Everywhere has its own traditions, customs, food, etc. Today, I’d like to take some time to talk to you about the eight customs of Shaanxi (again, the province that I’m living in) that I saw on a subway poster. Also some pictures that didn’t get uploaded from HK.
- Noodles long like belts: Shaanxi is known for its noodles, they’re white, usually made of wheat, and served either “dry”, in broth, or “油泼” ( you po; yo puo) style, which is dry with hot oil and hot sauce poured over the top. Most famous though are the biang biang noodles. Biang (picture below) happens to be the most complex character in the entire Chinese language (at least currently) requiring 57 strokes to write in its traditional form. Allegedly it was invented as onomatopoeia one day when someone in old Shaanxi was walking past a noodle shop and heard a noise from inside he could only describe as “biang”, made by the chef slapping dough on the table to make noodles. The noodles became to be known as biang biang noodles, but no one actually invented the character until much later. (What made them come up with that character I have no idea, but I want some of it). The noodles themselves are long and thick, like a belt, and if made properly, an entire bowl is one long noodle wrapped over itself again and again.
- Bread the size of pot covers: 饼 (bing) is best translated into English as cake, but not like a birthday cake, not that sweet. More like the cake in pancake. It refers to any sort of bread-y round food. Could have filling, could just be bread. In Shaanxi it usually refers to 烧饼 (shao bing) which are round pieces of bread about three inches across eaten at breakfast, paired with some sort of soup, porridge etc. In Shaanxi though, they can be bigger than your head and 1-2 inches thick, and the consistency of non-crunchy pizza dough. And yes, they are delicious.
- Peppers are a staple food: The provinces known most for spice in China are Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing. However, the residents of Shaanxi love their peppers too, and proving your ability to eat spice is a great way to earn a Shaanxi’er’s respect. Sichuan and Chongqing are more known for 麻 (ma) or numbing spice, which is less set your tongue on fire and more make you slowly lose feeling in your face as tingly needles of fire tear apart your lips, while Shaanxi spice more resembles the spice of Hubei and Hunan (and Mexico). Different, but still wonderfully delicious.
- Bowls and pans are hard to tell apart: By now you may start to be noticing a trend, perhaps you’re thinking that Shaanxi is the Texas of China. Everything’s bigger. To accommodate the noodle belts and the bread lids, Shaanxi people like to say their bowls are the same size as the pans used to cook them. When combined with the Chinese custom to hold your bowl in your hand as you eat means that eating traditionally in Shaanxi requires prodigious upper body strength.
Intermission: You’ll notice these first four customs all have to do with food. I like to attribute this to the saying “民以食为天” (min yi shi wei tian, mean ee sure way tea-en), meaning the people view food as their Heaven, or in other words, they hold it above all else. It sums up Chinese people quite nicely, as food is king here. Why is this the case? Opinions differ, but given China’s over 4,000 years of history, early agricultural stability has given the people here a lot of time to perfect their cuisine. Besides that, as recently as today Chinese farmers generally only eat two meals a day, so you’ve got to invent a way to pack those two bowls with as many calories as you can to fuel your long day in the fields. Bigger food equals more calories, and spicier food means you need less to be full, which explains the above customs pretty well.
- Towel on the head: In the rural areas, old folks love to wear a towel on their heads. This blocks the sun, blocks the rain, and helps you wipe off sweat if needed during the abovementioned field days.
- Half-covered houses: In the rural areas you’ll see houses with upward slanting roofs that end at the back of the house. This practice saves work, money, wood, helps deflect rain and wind, and allegedly keeps the home’s temperature stable throughout the seasons, all great things if you ask me. Don’t ask me how though, I don’t do architecture.
- Girls don’t marry outsiders: Ever since the days of Chang’an (Xi’an’s old name) in the Tang Dynasty, Shaanxi girls don’t often marry outside the province, possibly due to a local pride at being from the capital. So if you’re in Shaanxi looking for a girlfriend, it’s suggested you try elsewhere, neighboring Sichuan is known for its beauties (in addition to peppers with anesthetic properties). This doesn’t seem to be true anymore though (if it ever was), as I’ve been told that even in ancient China people from the states of Qin and Jin (present day Shaanxi and neighboring Shanxi respectively) would often marry each other as a means of keeping relations well （秦晋之好）. Most commonly seen was Girls from Qin and men from Jin, so perhaps the custom was apocryphal from the start.
- Don’t sit, squat: Some of you might be familiar with the “Asian squat”, sitting on one’s heels rather than rear or knees. Shaanxi folk take this one step further, maintaining the posture even when a perfectly serviceable chair is available. When asked why they prefer this style, most old folks will answer “it’s more comfortable this way”. Go figure.
So what do we take from this? Shaanxi loves its food and its history; it’s a province of farmers with a long heritage that influences it even today. Come experience it for yourself if you can.