Wednesday July 28, 2010
Honouring a hero
OF late, there have been several articles in The Star about the Fuzhou people in Malaysia, particularly in places like Sibu and Sitiawan. And, of course, being typically Malaysian, the stories have focused on the community’s food.
Interestingly, aside from well-known Fuzhou staples like fish balls filled with minced meat sauce and fotiaoqiang (Buddha Jumps Over The Wall), much interest is directed at that perennial favourite – the humble guangbing.
These palm-sized baked wheat flour biscuits have a crusty top, sometimes sprinkled with sesame seeds that enhance their mouth-watering fragrance when hot out of the oven. The originals had a hole in the centre though most contemporary ones only pay tribute to this special characteristic with an indentation. Sometimes, the depression is entirely done away with and replaced by a convex top.
Though guangbing are closely associated with Fuzhou people, I must say I have never had the pleasure of tasting one in Fuzhou city itself. Instead, it was in Fuqing, a city within Fuzhou municipality, that I encountered the guangbing. The very first time I went there, I was told I must sample it, especially since my ancestral village is in Fuqing. No visit to the county apparently, would be complete without sinking one’s teeth into one of these small, simple biscuits.
Being winter, that first guangbing came stuffed with thin slices of red braised pork consisting of what must have been 80% fat. It looked like a Chinese version of the hamburger and was warm but hard; frankly, it didn’t make much of an impression.
As I got to know the city better, I discovered that guangbing are everywhere in Fuqing. In the small park outside the hotel, on street corners, in narrow lanes, women sell them out of large baskets carried around on traditional shoulder poles or bicycles.
You can have the biscuits plain, or with that fatty, red braised pork sandwiched between two halves; or best of all, filled with shredded seaweed and bits of pork. Costing only 1 or 2 yuan (50 sen or RM1) each, they are scrumptious when hot and fresh.
So good are Fuqing’s guangbing that when two French friends accompanied me there a couple of months ago, they became quite enamoured of the biscuits which they said, tasted similar to a particular French bread.
Like many specialty foods in China, guangbing are loaded with meaning and symbolism. The biscuit is, in fact, named after a 16th century hero who is credited with near-superhuman acts of valour, riding up and down the length of the country’s eastern seaboard to fight the marauding wokou (Japanese pirates) who, with local collaborators, inflicted unbearable suffering on the coastal inhabitants.
Born in Shandong province to a family with a proud tradition of military service, General Qi Jiguang (hence guangbing) served the Ming dynasty in the capacity of martial official. The story goes that he was so gifted he inherited his father’s command of a garrison at the age of 17 and passed the imperial martial exams at 22.
In the mid-1500s, wokou raids into coastal Zhejiang and Fujian intensified in frequency and brutality. Some say this was because the larger-than-life Qi Jiguang did such a good job of fortifying Shandong against their attacks that they had to shift their focus south.
Whatever the reason, he was sent to Zhejiang where, in addition to regular soldiers, he trained several thousand “special forces” who specialised in countering the Japanese.
In 1562, General Qi led his army into Fujian where some 10,000 pirates were ensconced on the coast. Together with local militia under another brilliant general (Yu), he achieved decisive victories against the wokou.
The Xinghua Bay area was the scene of some particularly fierce pirate attacks, including one that devastated Putian on the eve of the spring festival (lunar new year).
But just a few years later, by the end of Ming Emperor Jiajing’s reign in 1566, the Japanese wokou were eliminated from not only Fujian but also Zhejiang and Guangdong, and General Qi was re-assigned north to defend the Great Wall against the Mongols. The martial genius wrote a military treatise before he died in 1588.
Friends in Fuqing say General Qi asked the local people to bake wheat flour biscuits that would last the several days it took to trek to the shore for his clashes with the Japanese.
The biscuits were perforated with a hole in the middle, strung together and hung around the soldiers’ chest or neck. They enabled the troops to advance speedily without wasting time on food preparation and without giving away their positions with smoke from cooking fires. They sustained the forces that saved Fujian and in gratitude, the people named them guangbing in honour of Qi Jiguang.
Four hundred and fifty years later, thousands of guangbing are still produced daily in Fuqing, each serving as a reminder of the hero who rode in on the brink of destruction and brought hope again to the people of Fujian.
Ziying can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.