Food of Yunnan 4: Erkuai

Tonight’s post is from an article written in the China Daily by Yang Wanli, and discusses a traditional and very special way of making rice, unique to Yunnan, called 饵块– Erkuai, or soft pounded rice.

Yunnan province is famous for the wide variety of dishes and delicacies it offers. Perhaps the fact that it is home to more than two dozen ethnic groups has something to do with it. The variety and taste of and the ingredients used in dishes can differ from town to town and even village to village, except erkuai, a culinary specialty made of rice, which is omnipresent in the entire province. And while traditional methods of preparing food may be vanishing, a workshop in Kunming has kept alive the old art of making erkuai.  As a type of rice cake particular to Yunnan, erkuai literally translates into “ear piece”, a reference to one of its common shapes.

Erkuai has a history of 400 years. Although common in the entire province, it is said that the best erkuai is available in Guandu district of Yunnan’s capital of Kunming, where it is said to have originated. As the ancient center of Yunnan’s capital, Guandu is famous for its traditional way of making erkuai.  “Making erkuai was like a ceremony before Spring Festival when I was a kid,” says Pan Yunquan, a 67-year-old resident of Luofeng village in Guandu. “It used to be made only once a year.” Since Luofeng has the credit of making the most delicious erkuai in Guandu, the delicacy available there is the best of the best.

In days past, people would not make erkuai at home but at a public mill shared by residents from two or more villages, and hence the annual “ceremony”. The mill in Luofeng village had a great reputation in Kunming and even other border cities. “The mill used to be open from late December to the eve of Spring Festival. Workers were divided into two groups and had to work constantly because a lot of people waited for their turn to make erkuai,” Pan says. At times, the queue used to be hundreds of meters long. Eating erkuai during Spring Festival is a tradition in Yunnan, and in the old days even the poorest families followed it. People carried newly harvested rice in cloth bags and waited outside the mill sometimes for two days. Generally, a family made erkuai from 20 to 50 kg of rice every year.

Rice is the only ingredient used in erkuai. Rice of the best quality is washed twice and then soaked in cold spring water for about an hour. After that, it is steamed twice. “Washing and steaming the rice twice makes erkuai whiter and softer,” Pan says. There are no strict rules for making erkuai, he says. It depends on experience. “Take steaming for example. Once water starts dripping from the hay-made pot cover, it is time to take the steamed rice out.”  Steamed rice is quickly put into a stone mortar and later pounded with a wooden pestle. But this is a special mortar and pestle, called mudui in Chinese in which the mortar is fixed into a hole dug in the ground so that its mouth is even with the floor level. The pestle is fixed to a huge horizontal wooden lever and needs four to six people to operate.

After the pounding, the rice becomes soft and gummy like plasticine, and is shaped on a wooden board. Erkuai is generally shaped like a mini pillow after the soft rice is kneaded to push the air bubbles out, and gives off a fragrant, appetizing aroma. Erkuai is loved by people in Yunnan not only for its simplicity, but also because it can be cooked in several ways. It can be cut into slices and served stir-fried with vegetables and málà (麻辣), a fiery mixture of dried red chilies, Sichuan pepper and salt.

It is popular as street food, too, grilled, barbecued and rolled around fried breadsticks with sweet or savory condiments added, resembling a Mexican burrito. The sweet types contain a sweet brown sauce and peanuts, while the savory types are mixed with preserved bean curd, bean sprouts and various other toppings. This method is particularly popular among Yunnan people and savored as a quick and delicious snack. Besides, erkuai can be also made into dessert with sweet fermented-rice and eggs. Many families use finely shredded erkuai and cook it like noodles.

The traditional method of making erkuai in Guandu was listed as an intangible cultural relic of Kunming in June 2005. In March 2010, authorities built a workshop in Guandu to demonstrate the tradition way of making erkuai, which disappeared about 30 years ago. An erkuai cake weighing 1 kg made in the workshop sells for double the average price of machine-made variety. A worker, surnamed Ding, says theirs is the only shop selling handmade erkuai in Kunming, and attracts many customers from across China and even aboard, especially during holidays. On May Day this year, the shop sold 480 cakes made out of 300 kg of rice. Pan says the workshop brings back memories for most senior residents. “Listening to the pounding of the pestle is like listening to music. The smell of rice is so sweet that it brings back memories of our childhood.”

Erkuai keeps fresh soaked in clean water for up two months, and it is said that fishermen used it to repair small cracks in their boats.

Sources

The description and background come from an article in the China Daily, as do all but one of the photos – the other comes from about.com.

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Food of Yunnan 3: 乳饼 – Rubing Cheese

You don’t find a lot of dairy food in China. This is usually ascribed to the fact that many Chinese people are lactose intolerant, though there is some debate over whether this causes the lack of dairy in the diet or is caused by it.  There are also remarks upon the fact that dairy farming is a far less efficient use of land than growing rice or raising pork for meat.  But regardless of the cause, one thing you will almost never find anywhere in China is cheese.  The featured food in tonight’s post is the exception to that rule.

Rubing (乳饼 – rǔbǐng) is a cheese made by the local Bai and Sani minorities of Yunnan province, and is quite popular there.  It is a farmer cheese, which means that it is served fresh rather than aged, and is made from goats milk that has been soured with the extract of a local vine called 奶藤 (năiténg), or literally “milk cane”.

Rubing is similar to the Cypriot cheese called Halloumi in that it does not melt when heated.  And like Halloumi, Rubing is most commonly served fried.

Often is it served mixed with tomatoes and broccoli or other vegetables.

Sometimes it is just deep-fried and served with salty or sweet dipping sauces.

These are the most traditional ways of serving Rubing, but modern restaurants in the region have been experimenting with departures from the tradition.  Some serve it with a local cured ham called Xuanhua, while others are experimenting with chocolate or rose flavorings.

