Most Westerners think that the Chinese people are rice-eaters, while this is true in the south of China, most northerners prefer food made of wheat flour, and mantou is the most popular form of such food. It is a form of bread with no filling insidet hat is cooked by steaming. Besides, there is another famous steamed food in China called Baozi, which is filled with meat, vegetarian or other stuffing.
Mantou, Chinese steamed bread
Traditionally, mantou and wheat noodles are the staple carbohydrates of the northern Chinese diet, analogous to the rice, which forms the mainstay of the southern Chinese diet. Mantou are also well known in the south, but are often served as street food or a restaurant dish, rather than a staple or home cooking.
They are made with milled wheat flour, water and leavening agents. In size and texture, they range from 4 cm, soft and fluffy in the most elegant restaurants, to over 15 cm, firm and dense for the working man's lunch.
It was first made, so the legend goes, by order of Zhuge Liang, a famous statesman and chief minister of the State of Shu during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD). On an expedition to conquer the cave-dwelling southern barbarians who had often attacked his state, he came to the bank of the Lushui River. The arm could not cross the river because of the harsh storms and raging waves. Someone told him that the river would become peaceful when the anger river god was appeased. And the only way was to offer the river god ‘Man Tou’ which means barbarians’ heads as human sacrifices. Zhuge Liang was a kind-hearted man, so he ordered his army to use 'tou' (means heads) made of flour and meat instead of real human ones, to sacrifice.
Wotou, Steamed Corn Bread
Wotou is also staple food in many northern regions of China. Made of corn flour, it is shaped into a cone hollow, rather like an inverted ‘wo’ (means bird's nest in Chinese), hence its name.
When China was invaded by the troops of the eight imperialist powers in 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi fled Beijing with Emperor Guangxu for Xi'an. On the way, Cixi was offered a piece of corn bread which, in her hunger, she ate with great relish. Back in Beijing amidst the luxuries of the palace, she told the imperial kitchen to make wotou for her which she had found so tasty. The chef dared not contradict her but used the best and most refined corn flour he could find and mixed in its chestnut butter, sugar and sweetened osmanthus flowers. With these ingredients he made dainty piece of wotou which he steamed under cover over a strong fire. The resultant wotou looked golden and tasted good. It became one of the delicacies on the imperial menu.