Behind every traditional food, there is always a story. It should not be surprising that traditional Chinese food such as mantou, Dragon’s beard candy, Wife Cake, doufufa and even guilinggao will have it’s own lore and background story.
Here are the legends behind these five famous Chinese desserts:
You have seen this jelly-like Chinese dessert being sold at the supermarket.
Did you know that it is traditionally made from ‘gao’ or a paste of the under shell of the turtle such as the Chinese three-striped box turtle (Cuora trifasciata)?
It is traditionally prepared by boiling turtle shells for hours before adding in a variety of herbs.
After the water is thickened to form a jelly-like residue, rice flour and corn starch are added to make guilinggao.
There are guillinggao brands which use commercially farmed three-lined box turtles. As such, the traditional guilinggao is quite expensive. For those that use turtle shell in their ingredients, typically other species of turtles such as soft-shelled turtle are used.
However to make guilinggao at home, there is no need for you to catch a turtle, take off the shell and boil it.
Most commercially available guilinggao products today do not contain turtle shell powder.
Today, guilinggao powder is easily available in stores and supermarkets. Follow the instructions and add in as much sugar as your heart desires.
While it has never been proven, like many traditional Chinese desserts, gulinggao is believed to be medicinal to improve circulation, healthier complexion and good for the kidney.
Legend has it that the Tongzhi Emperor who reigned from 1861 to 1875 nearly cured his smallpox by taking guilinggao.
His mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi, on the other hand believed that his smallpox could be cured by worshipping a smallpox god.
After convincing the emperor not to take guilinggao anymore, the Tongzhi Emperor passed away soon after.
Was it because he stopped taking guilinggao or is there another reason for his death? We might never know.
The origins of doufufa can be traced back to as early as the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD).
According to legend, Emperor Gaozu of Han who reigned from 202-195AD had a grandson named Liu An.
He wanted to create something that would help him achieve immortality and Liu An thought the answer could be found in soybean.
After few attempts, he managed to create soft tofu. People of the Han Dynasty started to call it tofu brains because of its softness.
While Liu An did not get to live forever, his recipe has survived to this day.
Today, there are so many version of doufufa. Some have it with something sweet like sweet ginger soup while others tend to make it savoury by adding in soy sauce.
Meanwhile, Sarawakians love to have it with gula apong (palm sugar).
3.Dragon’s Beard Candy
Here is another Chinese dessert that originated during the Han Dynasty.
With no internet or TV, the Emperor found himself being entertained by an imperial court chef who performed complicated steps to make a new confection.
After stretching the dough into small, thin strands, a new recipe was created in front of the Emperor.
These strands reminded the Emperor of a dragon’s beard hence the name that we all know now.
Fast forward to the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the Communist Party of China banned any activities connected to the Han Dynasty – including Dragon’s Beard Candy.
People in China actually stopped making it for some time until recently with the new generation picking up the craft to make this traditional sweet again.
Sometimes you can roughly guess there must be a legend behind some Chinese desserts according to their names.
Lo Po Beng – or its English translation Wife Cake – is actually a Chinese pastry made with winter melon, almond paste and sesame.
Long time ago, there was a poor couple who loved each other dearly. One day, the husband’s father fell sick.
The couple spent all their money to cure the poor old man but he was still not cured.
Without her husband’s knowledge, the wife sold herself as a slave for money to buy medicine for her father in-law.
Once the husband found out what his wife did, he created this pastry filled with winter melon and almond.
The husband sold the pastry which he dedicated to his wife. Thankfully, the cake was a hit and the poor man managed to buy back his wife using the money that he earned.
The Chinese mantou is a soft, white steamed bun. It is a popular side that can even be found in the frozen section at the supermarket.
The most famous legend behind mantou is related to human sacrifice.
During the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China (220-280AD), the Chancellor of Shu Han state Zhuge Liang led the Shu army on a campaign against Nanman forces or the Southern Barbarians.
After capturing the Nanman king Meng Hua, Zhuge Liang brought his army back to Shu Han.
The troops suddenly came across a very fast flowing river that could not be crossed.
One of the barbarian lords told Zhuge Liang that in the olden days the barbarians would sacrifice 50 men and throw their heads into the river to appease the river deity and allow them to cross.
Zhuge Liang did not want any of his men to lose their heads. Instead, he ordered them to slaughter the livestock and fill their meat into buns shaped roughly like human heads.
The men then threw these buns into the river.
Somehow, Zhuge Liang and his men managed to cross the river and he named the bun ‘mantou’ or barbarian’s head.