The “eight major cuisines” (ba da caixi) of China, a culinary taxonomy sometimes reduced to four types and at most expanded to sixteen, reflects Chinese pride in the diversity of ingredients and flavor palettes that are associated with historical variations in material culture developed from differences in topography, climate, and biota. However, the Chinese word caixi, which translates to the English term “cuisine”, generally refers to foods that are attributed to the Han people who constitute the ethnic majority group in the past and present. Foods of non-Han peoples are also consumed by Han people, but are often considered part of “food and beverage culture” (yinshi wenhua) or “folk customs” (minjian xisu). The exclusion of non-Han foods from the cuisine classification and attribution of them instead to geographical regions and culture serves to reinforce the conception of non-Han peoples as marginal members of Chinese society.
Natives of Northeastern China, customarily defined as Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang provinces, are proud of their food, but people in other parts of the country often remark that Northeastern food (Dongbei cai) is not an authentic type of “cuisine” because it is “simple” (lacking complex flavors), “tasteless” (or “too salty”), and “monotonous” (most dishes are made of the same ingredients). Most of these uncomplimentary stereotypes of Northeastern China’s food are based on the staples and homemade favorites of Han households in the region, such as “three fresh flavors of the earth” (di san xian), a dish made by sautéing potatoes, eggplants, and green peppers with garlic, green onions, and peanut oil, and dishes cooked by stewing an assortment of ingredients (dun cai).
Although they are generally not explicitly cited in criticisms of Northeastern food, several attributes of the region influence how Chinese in other areas develop these prejudices. Northeastern China is a borderland and socio-cultural frontier between China and neighboring countries, so it is not considered as a distinct culinary region like other borderlands such as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.
Another characteristic of Northeastern China is that its ethnic minority (non-Han) populations are not well-known to people in other areas of China, either by group name or distinguishing characteristics. Chinese in central and eastern China may know of Manchus and Mongols, two of China’s largest ethnic minority groups, but struggle to name or describe any others. So unlike Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Guizhou, which are known as the homes of ethnic minorities that produce food which is very different from Han food and therefore quite appealing to Chinese consumers who seek epicurean novelty, the culinary reputation of Northeastern China does not benefit from its ethnic diversity.
Most ethnic minority people in contemporary Northeastern China are fluent and literate in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) but do not actively translate or otherwise bridge knowledge from their heritage languages into China’s Sinophone mainstream society. Moreover, most ethnic minority recipes in Northeastern China are not documented and standardized, and few people can read or write texts produced in these languages so there is no substantial audience for such records.
Despite these disadvantages to changing popular attitudes towards Northeastern China’s cuisines, pre-twentieth century sources reveal that non-Northeastern people formerly associated certain foodways with places and peoples of the Northeast. One such source is the section about food in the Classified Anecdotes of the Qing Dynasty (Qingbai leichao). The author, Xu Ke (1869-1928), was a native of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province and a member of the literati class who earned an official examination degree.
Unlike many of his fellow southern-born cultural doyens, Xu included references to the north, including the northeast, in his writings. About the people of Ningguta, a place now known as Ning’an, in Heilongjiang province, he observed “The da gao [a cake usually made of glutinous rice (nuomi 糯米), honey and/or white sugar] is made of glutinous millet (huangmi 黃米) in Ningguta (emphasis mine).” Xu Ke also observed that Ningguta people like “yellow pickled vegetables” (huangji). “Yellow pickled vegetables” are ubiquitous throughout China to the southernmost region of Guangdong, where huangji is pronounced wong zai) and the vegetable in question is a cucumber that is served minced. How the Ningguta pickle was eaten, and in fact what is, goes unexplained, but Xu’s reference to it piques the imagination about what made it unique.
Xu also discusses the foods of non-Han peoples in Northeastern China in his miscellany, such as the two ways in which Mongols eat meat: “(Mongols) boil beef and lamb slightly in plain water, or roast (these meats) directly over bovine manure. When the pieces (of meat) are roasted, the left hand is used to hold the meat, while the right hand holds a small knife to cut (the meat), a little salt is added and the meat is eaten without being chewed.” Roast meat is not a sophisticated dish, if sophistication is appraised by the number of ingredients or required steps to cook it. But the mental image of a Mongol diner holding and cutting his meat inspires us to think about how culinary sophistication and tradition as only defined by Han people or by ethnic minorities who are commonly known for being “exotic” inhibits a more inclusive and potentially more interesting interpretation of “cuisine” in China.