Silk Route: China, Peanuts and a Guy Named Hank


It’s arguable that China did to Europe what Europe did to America. They devastated the population with diseases that Europeans had little to no resistance for. The Plague. Like Europe 500 years later, China had elaborate government, weapons, and cultural institutions. America also had a level of cultural sophistication on par with the Chinese around the same time. So what happened? Europe was essentially in the right place at the right time. They benefited from the Silk Route trade and they retained some immunity to the diseases passed along through cultural exchange. But, most importantly, they were in place to take over  maritime trade when the Chinese Song Dynasty ended – thanks in large part to the Mongols. The Mongols were a lot of things, they were the exception to a lot of rules, but sailors were one thing they were not. The Mongols did what they did best, held the overland trade route. This encourage the Europeans to do what they did best, take to the sea.

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I would argue that the Song Dynasty was more important in creating world trading systems as we know them today than the Europeans were. This was the first Chinese population expolsion, when rice and tea became popular, when women began binding their feet – all the things that we typically associate with China (and a lot of things we erroueously think Europe came up with) essentially develped during this period.  The Song Dynasty (Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng Cháo; Wade-Giles: Sung Ch’ao; IPA: [sʊ̂ŋ tʂʰɑ̌ʊ̯]) was a ruling dynasty in China between 960 and 1279; it succeeded the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, and was followed by the Yuan Dynasty (Mongols). It was the first government in world history to nationally issue banknotes or true paper money, and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty also saw the first known use of gunpowder, as well as first discernment of true north using a compass. – from wikipedia

They also set up a civil service, a bureaucracy, had movable print, cook books, science and medicine, the technology to make my mother’s delicate tea set, sophisticated hydraulic engineering projects, and did pioneering work in forensic science in support of their legal codes. In short, they had everything that had made Europe so successful, just 500-1000 years before Europe did. And they also had restaurants and taverns, which is where many social revolutions start.

Song restaurant and tavern menus are recorded which list entrées for feasts, banquets, festivals, and carnivals. They reveal a diverse and lavish diet for those of the upper class. They could choose from a wide variety of meats and seafood, including shrimp, geese, duck, mussel, shellfish, fallow deer, hare, partridge, pheasant, francolin, quail, fox, badger, clam, crab, and many others. Dairy products were rare in Chinese cuisine at this time. Beef was rarely consumed since the bull was a valuable draft animal, and dog meat was absent from the diet of the wealthy, although the poor could choose to eat dog meat if necessary (yet it was not part of their regular diet). People also consumed dates, raisins, jujubes, pears, plums, apricots, pear juice, lychee-fruit juice, honey and ginger drinks, pawpaw juice, spices and seasonings of Sichuan, pepper, ginger, pimento, soy sauce, oil, sesame oil, salt, and vinegar.

For the lower classes, however, there were Sumptuary Laws which regulated what you could eat. Mostly it was pork, salted fish, and rice. Chinese New Year is coming up on Sunday. You might notice that this celebration involves a lot of food. It was one of the few times that the average person could really go all out and spiff up the regular fare. But Chinese New Year ins’t just a day, the celebration actually goes on for 15 days and involves different foods for each day that are believed to bring good luck and/or good Karma.

Ironically, one of the most interesting recipes I found came from a blog by a white guy named Hank who is all about hunting and cooking. (http://honest-food.net) Look people, I just have to say – MSG and Corn Starch are NOT traditional Chinese ingredients! They didn’t even have peanuts – those originally came to China from what is now Paraguay in the 17th century.

Sichuan Rabbit with Peanuts

sichuan-rabbit-with-peanuts

Figure on 1 cottontail rabbit per person if you are a hearty eater, but you can easily make one rabbit stretch for 2 people if you have a lot of rice. One domestic rabbit will easily feed 2-4 people. Most of the ingredients here are easily available in large supermarkets, and all are staples in Asian markets. There’s no real substitute for the black bean paste or the Sichuan peppercorns, unfortunately.

Serves 4.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

  • 2 cottontail rabbits or squirrels, or 1 domestic rabbit
  • A 2-3 inch piece of ginger, unpeeled and chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
  • 2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts
  • 4 scallions, sliced thin
  • 2 tablespoons black bean paste
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil or lard
  • 2 tablespoons chile bean paste
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil

OPTIONAL TOPPING

  • 2 tablespoons minced peanuts
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
  1. Simmer the rabbits. You can cut up your rabbits, or you can just chop them in half with a cleaver — you’re going to pull off the meat anyway. Cover them in water in a large pot and add the ginger, onion and 3 tablespoons of soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then drop the heat to low so you barely have any bubbles. Simmer like this until the meat wants to fall off the bone, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, or up to 2 hours for an old squirrel.
  2. While the rabbit is cooking, make the topping by toasting the sesame seeds, sichuan peppercorns and minced peanuts in a dry pan over medium-high heat until they are fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Move to a mortar and pestle and grind roughly. Set aside.
  3. When the rabbit is done, move it to a platter and allow to cool somewhat. Strip the meat off the bones and chop into cubes. Set aside in a large bowl.
  4. In a wok or a saute pan, heat the peanut oil over high heat. Add the black bean paste and the chile bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds to a minute. Turn off the heat and mix in the sugar, sesame oil and remaining soy sauce.
  5. Pour the sauce into the bowl with the rabbit and toss with the peanuts and the scallions. Serve at once over rice.
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