Smelly Tofu (臭豆腐) One summer during the Qing Dynasty, a tofu miller in Beijing tried to prepare money for his son's wedding by making a lot of tofu. Unfortunately, they did not sell well and would have rotted had he not put salt on them in hopes of preserving them longer. To reduce the smell, he added prickly ash and pepper. After a few days, the strange smell surprised everybody, and so did the taste. The miller's neighbors were also attracted by this strange food, and smelly tofu eventually became known around the country, famous for its strong odor.
Rinse Mutton (涮羊肉) More than 700 years ago, Kublai Khan led his army on an expedition. After several exhausting battles, he got very hungry and suddenly missed a dish from his hometown—stewed mutton—and ordered his cooks to make it. But as they were cutting the mutton, a scout rushed in and told the emperor that the enemy was coming closer. There was no time for stewed mutton, but the crafty cooks suddenly had an idea: By cutting the mutton into very thin slices, and rinsing them in boiling water the cooks were able to prepare the dish very quickly. They were served with salt, ginger powder, and spring onion. Khan ate them and went to battlefield. After the success, this dish was served again with better mutton and more complicated condiments, like sesame sauce, preserved tofu, spice, and scallion. Kublai Khan was pleased and named it "rinse mutton," and it became a popular dish later.
Beggar's Chicken (叫花子鸡) Once there was a beggar who roamed to Hangzhou. On New Year's Eve, watching rich people preparing fancy feasts, he felt the sting of injustice as the cold and hunger set in. With the idea of preparing his own meal in mind, he stole a small chicken and then crossed a river. Once on the other side, however, he realized he had no way to pluck it; besides, there was no container to cook it in. He looked down at his muddy legs and had an idea: Why not wrap the chicken with mud and bake it with fire? The beggar used grass to start a fire and baked the mud-encased chicken until it became hard as rock. Then he threw it on the ground. The mud shattered and came off easily along with the feathers, and the chicken was ready with the fresh smell from the grass. He was happy and ate the whole delicious chicken. Later, he used money he begged to buy chickens, cooked them the same way, and sold them as "beggar's chicken."
New Year Cake (年糕) In the turbulent Spring and Autumn Period, there was a state called Wu (吴), whose capital was Suzhou. After building a solid rampart for defense, the people of the state thought they would be safe ever after, especially the emperor, who enjoyed feasts all day long. Only a minister named Wu Zixu (伍子胥) foresaw a potential problem: other states might besiege Wu, entrapping the people within their own walls. "If this ever happens," he told his servant, "Search under the ground next to Xiangmen." Not long after, the emperor, believing the slander told to him by an enemy of the minister, sentenced Wu Zixu to death. Later, the State of Yue (越) besieged Wu, and just as the now-deceased minister had feared, people inside the city were cut off from all food. But the faithful servant remembered Wu Zixu's words and roused the citizens to search Xiangmen with him. Buried deep in the ground were bricks made of glutinous rice flour! The people were saved—and since then, during the New Year, people have made brick-shaped cakes from glutinous rice flour to show their respect to Wu Zixu. Eventually, the cakes came to be referred to as "new year cake."
Youtiao (fried-dough stick; 油条) This golden-brown, deep-fried twisted dough stick is usually enjoyed with some soy milk for breakfast. The snack represents a traitorous couple in Chinese history: the Song Dynasty official Qin Kuai (秦桧) and his wife. In collaboration with enemies, they conspired to frame the great general Yue Fei (岳飞), causing the latter's death. Thus youtiao is made by twisting two sticks of dough together, symbolizing the couple, and then deep frying them. Originally called "you zha kuai" (oil-fried kuai) or "you zha gui" (oil-fried devil) name was subsequently shortened and changed to "you tiao", because of the shape.
"Cross-the-bridge" noodles (过桥米线) Yunnan's famous rice noodles are attached to a legend that takes place thousands of years ago. At that time there was an imperial scholar who was scheduled to take an important exam in Beijing. In order to prepare for the exam away from the everyday distractions where he lived, he secluded himself in a remote hut. His wife carried meals to her husband every day, but by the time she had crossed the bridge to his side of the river, the meals would already be cold. She felt sorry and helpless, watching him eat cold food. One day, she stewed chicken soup for her husband. When she arrived at the hut, she was surprised to find that the soup was still steaming hot. All of a sudden, she realized that it was the chicken fat floating on the surface of the soup that kept the soup warm. From then on, she steamed rice noodles, vegetables, and other meats in the soup, knowing they would stay warm under the layer of oil. Her husband passed the exam, and the rice noodles were dubbed "Cross-the-bridge" rice noodles.
This article by Hui Hua and Yang Shiyun was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 8 ("eat+drink").