It is yet another local delight I will be keeping my eyes out in our coming visit.

Sources:

The photos and serving information come from gochengdoo.com

Information on the making of rubing comes from wisegeek.com

Food of Yunnan 2: 宜良烤鴨 – Yiliang Roast Duck

Under the old British Colonial system for spelling Chinese words with roman characters, called the Wade-Giles system, the capital of China,  北京  (literally “northern capital”) was called Peking.  In 1958 the Chinese government published their own official romanization scheme, called Pinyin.  In Pinyin,  北京  romanizes to Beijing, and after the US normalized relations with China in 1979, Pinyin became the international standard and English publications around the world started calling the Chinese capital Beijing instead of Peking.

But though the capital is now referred to universally as Beijing, the old usage of Peking still survives in a few places.  One is in the name of China’s top university, which is still referred to as Peking University – don’t ask why; a good friend of the family got her degree there and even she doesn’t know.  Another such linguistic remnant is that culinary marvel: Peking Duck.  Most of you will at some point have eaten or at least heard of it: a whole duck, slow-roasted for over 24 hours in a special oven through a special and involved process (see the Wikipedia article), served with thin pancakes, green onions, and hoisin sauce.

Peking duck has been around a long time – the first known mention of it was in a cookbook published in the year 1330.  And in 1901, during the closing years of the Qing dynasty, a Yunnanese restauranteur named Zhang Wen went to Beijing to study cookery there, most notably the art of preparing Peking Duck.  When he returned to his home town of Yiliang, he opened a restaurant called Zhibin Garden at the local train station.  But restauranteur Zhang was not content to merely reproduce the Beijing Duck of the capital; he wanted to localize it and make it something unique to the region.

Zhang used a mud oven instead of a brick oven, honey instead of malt syrup for the glaze, and most distinctively pine branches and needles instead of the Gaoliang hardwood normally used for Peking duck.  The end result is now called Yiliang Duck and has become a Yunnanese speciality.  One I certainly intend to try when we arrive.

Sources:

History of Yiliang Duck: China Daily and welcomechinese.com
Photos: Yunnan Tourism Administration and the Ming’s Footprints travel blog

 

Food of Yunnan 1: 过桥米线 – Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles (guòqiáo mĭxiàn)

Amongst his observations of Yunnan and Kunming, Marco Polo noted that the people there were particularly fond of raw meat.  Like most people, I tend to associate raw fish with Japanese sushi and raw beef with Italian carpaccio or east European steak tartare.  Uncooked meat is frequently brought to the table in China, but only to be cooked there by the diners themselves; not once in all my visits to China have I encountered a dish in which meat is eaten raw.

Is the eating of raw meant something unique to Yunnan then?  Or have people simply outgrown their taste for it?  It has been over 700 years, after all.

Armed with curiosity, I resolved that I would spend the next part of my life dedicated to a deep, thorough, and comprehensive study of Yunnanese cuisine.  In other words, I googled around for about half an hour looking at some web pages. And while I didn’t find any dishes that resembled those described by Marco Polo, I did find many delightful things to share with you.

So without further ado, I give to you that most iconic of Yunnanese delights, Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles, or 过桥米线 (guòqiáo mĭxiàn).

Most people seem to agree that the recipe for Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles is somewhere between one and two hundred years old.  There is not nearly so much agreement on how it got its name, I found the most fully realized telling of the most common story on a food adventure blog published by a couple in Vancouver called Chowtimes, which I have reproduced below.  They in turn appear to have gotten it from a sign posted on the side of a food stall in Yunnan itself.  Like many Chinese translations the prose is quirky, and calls out the many grammatical differences between their language and ours.  But unlike many Chinese translations, I find that this passage loses none of its ability to communicate a sense of wonder and delight…

Cross Bridge Rice Noodle is a special dish of Yunnan. It is originated during the Qianlong period, nearly 200 years ago. There is a popular legend regarding its origins.

It is said that a scholar in Mengzi, who was preparing for the Imperial examination, went to an island in the Na Lake everyday to study. His wife went across the bride to the island to bring his meal to him. Owing to the long distance, he had to eat the meal cold everyday.

Accidentally, his wife discovered that a greasy chicken soup is not easy to get cold. What’s more, fresh ingredients, such as seasonal vegetable, fresh meat and so on, can become edible by putting them into this kind of boiled soup.

From then on, the scholar could have a delicious and hot meal everyday. Because his wife went across the bridge everyday, the rice noodle made this way was named as Cross Bridge Rice Noodle.

By now, the Cross Bridge Rice Noodle has a distinct development. The most important factor in this noodle is the soup. It was made with natural hen, pig bone and ham. It needs to be boiled for over 6 hours until the soup become savory and the oil from these are distilled.

The next thing worth mentioning is the ingredients. There are two kinds of rice noodles. The proper kind is the slim one, which is good at keeping the flavour of the valuable soup. The ingredients can be divided into two categories: vegetable and meat. The vegetable used are dependent on what is in season. The meat is focus on slice. The thinner the better, so the slice meat is one of the characteristics of the Cross Bridge Noodle.

Last but not least, the process of eating is special. The right orders are as follows: firstly, put the meat slice in the soup, then the vegetable, the last one rice noodle. Minutes later, a hot colorful and delicious Cross-Bridge Rice Noodle is ready.

So there, in authentic Chinese English, is the story of Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles.  As you can see in the above photo, the final dish is built at the table by the diners themselves.  That is probably the thing I enjoy most about Chinese food in general; more than any other cuisine I know of, the eating of Chinese food is designed to be a social activity, shared with family, friends, and colleagues.  I cannot wait to come to Kunming and try it with my team.