I have been watching a documentary of Chinese food: A Bite of China (link). Highly recommended to those who understand mandarin. The delicate filming and insightful illustration reminds of my childhood in Hubei province, and make me more aware of the Chinese’s deeply rooted attachment to the land.
The vast territory of China has endowed Chinese people with a wide variety of potential food sources: from pastured animals to home-grown plants, from the coarse northern wheat buns to the delicate southern rice balls. Generations of Chinese people have adopted methods suitable to specific geographical environment to make the best out of nature and sustain a large population.
China strides over four time zones and its land encompasses the most heated areas near the equator extending all the way to near Russia. Regional differences are huge, so are the diets in different areas. My hometown, Wuhan, is located in the middle of China. The province of Hubei (where Wuhan is the capital) is called “the province of a thousand lakes”. The abundance of water leads to the wide cultivation of rice as the main grain and fish as a major source of animal nutrition source. We have fried fish, boiled fish, salted fish, steamed fish, fish balls, fish dumplings, and even fish noodles! It was not until I left my hometown did I realize how much reliance I have on fish.
For northerners far from the open sea or internal river networks, fish is more of a luxury than an everyday dish. The cold weather in the north makes preservation of food an important issue. Vegetables are salted and preserved throughout the winter. But it also means that an average family can only afford a limited variety of vegetables in colder climate. This is less the case now thanks to the developed transportation.
In this modern era, mechanical production has substituted human labor in food processing, and the cultural elements along with home-made traditional food is fading. The making of traditional local foods can rarely been seen, with the majority happening among the elderly in the countryside. City dwellers have neither the time nor the interest to know the origins of our beloved food and I doubt if they appreciate the efforts by farmers to cultivate the land. Still, it is a relief to see the values of family and unity being passed down, with the delicate food we have.