Tasty Chi­nese Yam in Hot Tof­fee

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhou Fu­jing Edited by Mary Frances Cap­piello

Basi shanyao (Chi­nese yam in hot tof­fee), a dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tional Bei­jing dish, is light, crispy, sticky and known for its sweet­ness. Be­cause basi shanyao is easy to cook and so at­trac­tive in pre­sen­ta­tion, it has long been pop­u­lar with or­di­nary Chi­nese and for­eign­ers alike.

In China, north­ern dishes are usu­ally mis­tak­enly con­sid­ered to have a heavy, savoury flavour; whereas, south­ern dishes, a light flavour. How­ever, basi shanyao (Chi­nese yam in hot tof­fee), a dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tional Bei­jing dish, is light and sweet.

Basi shanyao is crispy and sticky, and known for its sweet­ness. Its main in­gre­di­ent is shanyao, a root veg­etable with a long, cylin­dri­cal shape and white flesh with a mild, sweet flavour. Basi dishes, or dishes with hot tof­fee, orig­i­nated in Shan­dong cui­sine. Their cook­ing method is unique amongst dishes of the Han eth­nic group. The fin­ished dish is soft and has a bright yellow colour. When pulling out a piece to eat, the sticky tof­fee stretches out, mak­ing a sweet string which can ex­tend sev­eral inches. Be­cause basi shanyao re­quires few in­gre­di­ents, is easy to cook and is so at­trac­tive in pre­sen­ta­tion, it has long been pop­u­lar with or­di­nary Chi­nese and for­eign­ers alike.

Mak­ing the dish is quite sim­ple. Cut the Chi­nese yams into cubes and deep fry them to a golden yellow colour. Take them out and drain off the oil. Boil­ing the sugar cor­rectly is the next im­por­tant step. Put wa­ter

and sugar in a wok and heat on a low fire until the sugar be­comes stretchy, turns yellow and bub­bles. Then, put the deep-fried cubes into the syrup and keep stir­ring until the cubes are evenly coated. This is sim­i­lar to the cook­ing pro­ce­dure de­scribed in Sushi shuolüe ( Records of Veg­e­tar­ian Food) authored by Qing scholar Xue Baochen. Of course, as time has passed, the cook­ing method con­tin­ues to evolve. Many restau­rants in Bei­jing add their own touches. Some will dec­o­rate the dish with candied os­man­thus and some will add fried sesame seeds. Re­gard­less of how it is made, how­ever, do not be too quick to eat it as the dish is pip­ing hot. Pre­pare a bowl of cold wa­ter, pick up a piece and dip it into the wa­ter to pre­vent scorch­ing the mouth.

There is a leg­end re­lated to basi shanyao burn­ing the eater's mouth. In the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907), Li Mi, leader of a rebel move­ment against the rule of Sui (AD 581–618), in­vited politi­cian Wei Hui to a ban­quet to dis­cuss strat­egy for at­tack­ing Xingyang (in to­day's He­nan Prov­ince). Li wanted to at­tack the city as soon as pos­si­ble and fight a quick bat­tle. Dur­ing the ban­quet, Wei did not men­tion any opin­ion on Li's plan, which left Li baf­fled. Then the chef served a dish with a bright golden colour. Li Mi im­me­di­ately picked up a piece and tried to eat it, burn­ing his lips. On the other hand, Wei picked up a piece un­hur­riedly, dipped it into cold wa­ter, then put in his mouth. Wei then asked Li to try the dish in the same way as he did. It was sweet, crispy, sticky and de­li­cious. Li un­der­stood that this was Wei's way of telling him not to be too hasty. The two de­vised a thought­ful plan, and their at­tack suc­ceeded.

The Chi­nese yam, the main in­gre­di­ent in the dish, was named af­ter a bat­tle in an­cient times. Two armies were en­gaged in a war and the de­feated army suf­fered heavy losses. The soldiers fled to the moun­tains and were trapped there be­cause the win­ning troops guarded all the passes. There, they ate ed­i­ble wild herbs to keep them­selves alive. One day, they found a vine that had lit­tle flow­ers and roots grow­ing un­der the soil. The roots were sticky and sweet in­side. The armies boiled them and found the taste was very good. Though stuck in the moun­tains for a long time, both the soldiers and the horses ate the roots to sus­tain them­selves and sur­vived. Fi­nally, on one stormy night, the troops broke through the block­ade and coun­ter­at­tacked. The en­emy troops thought the de­feated army had al­ready starved to death, so they had dropped their guard. This time, the for­mer win­ning army was wiped out. The vic­to­ri­ous soldiers called the plant that had kept them alive “shanyu” (en­coun­ter­ing in the moun­tain). Later, it was found to cure dis­eases and was re­named “shanyao” (moun­tain medicine).

