Perhaps you eat fried rice at lunch and a jianbing every morning like a local, but there’s much more to Chinese staple foods. What’s the difference between mantou and baozi? Why do Chinese doctors always prescribe congee as a cure for food poisoning? The second episode of A Bite of China, "Stories of the Staples," fills in the gaps.
Going through every single Chinese staple food in 45 minutes is a mission impossible, but this episode skips from one end of the country to the next to fit them in. In Shanxi, you see villagers making momo, a kind of bread young Chinese think of as a wartime food—if they’ve heard of it at all. You’ll also see how they make hand-pulled noodles in the capital of Gansu, and why Ningbo is the most famous province for niangao rice cakes.
This episode illustrates the major differences between China’s northern and southern cuisines. Wheat-based starches, including steamed bread, noodles, bing, mo and nang are indispensable to northern people in China. Many generations ago, cooks in Shanxi created hundreds of kinds of bread to make up for the region’s lack of vegetables. Here, the ancient Ding Village is home to China’s oldest millstone, as well as the incredible craft of kneading and dyeing dough in many shapes and colors.
Meanwhile, Xi’an stands out for its Qishan noodles, bread soaked in lamb soup and roujiamo. For the best Xi’an-style food in Beijing we recommend Qin Tang Fu.
Although Shanghai has xiaolongbao, and Guangzhou has wontons, it’s really all about rice in the south. Besides boiled, fried and steamed, rice is also ground into flour. A Bite of China shows how the Dong people of Guizhou base their diets around rice flour, and how popular Yunnan's cross-the-bridge rice noodles are in China’s cities today. Try them at Feng Huang Zhu, where the noodles are imported from Yunnan.
Despite the many differences in staple foods around China, the one thing everyone eats is dumplings, from your standard boiled variety to Cantonese wontons, and even yuanxiao and tangyuan at Chinese New Year. And no matter the differences in name or fillings, they all represent reunion and harmony. Remember that next time you sit down at the ever-popular Baoyuan.