Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yan du xian: Shanghai's Spring Festival comfort food

[Click on picture for source document and more pictures]

One of the first things I learned about Shanghainese people was that they all seemed to love a soup they called something like "EEE-tuh-shuh." It was something they might crave at any time of year, but was particularly important as a harbinger of Spring. It always contained both salted pork and fresh pork, and Winter bamboo shoots. Some versions, like my wife's, also contain bai ye jie, or knotted strips of tofu "sheet," and sometimes greens and bean thread will be added. It was some time before I figured out that "EEE-tuh-shuh" was the Shanghainese pronunciation for yan du xian (腌笃鲜). Here's how yan du xian was described in the only article I've ever been able to find in English, from a 2003 edition of the Shanghai Star:

With the Spring Festival (the Chinese Lunar New Year) drawing near, "Yan Du Xian" is again in the limelight. It was said that this course was the most necessary one on the dinner table.

Before 1900, peasants living in the suburban areas of Shanghai made their living by starting small businesses such as charcuteries. They raised piglets and sold the meat to the shop and the left-overs were usually cured into bacon which was hung high in corridors.

When bamboo shoots came out in the following year's early spring, local families took the bacon down and added it to some fresh meat and pieces of bamboo shoot.

The ingredients were placed in a large cauldron and cooked over a slow fire for a whole afternoon until it turned into a pot of delicious soup.

The pickling process is called "Yan" in the Shanghai dialect, the simmering is called "Du" and the fresh meat and bamboo shoots are called "Xian", giving the soup its name.

The usual recipe for this soup is first to stir-fry some ginger and shallots, add water and high-grade Shaoxing wine, boil the mixture then adddiamond-shaped slices of bacon, meat and bamboo shoots. Simmer on a slow fire for not less than two hours

Many festival foods in China are symbolic because of their names, which may be homonyms for, or rhyme with, the names for desirable things or qualities; since the pronunciation of words varies considerably among dialects, the symbolic importance of many such foods are not always transferable among regions and can sometimes be mystifying. The primal symbolism of yan du xiang, on the other hand, is fairly obvious, with the cured meat representing the previous year's bounty, and the fresh meat and especially the fresh bamboo shoots representing the promise of the new year.

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