The 500-Year-Old Chinese “Bagel” That Helped Win a War

As a gen­er­al rule, you can gain a decent under­stand­ing of any part of the world by eat­ing its region­al spe­cial­ties. This holds espe­cial­ly true in a coun­try like Chi­na, with its great size and deep his­to­ry. Trav­el to the south­east­ern province of Fujian, for instance, and you’ve got to try guang bing or “shiny bis­cuit,” the Chi­nese equiv­a­lent of the bagel. “With flour, dietary alka­li and salt, the cake, no big­ger than a palm, can be sim­ply cooked, and sells for about 1 yuan ($0.14) on the streets,” says Chi­na Dai­ly. “Locals love it, not only because of the crispy and salty taste, but also because of a leg­endary sto­ry.”

The dis­tinc­tive dish­es of bor­der or coastal areas always seem to have par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigu­ing his­to­ries, and so it is with the one behind Fujian’s guang bing. “Dur­ing the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Gen­er­al Qi Jiguang brought an army to fight Japan­ese invaders in Fujian. Because of con­tin­u­ous rain, they could not cook for the sol­diers, so Qi cre­at­ed a kind of cake with a small hole in the mid­dle. Sol­diers could string the cakes togeth­er and car­ry them while fight­ing the ene­my.”

The result looks — and pre­sum­ably tastes — like a neck­lace of bagels, the prepa­ra­tion of which could be accom­plished in under­ground ovens that did­n’t give away the sol­diers’ posi­tion as clear­ly as open camp­fires would.

You can learn more about this bagel-pow­ered vic­to­ry of five cen­turies ago from the Great Big Sto­ry video at the top of the post, and more about the con­tin­ued prepa­ra­tion and sale of guang bing by a few ded­i­cat­ed bak­ers in the Atlas Obscu­ra video just above. Though plen­ty of Fujianese take them straight, “some like to add pork, or dried shrimp and Chi­nese chives in it; some fry it with chit­ter­lings, duck­’s giz­zard or green been; and some break it into pieces and boil it with soup.” Writ­ten records of the bagel as West­ern­ers know it date back to ear­ly sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Poland, with appar­ent pre­de­ces­sors seen in that coun­try as ear­ly as the late four­teenth cen­tu­ry. It may nat­u­ral­ly occur to an Amer­i­can trav­el­er in Chi­na to unite these two long but dis­tant culi­nary tra­di­tions, in which case he’d do well to pack his own with lox and cream cheese.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Dumplings: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

When Ital­ian Futur­ists Declared War on Pas­ta (1930)

Bob Dylan Pota­to Chips, Any­one?: What They’re Snack­ing on in Chi­na

Phi­los­o­phy Explained with Donuts

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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