EACH place has its own special food. Loutang Town is famous in Jiading District for its folk food and dim sum plays an important part in Loutang’s culture. Famous dim sum and snacks in Loutang include chaoban cake, crab meat steamed bun, bean curd jelly, square cake, dingsheng cake, sweet fermented cake and haitang cake. Nowadays, many housewives in Loutang maintain the tradition of making these dim sum for festivals and to share with family and neighbors.
Sticky rice the preferred option for dim sum
Like most people in the jiangnan (region south of the Yangtze River) area, Loutang people prefer dim sum made of sticky rice. They eat sweet green rice balls at the Tomb Sweeping Festival, babaofan (八宝饭) rice for happy events, zongzi (粽子) rice dumpling when moving to a new house and give naughty children a sweet rice ball to calm them down. It’s a taste of family love and friendship.
Maqiu (麻球), or deep-fried glutinous rice sesame balls are a specialty of Loutang people. With different fillings such as pork, red dates and sweet bean paste, they’re very popular. In the 1980s, Loutang people treated a foreign delegation from the Europe with maqiu.
The freshly fried balls impressed the guests with their crisp wrapper and tender fillings. When biting on one, the mouth will be filled with the fragrance of the sesame on its outside. Foreigners were curious about how to make the balls. They asked how long it would take to put the sesame seeds one by one onto the rice balls, which led to raucous laugher from Loutang locals.
Babaofan is a food for joyful events. In Loutang, it is served at various ceremonies such as birthday parties, weddings or moving ceremony. It symbolizes fortune and happy life.
It is said that a general in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) once stayed overnight in a temple in Loutang after a tough battle. As he was extremely hungry, he searched around and found a rat eating food beside its nest. He dug out the nest and found rice, millet, red dates, lotus seed, lard, glazed fruit, red bean and brown sugar. He put all these eight ingredients together in a pot and cooked them with an incense burner.
He survived the battle and every year after that he cooked with these eight kinds of food in memory of that night. Later, the recipe was passed down and the locals named it babaofan.
Eating tangyuan (汤圆), or round rice dumplings, on the first day of the Lunar New Year is an important tradition, as it symbolizes family reunions. The round rice dumpling is also used to treat relatives and worship ancestors. Compared with traditional dumplings, Loutang’s round rice dumplings are bigger than normal with more filling. They taste agreeably sweet and refreshing.
Cimaotuan (糍毛团), or sweet rice balls, are popular in Loutang. They are based on the round rice dumpling, as housewives put some dried rice on the surface of the dumpling so that children can eat it with their hands without them getting sticky. It’s also a convenient food for farmers to take with when working in the fields, just like people in the West might take sandwiches to the office.
Simple ingredients help in difficult times
Loutang people have always been able to create delicious food using simple ingredients to get them through difficult times. Dim sum such as guotuotuo (锅砣砣) and maijianggang (麦酱缸) are hard to find nowadays, but they linger in people’s memories.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Loutang people suffered from a lack of food.
At that time, farmers often spent the whole day in the fields and didn’t have much time to make breakfast. Guotuotuo became the most convenient dim sum for them.
The farmers mixed flour with water, sugar, salt and baking powder, and then poured the flour into a hot pot and stewed it for about a minute. Cooked guotuotuo is mostly white, but golden on the bottom. It tastes soft, crisp, sweet and salty.
Maijianggang is also created with flour when vegetables are in short supply. They are shaped like a small wine cup with some sauce inside. The sauce, which is made of fermented flour, is usually used to make pickled cucumber. Different families makes maijianggang with different sauce, representing their different tastes, some a bit sweet, others a bit salty. It’s also a treat for guests in rural families.
Tabing a favorite for hundreds of years
Children in Loutang learn to make tabing (塌饼), a kind of pancake, when they are very young. There are many kinds of tabing in the town. Sweet tabing is for a son-in-law while fermented tabing is for mothers during the Cold Food Festival. Other kinds such as spiced salt tabing and caotou tabing stuffed with toothed burclover are also very popular.
Most tabing are usually not available at the market. It’s made by local families, and each kind of tabing has its own story.
Spiced salt tabing is one of the most famous kinds in Loutang and its history goes back hundreds of years. It’s made of cake flour and white sugar, seasoned with pepper and salt. With a golden yellow color and crisp and sweet taste, it is widely welcomed by the people across Loutang.
Tabing became popular among housewives in Loutang in the planned economy period because it used less oil. They made tabing with little sugar in a simple way for their children to tide over those hard days.
The story of sweet tabing happened in the 1960s. A woman treated her future son-in-law from the center of Shanghai to some small sweet tabing, which was stuffed with melted sugar inside. The young man was too shy to eat in the presence of his future bride’s family, so the woman asked him to take the tabing back home. But when he was on his way home, he couldn’t help taking out a tabing and having a bite. However, the sweet sauce in the cake spilled out and messed his clothes, much to the amusement of others.
So, if you have a chance to taste the sweet tabing, do remember to hold the cake upright and take a small bite, then suck the sweet juice out very slowly and carefully.
Loutang’s steamed cakes are always a treat
Steamed cake is a favorite with Loutang people and they make a special variety, dingsheng cake (定胜糕), to celebrate festivals.
In Chinese, dingsheng means victory and the cake is a popular gift given to friends to celebrate happy events such as births and birthdays.
It is said that in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Taiping Army occupied Loutang’s Taiping Village and opened its granary to support local poor people. Resident Wang Lao’er ran a pastry shop, but before the Taiping Army arrived, his food was often robbed by bandits. However, with the Taiping Army’s cereal, his shop survived.
The Taiping Army stayed just a few days in Loutang to prepare for an assault on Changshu City in the neighboring Jiangsu Province. To show their gratitude, Wang and his wife cooked a lot of steamed cakes and presented them to the Taiping Army soldiers. To wish them to get the victory, Wang named the cake dingsheng.
After eating Wang’s cakes, the Taiping Army captured Changshu in just one night, and Wang’s dingsheng cake became famous.
Another famous cake in Loutang Town is haitang cake (海棠糕), or crabapple flower cake. It, too, originated in the Qing Dynasty and is shaped like Chinese crabapple.
Instead of being steamed, haitang cake is a baked one with its wrapper made of rice powder and filled with red bean paste. It is a purplish red color, sweet and soft, and the newly baked cake is coffee colored with malt sugar on it
Snacks with soup to bring good health
Loutang people always eat dim sum with soup as they believe it will bring them good health. It could be a small rice ball in sweet rice wine, wonton or dough balls.
Eating small rice balls has been a tradition in Loutang for more than a century.
The glutinous rice flour must be mixed with hot water, and rubbed thoroughly into small round balls. Local people like to eat them during the festivals. In winter the rice balls are cooked with sweet rice wine, which is called jiuniang yuanzi (酒酿园子). It’s one of the most popular dim sum on Chinese dinner tables.
Wonton, another dim sum with soup, has a very different meaning in Loutang. It symbolizes engagement in local families. If the banquet involves most of the relatives, it’s called “big wonton.” If the dinner is only for close relatives and friends, it’s called “small wonton.” Wonton is also served as dim sum to guests between meals to prevent them from getting hungry.
Dough balls are called miangeda (面疙瘩) and mianxia (面虾) in Loutang Town. It’s said that a long time ago there was a woman in Zhangjia Village in Loutang who was mixing flour, when her child poured too much water in it. The flour became too watery and could not be made into noodles, so she boiled a pot of water and placed the dough bit by bit it in the hot water.
To her surprise, the boiled dough balls were even more delicious than common noodles. Ever since that day, dough balls have been a popular dish enjoyed by local residents.