The food in Gansu has changed little from the province’s ancient status as the gateway to the Silk Road. As the province is landlocked, with desert, mountain, and plains areas, the food has always been hearty and filling.
Beef, mutton and wheat were the staples of Gansu food in ancient China. Vegetables and mushrooms added additional flavors and nutrients to the dishes. A variety of tart, salty, and spicy flavors brought the food of ancient Gansu province to life.
Special delicacies were prepared from camel, which roamed the desert regions of Gansu. These dishes are still prepared in Gansu in modern times.
Typical meat cooking methods used in ancient times were roasting, braising, and steaming. These methods tenderized the meat and developed intense flavors.
Ancient Gansu was famous for its pulled or stretched wheat noodles.
Ancient Gansu dishes include Carved Melons, Camel Hump, Camel Hoof, La Main (pulled wheat noodles), and Niang Pi Zi (flour paste strips).
Lanzhou chefs have carved melons for centuries as decorations and as bowls to hold fruit. The typical melon used for carving is the bailan melon, which is a type of honeydew melon. The bailan melon has a medium green colored smooth rind. The darker rind contrasts nicely with the whiter flesh of the melon. After removing the inner pulp, the chef carves outside melon rind into flowers, animals, and other shapes. The removed inner pulp and other fruits are placed inside of the carved rind. These carved melons display the chef’s creativity and artistry and as well, provide customers and guests beautiful art that enhances the enjoyment of the food.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the ancient Chinese were making tasty dishes of camel hump.
Camels can live as long as 50 years. If you have a camel ranch and are breeding and raising them for meat, you have a lot of camel meat. However, for the ancient Chinese, camel meat was a delicacy and a rare treat.
Camels were used as transportation on the ancient Silk Road trade routes as early as the 2nd century BCE. When a camel would die on the journey or in times of a food crisis, the camel became food for the travelers and villagers.
The camel’s hump was prized for its fat content. Young camel humps are tender and fatty while an older camel’s hump can be tough and dry. Depending on the age of the camel, different cooking methods were employed. Such methods included cutting the hump into strips and frying or stewing for long periods with vegetables and spices.
The gelatinous camel’s hoof was another prized dish of the Ancient Chinese of Gansu province.
Slowly boiled for hours in water, the meat and tendons on the camel hoof become tender and then can easily be removed from the bones. The Ancient Chinese further developed the flavor of this dish by steaming the tendon with vegetables and egg white.
La Main (Pulled Wheat Noodles)
Ancient Gansu province was famous for its la main or pulled wheat noodles. The noodles are stretchy or elastic and can be made wide or quite thin. They are a true local delicacy!
The Ancient Chinese developed a method changing the average wheat noodle into a sublime taste treat. It’s quite different from European noodles where the average European noodle is made with flour and water. These two ingredients make a noodle, which most often is cooked al dente – soft but firm. To make a European noodle, the dough is kneaded, rested, rolled, and cut into strips of various sizes.
The method developed by the Ancient Chinese adds ash from burned mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). The ash or peng hui acts as a softening or tenderizing agent and keeps the wheat flour from developing gluten. The resulting softer dough creates a springy texture to the cooked noodle.
To make the noodles, the noodle maker holds the dough and allows it to fall forward to the floor while it is turned and twisted. Once enough turns and twists have been made, the noodle maker takes the dough in both hands and pulls it as many times as needed to create wide or thin noodles.
Niang Pi Zi (Flour Paste Strips)
Another great dish found in Gansu Province cuisine is Niang Pi Zi (Flour Paste Strips). Similar to crêpes, but without the eggs, Niang Pi Zi is made by mixing wheat flour with water. The resulting paste is spread onto a flat iron skillet and cooked for a few minutes. Once done, the thin cake is cut into strips. It is served with dipping sauces such as, mustard, sesame, vinegar, soy sauce and chili.