The north China plain, edged by mountains to the north and west and crossed by the Yellow River, is a harsh environment. The flat river plain with its vast skyscapes stretching far into the distance lies for much of its length just above sea-level. It is dramatically subject to drought from the failure of the late spring rains in some years and to flood when the Yellow River , for centuries unstable in its bed, spills over into the low-lying countryside. Since 1949, however, a vast expenditure of labor and money has prevented any serious floods of the kind that were only too common in the nineteenth century. Against these two potential natural disasters the country people in villages barely a mile apart, struggle to grow sufficient wheat, maize and potatoes to feed themselves.
To the north across the Great Wall wind erosion and deforestation have brought the desert ever nearer, while in Shanxi the deep loess valleys and flat-topped hills have been sculpted into terraces, the Act was all coarse yellow grain - maize and millet - but now 'the yellow has given place to white' and they live well.
The summers in the north of China are hot and wet, leading to calm, dry, sunny autumns. The cold winters last from November until March or April, while the springs are marked by drying winds and dust storms. Country people's lives and diets are governed by these seasons. There is no green fodder for pigs during the winter months, and the streams and ponds freeze over, inhibiting the rearing of ducks. In this crowded countryside the people are poor, short of land and without the extra food that wild, uncultivated areas can provide; their diet is limited. Meat is a luxury, often eaten only at festival times, and even vegetables must be stored to last until the next year.
The people eat potatoes, wheat and maize for their basic food, and the major difference between the cooking styles of the provinces lies in their treatment of these staples. In Hebei they eat wheat flour made into buns and bread, while in Shandong they make steamed maize bread, and in Henan a hard, dry wheaten biscuit up to 45 cm (18 inches) across. Mantou are made everywhere and both plain and sweet potatoes are eaten, the latter baked in the embers of the previous meal's fire - as we in the West cook jacket potatoes in a bonfire - or boiled in their skins with very little water. The north of China is a land of barely suppressed hunger, each mouthful of hard-won food a small triumph in the battle with the elements.
In the northern comer of the north China plain is Beijing (Peking), capital of China since the fifteenth century. From Beijing are visible the foothills of the mountains to the north that marked the frontier of China in prehistoric times, and over which runs the Great Wall. Cooks came from everywhere in China to Beijing, attracted by the large, wealthy market for their particular specialities. In one sense Peking cuisine has no regional identity; it is the style of formal dishes, taking something from everywhere. Many of the cooks' employed by the imperial court were Moslem, and when they later set up restaurants these were seen as following a style of courtly cooking.
The ration of pork in Beijing (according to 1979 figures) is 1 kg (just over 2 lbs) per person per month, with about 250 ml (1 cup) cooking oil. Such a quantity of meat - barely over an ounce a day - means that most dishes will have almost no meat in them, and must be made of various vegetables. An allowance of only 60 ml (4 tablespoons) oil a week means that few dishes can be fried. The grain ration, which is graduated according to occupation and age, is approximately 16 kg (32 lbs) a month, of which 40 per cent is flour. This flour is made into the noodles, buns and jiaozi which are typical of the robust character of the region's cooking. An account of the domestic budgets of schoolmasters' families in Beijing in the 1920s shows that for meat and oil the ration today is more generous than the normal level of consumption 60 years ago, while the general pattern of food purchases seems almost unchanged. But low meat consumption was more than a matter of poverty: a rich northern family in Beijing at that time seldom ate meat at family meals or entertained their guests at restaurants.
Other foods are today rationed only by price and availability, and there are many free markets where farmers can sell their produce. Fish is cheaper than pork and at some times of the year will be plentiful, though not in the winter. Cabbages, beans or cow peas and other vegetables are sold in the markets during the summer and autumn. Most northern family meals are dominated by vegetable dishes - which is traditional as well as economical. Foods can be flavored with rice wine, vinegar, salt and soy sauce, but supplies of scallions and garlic are sometimes erratic. Pork lard is the preferred cooking fat, the second choice being sesame oil. In some areas in Hebei peanuts are grown, so peanut oil may be used, but elsewhere rape-seed oil is the usual alternative. Ginger is used sparingly in the north, but soy sauce, often a medium brand (neither dark nor light), is used very generously. Salted and pickled vegetables such as turnips, white radish and cabbages are important items in a rather monotonous diet.
Chinese Regional Cookery - Margaret Leeming & May Huang Man-hui
Here are a few Chinese Northern Cooking Recipes:
Chinese Spiced Leg of Lamb
Deep Fried Beef Steak
Pork Shreds with Red-In-Snow
Shrimp with Fresh Asparagus
Steamed Eggs with Salted, Pickled and Quail Eggs
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