit heads from Chengdu, Sichuan.

One thing to re­mem­ber, if you are the happy re­cip­i­ent of such de­lec­ta­ble sou­venirs, you are ex­pected to re­turn the com­pli­ment some time or other. As the Chi­nese id­iom goes, “courtesy de­mands rec­i­proc­ity”, and it also en­sures that the cy­cle of gift­giv­ing is not bro­ken. That’s how many re­gional spe­cial­ties travel around the coun­try. Some­times, they also serve an­other pur­pose. Here is an anec­dote to wrap up the nar­ra­tive. It was said that a long, long time ago, there was a man who re­quested a meet­ing with Con­fu­cius (551-479 BC). He was re­fused a meet­ing, but thought of a plan. He sent a roast suck­ling pig to the mas­ter, and be­cause Con­fu­cius was such a strict ob­server of courtesy, he fi­nally agreed to meet the man. or the Chi­nese, noth­ing is more mean­ing­ful than food as a gift. When friends and rel­a­tives visit from a dif­fer­ent city, or when col­leagues re­turn from a busi­ness trip some­where afar, more of­ten than not they will be car­ry­ing back lo­cal spe­cial­ties. Ed­i­ble ones.

Con­tact the writer at han­bing­bin@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

FRANK / FOR CHINA DAILY

Bei­jing’s can­died haw or

YAN XIANGQUN / FOR CHINA DAILY

Bei­jing’s fa­mous roasted duck

MAI TIAN / FOR CHINA DAILY

Chengdu mar­i­nated rab­bit heads

MA JIAN / FOR CHINA DAILY

Zhengzhou spicy duck tongues

ZHENG CHEN / FOR CHINA DAILY

Nan­jing se­same pan­cakes

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