“Wokipedia” is a regular magazine column in which we introduce aspects of Chinese gastronomy, one letter at a time. This month, 'Y' gets the treatment ...

Certainly one of Beijing’s most popular dishes in its roasted form, kao ya (烤鸭). Beijing duck is almost as common on Chinese menus as its poultry cousin, chicken. One enduring mystery of Beijing cuisine is: why duck for Beijing rather than something more common, like pork? In his book Perfumed Palace, author Michael Aldrich explains that at the time Beijing fell to the Manchurian troops that helped establish the Qing Dynasty, roast pork with crispy skin was one of the most popular dishes in the capital. However, many of Qing’s generals were Muslims, who enforced Islamic dietary practices upon their troops, depriving them of the porcine treat. The solution? Ducks were substituted, and a legend was born. The popular ya bozi (鸭脖子), or duck necks, are spicy and an acquired taste for most non-Chinese consumers.

A ya is a sprout or shoot of any kind. They are used liberally in Chinese cooking, including dou ya (豆芽), the bean sprouts that provide crunch to numerous vegetarian dishes.

Pronounced more like “yo,” it is the lifeblood of Chinese cooking as the medium that lubricates the stir-frying process. The primary cooking oil used in China is peanut oil although some people prefer canola oil. There are also some you that Westerners would not consider oil, such as jiang you (酱油) or soy sauce. Other oils are used for seasoning but not food preparation, including xiang you (香油), or sesame oil (literally “fragrant oil”).

Fish are a much more common menu item in China than many other parts of the world due, in part, to widespread and successful aquaculture programs. Have you seen the size of the average fish that flops onto a Chinese dinner table? They only grow to be that uniformly big when they are bred and fed. Fish in your average restaurant are raised in freshwater, and are not considered hai xian (海鲜), as seafood is known. Most commonly eaten are large members of the carp family. They are usually steamed with a little spring onion or braised with soy sauce. Foreign palates may find these freshwater fish taste a little like mud.

To learn more about Chinese food via our previous Wokipedia entries, click here.

Photo: beijingholiday.com

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