The Chi­nese yam is not only an in­gre­di­ent for cook­ing, but a kind of tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine. Three hun­dred and sixty-five va­ri­eties of Chi­nese medic­i­nal herbs were recorded in Shen­nong Ben­cao Jing ( Shen­nong’s Clas­sic of Ma­te­ria Med­ica), a book com­plied dur­ing the Eastern Han Dy­nasty (AD 25–220). The qual­i­ties were di­vided into three grades: top, medium and low. Chi­nese yam was clas­si­fied in the top-level cat­e­gory. The He­nan Xianzhi ( He­nan County An­nals) (1883 edi­tion) recorded: “Chi­nese yams for medic­i­nal use were called ‘yao shanyao,' or tiegun shanyao, and those pro­duced in Fushan, Huaiqing County, had su­pe­rior qual­ity.”

There are many va­ri­eties of Chi­nese yam and their qual­ity varies as well. Huai shanyao, also called tiegun shanyao (“iron stick Chi­nese yam”) planted in Huaiqing, He­nan Prov­ince, is con­sid­ered top qual­ity. Huai shanyao, which used to be given as trib­ute to im­pe­rial fam­i­lies, is ten­der and sweet and was called “gin­seng in Huaiqing.” Chi­nese yams from Huaiqing are pop­u­lar both at home and abroad. They were recog­nised and won great fame at the 1915 Panama Pa­cific In­ter­na­tional Ex­po­si­tion held in San Fran­cisco, in the United States. Af­ter­ward they were ex­ported to many Euro­pean, North and South Amer­i­can coun­tries.

Foshou shanyao, grown in Wuxue City, Hubei Prov­ince, is also famous and is men­tioned in a clas­sic work of lit­er­a­ture. Kuang­shan Moun­tain in Qizhou, to­day's Wuxue City, is con­sid­ered the back­drop of the novel Jour­ney to the West. It in­cludes the lines: “Dig up the Chi­nese yam, boil it with the medic­i­nal herb huangjing, and drink the soup com­pletely.” This proves that Wuxue peo­ple had the tra­di­tion of dig­ging up Chi­nese yams and drink­ing Chi­nese yam soup sev­eral hun­dred years ago. The shanyao they used, “foshou shanyao,” got its name from Dao Xin, a “Great Doctor Chan Master.” It has rich nutri­tion, dis­tinc­tive flavour and a long his­tory

Chi­nese yams are men­tioned in his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes about well-known peo­ple. Song Dy­nasty (AD 960–1279) poet Su Shi lived a hard life af­ter be­ing de­moted and sent to Danzhou in to­day's Hainan Prov­ince. His life be­came even worse when nat­u­ral dis­as­ters oc­curred. Lo­cals there used Chi­nese yams as their main food. They chopped Chi­nese yams, then mixed them with rice or other ce­real crops to cook por­ridge. Su Shi was not used to this and his health wors­ened. His son Su Guo was wor­ried about his fa­ther, so he im­proved the recipe and cook­ing method. Fi­nally, with Chi­nese yam as the main in­gre­di­ent, he made a de­li­cious soup. Su Shi was glad to taste the soup and wrote: “My son Su Guo came up with a new idea and cooked Chi­nese yam soup which is splen­did in colour, aroma and flavour. We do not know the flavour of su­tuo, a del­i­cacy in Heaven, but the soup has the ul­ti­mate flavour on earth.” Su Shi loved the soup very much and even planted Chi­nese yams him­self.

Lu You, an­other Song poet, praised Chi­nese yam por­ridge in his “Shizhou shi” (“Poem of Drink­ing Por­ridge.”) It reads: “Ev­ery­one wants longevity; the se­cret for it is at hand. I learned the easy way to live long from poet Zhang Lei (known as Wan Qiu); that is to drink Chi­nese yam por­ridge.”

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