- November 9th, 2009
Cuisine in Harbin, though it has many similarities to other places in China I've visited, definitely has its own regional dishes. Because it's in the north, root vegetables are a prominent part of the diet. One local dish that I've never had anywhere else in China is called 地三鲜 (disanxian, meaning basically three fresh things from the earth), which is made with potatoes, eggplants, and green peppers cooked in a thick brown sauce and served over rice. Aside from the fact that the dish is very good and the perfect thing to have when it's cold outside, from a historical perspective this dish is actually quite interesting because potatoes are a New World crop.
Potatoes are native to The Americas, and based on what I remember from my 7th grade Social Studies class, they were completely unknown in Europe before the time of Columbus and all the other explorers from that era. How did potatoes come to China, then? I have absolutely no idea, but I would make an educated guess that either they came to China by way of the Silk Road traders from Europe, or, in a slightly more far-flung theory, if the famous Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He actually made it to The Americas (as far I I know there isn't much evidence to back up this claim), maybe he discovered some New World crops and brought them back to China.
Another New World crop that now is found in other types of Chinese cooking is the tomato. You can tell it's not native to China by its name alone. In Chinese the tomato is called either 番茄 (fanqie, which translates to foreign eggplant), or 西红柿 (xihongshi, which translates to western red persimmon). Nowadays in China I haven't found tomatoes used in "mainstream" Chinese cooking very much, aside from one of my favorite Chinese dishes, tomatoes cooked with scrambled eggs, which I've found in every place in China I've visited. Cuisines from the Western part of China seem to feature tomatoes much more prominently, especially food from Xinjiang, which has a much more Central Asian/ Middle Eastern flavor than Chinese. Dishes from the Hui ethnicity (Chinese Muslims), too, also use more tomatoes than I've seen in Han Chinese cooking. When I was in Hohhot, which has a significant Hui population, I ate in a small Muslim restaurant one day. I ordered a dish of fried noodles with egg (essentially lo mein) - a simple dish that can be found anywhere in the country. The dish I had in Hohhot, though, had tomatoes in it.
In China, tomatoes are considered a fruit (I mean, they are in America, too, but we wouldn't be too likely to add tomatoes to a fruit salad), which means they get treated like fruits. By that I mean that it's pretty common in China to fin people eating sugared tomato slices. I've never had this dish because I actually hate raw tomatoes. Once, when I was in Beijing, during my first trip to China, it was one of my classmate's birthdays to we got her a cake. We were all surprised to find cherry tomatoes on it, as well as cherries and other fruits topping it. We were a little grossed out by it, and removed the tomatoes immediately.
Corn, a third New World crop, is also found pretty easily in China. Its Chinese name is 玉米 (yumi, which means jade rice. I heard from somewhere that corn got its Chinese name because the kernels are translucent like jade). I haven't found corn to be quite as ubiquitous in Chinese cooking as tomatoes or potatoes, but as the weather started to get colder here in Harbin, you can find street vendors selling boiled corn on the cob. Pancakes made from cornmeal are fairly common, but not as common as products made from rice or wheat flour. In some restaurants I've been to they add cornmeal to the rice, because it's thought to be more nutritious.
When traveling through the countryside, no matter what province I find myself in, there are times when it can seem like the only thing farmers grow is corn, based on the large numbers of cornfields I always pass. The only place I haven't seen seemingly endless cornfields whizz by my train or bus window has been Inner Mongolia. Maybe Inner Mongolia is too arid to grow corn.
Because corn is sweet, just like tomatoes, it's prepared in some ways that raise eyebrows for me and my fellow Americans. In China they make corn-flavored ice cream, which I've actually never tried. I did try corn nectar once, and after having had it, I don't think I'd be too eager to try it again. One dessert I've had in China is corn kernels covered in sugar, baked, and pressed into a cake-like thing. Sometimes sprinkles are put on top.
So what can we learn from all this?
1) Despite the fact that China was closed off from the West for a long time, evidence of China's old globalized past still exists.
2) Although we mostly learn about what the Western world imported from China which, in the days of the Silk Road, was a much more developed country than most of the countries it traded with, it must have been importing products from the West, too.