In traditional Chinese folklore it is said that upon returning from a successful battle with the barbarians of the south, legendary Shu chancellor and strategist Zhuge Liang invented mantou, China’s most popular bread today. To return to their homeland, Zhuge and his army had to cross the Lu River, but found it impossible to do so thanks to its never-ending waves and powerful current. When the locals informed him that the only way the river would cease to be so treacherous was by offering a sacrifice of human heads to the River God, the kind hearted leader refused. But being the clever man that he was, he formulated another plan: instead of offering human flesh to the river, Zhuge and his men wrapped beef and lamb inside flour dough, crafted them into head shapes and steamed them. When they threw these makeshift ‘heads’ into the water, the River God was fooled, the river was calmed, and Zhuge and his men crossed without incident on their way home.
Whether or not this really happened, it’s a great tale to demonstrate the prestigious place bread occupies in China’s culinary tradition. The word mantou is actually a homophone of the word mántóu, which literally translates to “barbarian’s head”.
In the West, bread is a staple part of many diets but, ask most westerners what the staple foods of China are and they will almost certainly reply “rice and noodles”, entirely unaware that in parts of Northern China it is bread that anchors the diet, and that it has a long and rich history in the middle kingdom.
The bread enjoyed by many in China is rather different to that which expats are used to back home. Though bakery chains like Christine’s and 85 Café, often exported from Hong Kong or Taiwan, are increasingly ubiquitous, (especially in ex-European holding points like Shanghai), traditional Chinese bread is prepared in very different ways. Even the baked goods on offer in China are very different thanks to a lingering sweetness, as any slightly homesick expat will attest.
The most typical variety of Chinese bread is based on Zhuge Liang’s creation; mantou, a small, soft bun that is steamed rather than baked. Thanks to its method of preparation, steamed bread’s texture is a little thicker and stodgier than much of the West’s baked loaves. It also carries a little sweetness thanks to the addition of sugar, particularly in China’s southern provinces. This makes it easy to eat by itself as a basic light breakfast, but expats may often prefer it as baozi, (stuffed with meat or vegetables), or barbequed over coals with a little oil and spices. Similar bread with a twist is widely available in northern China which is known as wotou, similar to mantou but effectively a type of steamed corn bread.
Of course, China loves food too much to settle for just one sort of bread, and the ubiquity of mantou is rivaled by something the Chinese call bing. This is a Chinese term for flattened, circular breads made with wheat-flour that can take many forms and are cooked in a variety of ways, (though once again, they are rarely baked). Bing is often delicious, but it is also frequently the less healthy option; cong you bing, (or scallion pancakes), are made up of dough and minced scallions, then pressed and fried in a generous helping of oil, while jian bing is effectively an egg crepe, fried on a griddle and wrapped around a deep fried cracker with some sweet bean sauce.
cong you bing
Those who like their street food breakfasts a little sweeter will sometimes snack on a combination of jian bing and another type of Chinese bread; youtiao, which can serve as an alternative filling. Another less-than-healthy option, youtiao is a deep-fried strip of slightly sweetened dough, which is frequently dipped in warm soy milk or soup. All of these varieties are most often a casual food served by vendors at the side of the street, and delicious as they are, they may not appeal to the more discerning and health conscious of Shanghai’s residents. They are, however, pretty essential to understanding how dough and ‘bread’ can work in China.
Although we think of China as a nation of rice and noodles, bread plays a key role in many of the nation’s regional cuisines and is crucial for those who really want to dive in to the Chinese eating experience. They might not always hit the spot the same way a crusty, freshly baked rustic loaf will, but the rich variety, long history and Chinese knack for seasonings mean that, perhaps surprisingly, China’s bread really can stand up to its foreign cousins.
Bread can be a great contributor to a healthy diet (provided it isn’t deep fried or filled with fatty meat). Mantou has similar nutritional values to baked white bread, which generally contains around 66 calories per slice, (about 33% of your recommended daily intake), very little fat, and small but helpful doses of protein, calcium and iron, (about 5% of your recommended daily intake).
For those of you wanting to balance Chinese mantou, youtiao or bing with something more familiar, FIELDS also offers a range of French Baguettes, German Rye Breads, Bagels and Buns.