Spring Festival makes Chinese people nostalgic. It is the time of the year that everyone starts to talk about tradition and makes an honest attempt to rediscover what is quintessentially Chinese.
But after eating dumplings, lighting fireworks and visiting temple fairs, exploring traditional snacks has become another popular way to traverse back through China’s muddy and fractured history.
Beijing snacks are special. They have their roots in folk tradition, but are the product of years of refinement by royal families. During the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolians brought the nomadic diet to Beijing. Historical records show that during the Yuan Dynasty, Dadu (Beijing) had many food stands that sold Mongolian milk tea. Some also believe that Beijing hotpot developed during the Mongolian occupation.
Ethnic integration was prominent in the Yuan era, and some historians believe the Hui ethnic group first took shape during that time. Mongolian emperors had loose policies towards different ethnicities, and thus Hui people thrived in the capital. Their presence left its marks on Beijing snacks, explaining why many Beijing snacks are halal food.
Other than Yuan Dynasty, emperors of Qing Dynasty also influenced modern Beijing snacks. Beijing-born writer Xiao Fuxing once said that most Beijing snacks were developed by the Manchu People, including jiaoquan (fried rings), wandou huang (pea cakes) and xiaowotou (steamed corn buns).
Jiaoquan is a household snack in Beijing. It resembles a yellow bangle. Local Beijingers love jiaoquan and usually have it for breakfast with douzhi, a kind of fermented bean juice. To make good jiaoquan, one must pay attention to what wheat they use. It is said the Zhangjiakou wheat is the best choice as the wheat is red and can make for the crispy taste. Mixing edible alkali into the wheat is also suggested.
As a traditional folk snack, wandou huang was introduced to the Qing Court where it was favored by the Empress Dowager Cixi. Its main ingredient is fine peas, so it is a seasonal snack available only in spring. The best wandou huang is smooth and melts in your mouth.
Xiaowotou was a cheap food for poor people, but legend said it later made into the Qing Court. According to the legend, during Empress Dowager Cixi’s flight to Xi’an from the Battle of Peking when the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded China, Cixi was given a bunch of corn buns to satiate her hunger. After her return to Beijing she ordered the imperial cooks to make it again for her and the chef used more refined ingredients to create the golden colored wotou bun, which became one of the Imperial dishes.
Beijing snacks are also reflections of local customs. People choose their food in accordance with customs and solar terms. For example, Chinese people believe you should eat chunbing on Lichun, the start of Spring. And on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, people should eat labazhou, a rice porridge with nuts.
People say foods reflect culture. And perhaps that is why many keep the habit of eating traditional snacks. To many people it brings back the childhood flavor or memories of youth. But in China, with its long history of rule by various ethnic groups, what those traditions represent may be hard to gauge.