By Allison Shichen Du, published as part of the Undergraduate Series
This summer, I started a journey to explore Manchu (Manzu) food both in books and in real life. After reviewing A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary written by Jerry Normanin May, I thought that flour-made foods are very important in the Manchu daily diet. The word efen appear quite a lot in the dictionary. According to Norman, it refers to “bread, pastry, cake and any kind of bread-like product made from flour.” To understand what efen looks and tastes like, I took a short trip to Beijing where a substantial Manchu population has lived since the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) to search for traditional Manchu efen.
I consulted a friend of mine, whose family has lived in Beijing for several generations, about where to look for traditional Manchu food. He recommended Ox Street (Niu jie) as the best place to find the most authentic and traditional Manchu efen. Ox Street is actually a neighborhood centered around Muslim communities rather than Manchu inhabitants because of the Ox Street Mosque, the largest mosque in Beijing, which was built in the Liao dynasty (907-1125).
I found a vendor selling varieties of efen called Hong Ji Xiaochi Dian. This small restaurant consisted of two counters, one selling braised meat and another selling grain-based foods which are known in Chinese as staple foods (zhushi).
I felt that this vendor is a practical food provider for local residents and does not primarily cater to tourists. The staple foods counter was popular with a long queue in front of it. All the customers except for me were native Beijing people with pronounced Beijing accents. The salesperson insisted that the minimum portion of efen sold should be a quarter-kilogram and dispensed the efen in plastic bags. Both of these conditions suggest that efen is meant to be eaten shortly after being purchased and is not packaged to be distributed over long distances, as souvenirs would be.
The following three pictures are the efen I bought and tried on site. These efen are cut and sold by weight. Since they are so soft and sticky, the efen do not look visually appealing, but they were the most delicious I have tasted. The red bean paste was not overly sweet, and its taste and smell were that of real bean rather than artificial flavoring. The rice flour similarly smells like fresh rice. The sour taste of the haw, the red strip on the efen, lessened the sweetness.Normally, I find Chinese cakes to be filling in very small amounts but I finished a whole quarter-kilogram of efen within fifteen minutes.
The next three pictures show efen containing jujube and milletas described in Jerry Norman’s dictionary such as tūmen efen defined as “steamed millet cake.” When I smelled this efen, I could easily detect the genuine scents of jujube, rice, millet, black rice and haw. I was impressed by how the distinct smells and tastes of the grains and fruits were preserved well in this type of food.
Reflecting on this journey, I found what confused and fascinated me most is the identity of the efen. As a person of Han and Manchu ancestry, I went to a place known as a Muslim neighborhood surrounded by an ethnically heterogeneous group of “Beijingers” looking for authentic Manchu food. Although the efens in the Ox Street resembled most to the description of Manchu cake in all the readings I reviewed, finding them was not a straightforward process. When I asked for help to search for Manchu food, native Beijing people could only think of places selling “Old Beijing cuisine (Lao Beijing cai),” not cakes or other foods that may be eaten separately rather than as components of meals. I also received few recommendations for establishments that are not part of restaurant chains. “Manchu food” has been popularized by companies like the Daoxiang Village (Daoxiang cun) restaurant group but to someone like me who has grown up eating homecooked Manchu food, the adaptation of such cuisine to suit non-Manchu people’s tastes is obvious. Furthermore, I noticed that the efen I found looks similar to Korean sweet rice cakes (tteok). Given the historical flow of commodities and movement of people between Northeast China and the Korean peninsula, it is hard to conclude that efen is only a Manchu food or a Beijing Manchu one. I will do more taste tests in the city of Shenyang in Liaoning province, which is also considered a Manchu cultural center like Beijing, and in South Korea to substantiate textual interpretations of efen with comparative physical manifestations.
 Jerry Norman, A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 90.
My name is Allison Shichen DU. I am currently a third-year (junior) undergraduate studying social sciences at the University of Hong Kong. I am doing research about ethnic minorities in Northern China supervised by Dr. Loretta Kim. My interest in Northern China’s ethnic minorities arose from a course called “Regional Studies-Northeastern China.” In that course, we learned about the history of the region and designed research for current issues affecting the region. The field trip we took afterwards to Heilongjiang province in May 2018 and our fieldwork in ethnic minority communities increased my interest. I enjoyed absorbing knowledge about these small but special groups in contemporary China and hope to produce more valuable work with my professor so that these groups’ cultures will not fade away.