Whenever I make something Chinese that has wheat in it, several readers are always surprised. After all, Americans eat corn, Europeans eat wheat and Asians eat rice. That’s pretty much the long and the short of it, no? But of course that’s’ a vast oversimplification of the, er…realities on the ground. It’s true that corn is native to the Americas, wheat to Europe (or at least the near East) and rice to China, but none of them are or ever have been the be-all and end-all grains in the regions where they were first cultivated.
New World natives consumed not only corn, but the seeds of range of other grasses including quinoa, amaranth, little barley, wild rice and sumpweed. Likewise Europeans has access to a variety of wheat strains (spelt, emmer, eikorn) as well as barley, oats, rye and buckwheat. Asian peoples, in addition to rice, cultivated millet, buckwheat, sorghum and others. And all that was before these peoples began mingling and trading with one another.
Wheat arrived in China in roughly 2,500 B.C., and was a common crop by 2,000 B.C.. True, rice has been cultivated in China since around 10,000 B.C., but after four thousand years it’s definitely not a novelty anymore. The Chinese grow wheat in 29 of their 30 provinces and are today the world’s number one producer, with some 120 million tons in annual output (the Russians are second, the USA is third).
So why are we in the West always surprised when we come across a Chinese recipe that calls for wheat? It’s probably because, while the Chinese are enthusiastic wheat eaters, they have not historically been prolific bread makers. And for us Westerners, wheat and bread are synonyms. Most Chinese wheat is used to make noodles, and after that steamed breads like boazi. There’s little that resembles the crusty “dry heat” breads that we Westerners associate with wheat, which is why we go right on thinking that the Chinese eat nothing but rice.