Traditional Chinese delicacies generate new resonance

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Li Dan stands out among food vloggers. Born in the 1990s, she works as a teacher at East China Jiaotong University in Jiangxi Province, but during her spare time, she recreates ancient Chinese delicacies that have been all but lost to history.

Li began working on the project in August 2020, and so far the many traditional dishes she has created have included more than 60 from A Dream of Red Mansions, one of China's four greatest classic novels, written by Cao Xueqin (1715-63) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The novel portrays the life of aristocratic families in the period, and goes into great detail on banquets held and dishes consumed. To recreate the dishes she discovered within its pages, she has had to refer to books on traditional recipes, agriculture and even traditional Chinese medicine to learn and adopt traditional techniques.

Eatable classics

"I've liked the novel since I was a kid because I was always impressed by the food described in it. Its illustration of the dishes vividly conveys the elegance of life in that era, so I have been trying to revive them," Li told Beijing Review.

Li says that one of the biggest challenges is recreating dishes that require highly seasonal ingredients, such as fresh osmanthus flowers. If all of her trial dishes fail during the sometimes short season, she needs to wait one year to try again. The most difficult dishes she has ever attempted are chicken skin soup with pickled bamboo shoots, and dried eggplant. Many of the ingredients needed to be marinated, which is time-consuming. She also consulted many cookbooks. It took her more than two weeks to finish each of the dishes.

"Clothing, jewelry and buildings can all be well looked after, whereas food can seldom be conserved in museums. For food, modern people have only ancient accounts to refer to. I hope the distinctive delicacies will attract more people to read the novel," she said.

Food is one of many highlights in traditional Chinese culture, the product of thousands of years of agricultural and culinary development. As Chinese culture is increasingly embraced by the younger generations, many online influencers like Li have posted videos of themselves recreating ancient Chinese food while wearing traditional dress. Professional chefs have also been restoring cuisines recorded in ancient books, carrying forward traditional techniques. Through their efforts, the culture and folk customs behind the plate are also being brought back.

Style preservation

The trend of reviving ancient dishes emerged around a decade ago, with Chinese chefs searching old recipe collections and recreating dishes as a means of promoting Chinese culture internationally.

Dong Shunxiang is one such chef. According to Dong, traditional dishes have not become outdated and can offer new inspiration. Based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, he used ancient texts to recreate a dish of crab meat in oranges. It was originally developed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when oranges were a rare treat. At that time, Hangzhou's booming economy and trade drove the exchange of food culture and improved the quality of the region's palate.

In 2008, he presented the dish at the United Nations. It was later provided at the Group of 20 Summit welcome banquet in Hangzhou in 2016.

The participation of amateur fans has added to the popularity of traditional platters. As the China Chic trend has boomed in recent years, the portrayal of an idyllic lifestyle featuring traditional dress and cuisines has become a new fashion for more and more young people. According to Li, people born after the year 2000 account for the highest proportion among her followers. Young people have developed an interest in time-honored culture that is generating new demand. Their senses of cultural identity and confidence have also been heightened.

"Traditional culture can provide us with a sense of belonging; it unites us. As we further explore and appreciate it, we also inherit and develop it. This is something that makes young people proud," Li said.

Old but vivacious

Many food and beverage brands have also been carrying forward longstanding techniques and restoring long-lost crafts as part of efforts to protect intangible cultural heritage. Beijing-based bakery brand Daoxiangcun was first established in 1895. Now, with over 100 branches around the capital, its products, especially mooncakes, are popular during traditional festivals. Many of its products, such as the flower-shaped jujube paste cake, have their origins in the Qing Dynasty. Luxihe, another old pastry brand based in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, has also expanded to meet increased demand in recent years, with many of its products based on recipes from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Traditions have been returned along with the brands. In 2007, Daoxiangcun restored eight Beijing-style pastries that were previously consumed during Spring Festival, but went missing for approximately 50 years. The brand has also referred to ancient culture, including the 24 solar terms, hutongs (Beijing's traditional alleyways) and Chinese chess in the appearance and design of its products.

In the 1970s, Peking roast duck was part of China's foreign diplomacy, along with table tennis. Beijing Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, founded in 1416, has upheld its traditional closed-oven roasting technique, which is healthier for diners as no open flame is used in the roasting process. The brand has also developed a store selling yuanxiao, sticky rice balls with sweetened stuffing eaten during the Lantern Festival.

"We have carried forward the traditional technique of making yuanxiao, which is to shake balls of the filling in flat bamboo baskets to coat them in sticky rice flour and then shape them into round balls. During Spring Festival this year, which precedes the Lantern Festival, we made more than 500 kg of yuanxiao per day," Zhao Shuangyu, an employee of Bianyifang, told Beijing Review.

It is not easy to preserve old culinary traditions while catering to modern tastes. Many of the revered catering brands have introduced products targeting young audiences. Daoxiangcun has introduced milk tea and Western-style cakes, and Wuyutai, a Beijing-based tea brand, now provides tea-flavored ice creams.

To attract Gen Z consumers, the old brands need to maintain traditional crafts while introducing new packaging and methods of promotion, and develop healthier and more diverse products, Cui Lili, Director of the Institute of E-Commerce with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, told Beijing Review.

Many new brands featuring Chinese styles, like Dim Sum Bureau of Momo and Tiger Attitude, two pastry brands, have emerged in recent years, increasing competition on the old brands. "Established brands need to refer to the effective practices used by the new brands, improve digitization of their operations and better understand the market," Cui said.

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