Field Chickens and Bleached Buns

I had lunch with some clients today. One of my co-workers, a teacher for my company, was there with me. She’s a Dongbei-ren recently arrived in Shanghai, so she’s still not used to the south in many ways.

One of the dishes we ate was called tianji, which literally translates as something like “field chicken” (“field” in the sense of “rice paddy” here). I had forgotten what this dish really is, so I was kinda glad when she asked, “what kind of bird is it?” Our hosts laughed. In China, a “field chicken” is actually a frog! I ate it, though. It’s pretty good, it just has a lot of annoying little bones. And it does taste kind of like chicken.

Another dish we had with which my Dongbei-ren co-worker was unfamiliar was suji. Literally, I guess it could be translated as “vegetarian chicken.” It’s a kind of tofu. It doesn’t really taste (or feel) much like chicken.

The clients were surprised that the south had so many dishes with which a northerner would be unfamiliar. They asked her what dishes the north had that the south doesn’t. She listed a few, but then mentioned that one should be wary of the mantou in Liaoning province. She said a good mantou should be a bit yellowish. A mantou that is too white may have had laundry detergent added to make it look whiter and thus more attractive to the consumer!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. There are many Chinese foods that are characteristically northern. I remember when I was in the countryside of Hebei province 河北省where my father was born (I was born and grew up in Shanghai), the locals enjoyed a kind of homemade noodle made from bean. It was called He-lao. It was round and thick served with salty and spicy sauce.

    Beijing has many local foods. Traditionally Beijing cuisine is one of the major schools of Chinese cuisines when Shanghai cuisine is not (it’s more of a blend of flavors). The BBQ duck is world-famous. Many Beijing foods used to serve Royal family exclusively.

    But the best example is probably Jiao-zi 饺子(Chinese dumpling). You may call it a national food although it’s still quintessentially northern. In the south they are served merely as snack but in the north, especially in the countryside, they are treated more seriously. It’s a must during the Chinese New Year in many noethern households ̣̣̣to celebrate the Spring Festival and family reunion. In Japan it is know as Gyoza.

    .Those are all I have to say today though this is a topic for one or many books

  2. By the way mantou 馒头 is not a typical northern food at all. I remember when I was in Shanghai, it was sold on the street side every morning for breakfast (it’s like donut in North Americam … Crispy Cream!). Sometimes my mother would bring home some fresh and tasty mantous from her Danwei 单位. There were many varieties.

  3. Although on the surface, you can say that jiaozi (饺子) are called gyoza in Japan, the two are actually a little different. The Japanese gyoza are almost always fried (like Chinese 煎饺), but the Japanese version also has a distinctly different taste from the Chinese version.

    I like jiaozi, but I like gyoza way better.

  4. Da Xiangchang Says: June 22, 2004 at 11:55 am

    Now, is cooking a dog northern or southern Chinese cuisine? Personally, I see nothing wrong with eating dogs, but I do find it funny that some people in China are embarrassed by this. I remember talking to some Chinese, and they all emphatically said, “I DON’T EAT DOGS!” like if it’s wrong or something. Chinese people should all adopt the mentality of eating dogs like my late maternal grandma (God bless her gentle soul) who when asked answered, “Of course, dogs are very tasty!”

  5. LOL. Reminds me of the first time I ever had tianji, way, way, way back when I was a little seven year old tyke. I asked my mother what it was, and she told me, “froggy”. Western educated wuss that I was, I promptly attempted to throw up. 🙂 Didn’t work, and now, when I do munch on it, it does taste a little like chicken.

  6. “suji” is just mock duck. you can find it in every chinese restaurant in the states. It’s made from wheat gluten, not tofu actually.

    I think suya and suji are interchangeable terms for what we call mock duck, but I could be mistaken?

  7. JR,

    I’m certainly no authority on Chinese food. I was just repeating what Chinese people had told me.

    I just asked my ayi about it, and she says it’s a 豆制品 (bean product), similar to tofu. She knows how to make it, so I guess she knows what she’s talking about. But then, I guess it’s also entirely possible that it’s made differently in the USA than it is in China…

  8. Weird, suji and tianji are fixtures up here in Dalian restaurants so I’m not sure if the dongbei ren is from a small town or something!

    As for mantou, the best mantou come from Shangdong province! Since many dongbei people originated from Shandong province, mantou is eaten all over dongbei. There are more white ones than yellow ones too..the more I think about it the more I think this dongbei-ren in question sounds like a nongcun-ren!

  9. I’m a Dongbei-ren. I ate tianji when I was a kid. But then I remembered that people said frogs could kill pests and were good to plants, so for a long time they seldom appeared in cities. Maybe they never disappeared. Just I don’t know. Nowadays tianji seems popular again.

    About suji, we Donbei-ren do eat it. Just call it differently. Remember that the Dongbei-ren produce the best quality of soybean in the whole nation.

    Mantou is good, though I never ate a“real good”yellowish one. Maybe I should seek and try:-).

  10. as you probably know buns for hotdogs and hamburgers have chalk (CaCO3) added in the states

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