If you ask most Americans what grain Chinese people eat, I’m pretty sure they’d say rice.
But as it turns out, China is not a dietary monolith. Diets here can still be deeply regional and seasonal, owing in part to the fact that most agriculture here is still quite small. In the south and northeast, water is relatively plentiful, encouraging crops like rice, that do well in that landscape.
But in the drier central and western part of the country, rice doesn’t grow well at all. But wheat does.
Out in that part of the country, you wont’t find rice paddies. But you will find many tiny wheat, grass, barley and corn fields. In fact, China is the largest corn producer (see Why Corn—Not Rice—Is King in China) and scientists recently found traces of ancient beer made from barley.
We had the good luck to hire a driver whose older sister married a man in a tiny mountain village. Their fields—the ones given to them to cultivate by the government—stretch up a steep hillside. It’s too steep to harvest with a machine, and a bit too small to justify the expense, so the family harvests everything by hand.
After we finished in the fields, our driver’s sister invited us to stay for a while. Her mother-in-law, who couldn’t seem to stop smiling, ushered us into a very modern living room: Slick and clean white tiles, big windows, and a U-shaped sectional draped with fabrics skewing towards a red, gold and white color scheme.
I suspected we might get some tea out of the visit, but I underestimated our hosts.
A few minutes later, her teenage daughter slipped into the room and offered us wheat buns they had just baked: soft and dry inside, with a crisp exterior.
The white ones were plain wheat. The yellow ones—which I preferred—were made with rich, nutty rapeseed oil bartered from a neighbor. And both kinds were baked, rather than steamed.
We were pretty pleased with ourselves, and our hosts. So I was surprised when a second dish arrived: a plate of sliced, baked potatoes crisped up with rapeseed oil and flavored with hot pepper.
This, the grandmother told me, was her favorite thing to cook. She had been eating some variation of it for years—though not much of it during the famine that gripped the country from 1959 to 1961. She was a child then, she told me through a translator, and she and her family has survived on whatever they could, including stewed grass.
Children as young as her, she said, gesturing at her granddaughter—a seven-year old with a pink star barrette in her hair—died from starvation. Not my family, she said, but people I knew.
That’s not a reference point we have had in the U.S. for nearly a century.
McMillan is traveling through China on assignment for National Geographic and is sending us her observations on food and culture along the way.