Chinese snacks do more than just satisfy hunger, they also fill the emptiness in one’s heart. after all, the phrase dimsum, in english, means “to touch the heart.”
For the Chinese, snack time is more than just filling up one’s growling tummy to drive hunger away.
It is a time to socialize, bond, and enjoy the pleasures of good food and a good time. Good food, they say, speaks to the heart as well as the stomach. Little wonder that for many Chinese, snacks are just as important as regular meals.
Chinese snacks are more than just dumplings served a’la carte at malls, or MSG-loaded chips found in supermarkets. Each region in China has its own specialty. Fusion techniques in cooking have also changed recipes of traditional snacks served in the mainland.
More Than Just Tea
The English have their tea and biscuits, but the Chinese have yum cha. Yum cha, which literally means “drink tea,” is an important part of Chinese culinary culture. The hustle and bustle of the city slows down at mid-morning and people go to tea shops for a much- needed snack. Yum cha is considered a tradition, especially among the Cantonese.
Tea is just one part of the yum cha experience. The clatter of teacups and teapots is a signal to bring out the carts and trolleys loaded with stacks of bamboo steamers with all sorts of dimsum. A small serving of dim sum is perfect with tea.
Snacks are not limited to tea time. In some restaurants, traditional snacks are also served either as appetizers or entree. Again, the noise made by clattering teapots and porcelain is the cue for the tall stacks of bamboo steamers laden with all sorts of steamed and braised snacks to make their way out of the kitchen.
Chinese cakes and pastries are best served with pots of—you guessed it—Chinese tea. Unlike those from the west that are covered with icing, the Chinese versions are lightly sweetened and enhanced with natural flavors.
In Imperial Beijing, a favorite pastry was wan dou huang, a springtime snack made from white pea flour. Jinan also has a popular fried cake made from millet grain, and is flavored with various ingredients like chestnuts, bananas, pineapple chunks, and even rose petals.
The Guangzhou region is famous for moon cakes, which are sweet golden pastries stuffed with lotus seeds, sesame seeds, sweet mung paste, or Chinese mushrooms. The Lunar New Year and the Autumn Festival are perfect times to enjoy this treat. Guangzhou moon cakes are also exported to many Chinese specialty-goods stores all over the world.
Strings of Happiness
Noodles are almost synonymous with Chinese cuisine. The northern Chinese make noodles from wheat, while their brothers from the south make theirs from rice. Noodles are usually served at meals, although smaller portions are also served as snacks. These are usually served with steaming broth to warm the body.
Many Chinese consider noodle-making as an art form. While machines make most noodles today, handmade noodles are still preferred by many Chinese. Making noodles by hand is a difficult process that involves kneading, stretching, cutting, and a lot of manual dexterity. To the Chinese, a great noodle dish doesn’t need much flavoring in the broth. Good noodles have a lot of flavor and texture, and can be consumed with only a minimum of flavoring and spice.
The Gansu region is particularly famous for its noodle dishes. In Lanzhou, flour noodles are stretched by hand and served with delicately seasoned beef broth. Making the noodles require special skills that are passed down for generations. Another famous snack from the region is “dragon’s whiskers” noodles from Dunhuang. The thin, pliable noodles are made with flour and eggs and are usually mixed with chicken broth and vegetables.
In the coastal city of Quanzhou, a noodle dish called mian xian hu is unique among the many noodle dishes found in China. The dish is made from a hearty soup of shrimps, oysters, clams, and other shellfish. Thread-like noodles are then boiled with the soup, and mixed into a very filling porridge. In Qinghai province, thick flour noodles are mixed with broth and crispy fried sheep intestines. The noodle dish can be eaten cold in the summer months, but is usually served hot during winter.
Quick Fixes: Dumplings and Buns
When people think of Chinese food, they almost instantly think of dumplings and buns. These snacks are more than just siomai served a’la carte hawked along busy sidewalks and food courts, or siopao sold at fast-food restaurants. The Chinese pay a lot of attention not only to how these snacks look, but also to how they taste.
Shrimp dumplings, also called har gau, are famous all over the world. Har gau is a mixture of whole or chopped shrimp wrapped in a very thin, almost translucent wrapper made from wheat starch. In Guangdong province, a dumpling called chiu-chao is made from pork, shrimp, dried Chinese mushrooms, garlic, and ground peanuts wrapped in a thick wrapper made from rice flour. Chiu-chao dumplings are very similar to molo found in the Philippines.
Chinese-style siomai, usually topped with crab or fish roe, is more elaborate than what we usually see along the streets of Manila. Pot stickers, which are common fare in many modern Chinese restaurants, is a steamed dumpling that is later fried to give it a golden-brown, crispy texture.
Tangbao is a favorite among locals in Hubei. The tender, steaming bun is stuffed with minced meat, and is usually enjoyed with a sauce made from white vinegar, soy sauce, and grated ginger root. The taste of tangbao is heavenly, and takes hours of kitchen work to prepare.
The people of Tianjin take pride in a snack item called goubuli. The goubuli bun itself is made with slightly fermented flour, and is stuffed with a filling of slow-cooked chicken or pork. Longpao buns, a favorite in Jiangsu, is steamed and stuffed with fresh crab meat.
Sweet Treats and Exotic Ingredients
The Chinese are known all over the world as accomplished and skilled cooks and that reputation certainly holds true even for those who make snack items. For centuries, they have invented new ways to enjoy many ingredients that have become popular all over the world.
Chicken feet, also called “phoenix claws” or “talons,” are deep-fried and braised slowly in sweet hoisin sauce. Char siu, also known as Chinese-style barbecue, is made from pork loin or spareribs marinated in special syrupy sauce many restaurant owners keep as family or trade secrets. Items like these are quite expensive and are consumed in small quantities.
Sweet treats like tarts, mango pudding, matuan, and slow-cooked fruits like pears and apples are staple desserts for a morning of dim sum. Many of these are often served during the Lunar New Year as offerings to the gods and to family ancestors. Almond tofu is now a very popular dessert in Chinese-style fast-food restaurants.
Not Like They Used To
Like many cultures around the world, the Chinese believe eating touches the heart as well as the stomach. Much work and preparation goes into a bun or a dumpling. Snacks, served elegantly in a bamboo steamer or a porcelain plate, are also feasts for the soul. Many stories and opinions are exchanged over tables with heaps of snacks. Despite the harried pace of life in today’s modern China, people still find the time to relax over tea and food fresh off a busy restaurant kitchen. Authentic Chinese snacks can be meals in themselves, especially for Chinese cooking aficionados.
Many companies now have ready-made snacks like dumplings and buns but these are often filled with preservatives and other artificial ingredients. They taste nowhere near as good as the real thing, which are prepared with love and care and steeped in centuries of tradition.
Print ed: 01/09