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How the Real Chinese Eat

Instead of restaurant-style fare, most have a cuisine rich in grains, vegetables, and folklore. BREAKFAST IN BEIJING

IT'S 7:20 a.m. Amid the chime of bicycle bells on a tree-lined, cobblestone Beijing street comes the rap of a Chinese cleaver slicing soft wheat dough.SSSsszzz! Twisted strips of dough sizzle in hot peanut oil, turning crisp, golden, and puffy as red flames flicker under the black wok. A cook uses chopsticks to lift the dripping you zha gui, literally, "ghosts fried in oil," into a wire basket for a moment before wrapping them in brown paper for customers lined up at the sidewalk food stall. "This is Beijing's ancient tradition, Beijing's flavor," says Tian Yusheng, a retired railway worker, as he bites into one of the long, fragrant rolls. Each one costs just three cents plus a grain coupon. Further down the bustling street, a young female shop clerk eats a roll lightly brushed with brown sugar and then downs a two-cent bowl of hot soybean milk before catching a bus. "I like this, and it's full of vitamins," says Zhai Manjun, sitting at a large, outdoor table at the Majestic Roc eatery near Wangfujing in central Beijing. Wonton (dumpling) soup, sesame seed cakes, and steamed wheat buns stuffed with red bean paste are other favorites of the morning rush-hour crowd. Another popular snack is jian bing, a paper-thin egg pancake seasoned with green onion and fresh coriander and wrapped around a fried wheat roll. Tasty, quick, cheap, and nutritious - this is breakfast, Beijing style. Indeed, the daily diet of most of China's 1.1 billion people little resembles the rich, often exotic Chinese cuisine lavished on visiting foreigners at banquets or in hotel dining rooms. Nor is it similar to the fare served in many Chinese restaurants abroad. A major, 900-page study of Chinese eating habits published last year by Cornell University shows that most Chinese still eat a plant-based diet dominated by large helpings of grain and vegetables. This is despite a recent trend in big cities toward eating more meat and dairy products. The joint Chinese-American study, which canvassed some 2,000 rural households in 65 diverse counties, praised the simple Chinese diet as economical and healthful. "One hundred percent plant food is enough for people, from the scientific view," says Chen Junshi, deputy director of the Institute of Nutrition at the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine. What it lacks in rich ingredients, Chinese home cooking makes up for with its wealth of distinct flavorings, obsession for freshness, and techniques honed for thousands of years by a huge population living off limited tillage. "The Chinese ... are born cooks," observed one 19th century British historian. "Almost any man can turn his hand to preparing the simple dishes." Moreover, a treasury of folklore surrounds even the plainest dishes in China, where legendary famines have given food a special place in culture. A common greeting still heard often in Beijing is: "Have you eaten yet?" A sampling of breakfast fare in Beijing offers a taste of the history and custom that pervade the wheat-based cuisine of northern China, one of the country's five distinct culinary regions. Many of the Beijing snacks are derived from Central Asian dishes, which strongly influenced northern Chinese cooking after the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). Mongols and other invaders from the steppe introduced such key ingredients as sesame seeds and specialties like jiaozi, or boiled wheat dumplings. Some dishes have histories all their own. The twisted "ghost fried in oil" is named after a traitorous Song Dynasty (960-1279) prime minister, who killed an able general in order to seal a pact with the enemy. The Chinese word gui, or "ghost" rhymes with the name of the notorious minister, Qin Hui, and the crisp rolls became his effigy. Chinese culinary folklore also thrives at the Beijing food stalls. Especially strong are ancient Taoist beliefs in the importance of maintaining a balance between the "heat" or "cold" produced in the body by different foods. Taoism holds that each food is inherently "heating,cooling," or neutral - regardless of whether it is actually served hot or cold. For example, hot chrysanthemum tea is supposed to be "cooling" and thus an ideal drink for a sultry summer day. Chinese believe that deep-fried foods like the "ghosts fried in oil" generate heat, but this effect is neutralized by eating them together with "cooling" foods such as soybean milk in northern China or boiled rice gruel in the south. At a stall doing brisk sales of wonton soup for 20 cents a bowl, chef Yuan Jianjun from Shandong Province explains how he carefully adjusts the ingredients of his soup stock to harmonize with the seasons. "In winter, we put more duck bones in the broth because they give off warmth," says Mr. Yuan, placing pinches of dried greens, shrimp, and other flavorings in a row of soup bowls. "This is because ducks live in the chilly water," Yuan adds with a smile, brushing off his hands on a white apron. "They don't fear the cold."

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