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
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.
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Beijing’s candied haw or
Beijing’s famous roasted duck
Chengdu marinated rabbit heads
Zhengzhou spicy duck tongues
Nanjing sesame pancakes