Why does northern China eat so many buns?

Apr 02, 2020

The region’s harsh winters have created some of the world’s best comfort food.

Northern Chinese cuisine is comfort food at its finest—salty, greasy, and hearty. Think fluffy wheat buns stuffed with ground pork and handmade noodles drenched with thick bean sauce.

It’s also big on offal—liver, lung, and intestines, mixed in salty stews of soy sauce and vinegar.

But how did this region develop such a hefty palate? Northern China’s food has been shaped by its harsh winters, where the temperature can drop as low as negative 40 degrees Celsius. (If you’re wondering how much that is in Fahrenheit, it’s exactly the same.)

A cold climate means heavy carbs are a recurring theme.

Hearty pork buns are a popular dish in northern China.
Hearty pork buns are a popular dish in northern China. / Photo: Nicholas Ko

And because rainfall in the north is more sparse compared to other parts of the country, wheat is the dominant carb of choice.

Compared to rice—the other staple crop in China—wheat uses up to 8% less water, making it easier to grow in the dry north.

That means most of the food is made with wheat flour. One breakfast staple is called a shaobing youtiao 烧饼油条, essentially a deep-fried wheat cruller wrapped in baked flatbread—a bread sandwich if you will.

(Read more: Chinese people didn’t always know how to process wheat. Here’s how they learned.)

Other common dishes are buns, dumplings, and noodles. The buns here are usually leavened with yeast and stuffed with pork or lamb meat along with green onions.

A shaobing youtiao, essentially fried dough on bread.
A shaobing youtiao, essentially fried dough on bread. / Photo: Shutterstock

Dumplings in the north are generally heartier than their southern counterparts. They have thicker wraps and come with more filling.

In coastal Shandong Province, fish dumplings are the main culinary attraction, while more inland in Shenyang, beef dumplings are king. In Tianjin, the stuffing of choice is pork.

For noodles, there’s zhajiangmian 炸酱面, a dish made with a sweet and salty black bean sauce, ground meat, sliced cucumbers, carrots, and bean sprouts.

(Read more: The Chinese origins of five popular Korean dishes)

And then there’s also fresh handmade noodles, which can be served in beef or lamb noodle soup.

The cold winters also mean that preservation is priority, and most vegetables are fermented. Napa cabbage is the plant of choice, usually lathered in salt and pressed for weeks to make Chinese pickles, or suancai 酸菜.

Meat is a predominant theme in northern Chinese cuisine, not least because the region is home to large swaths of grassland filled with grazing cows and sheep.

All the parts of the animal are used. In Beijing, offal stew is a source of comfort for many. It’s a liver and pig intestine stew, thickened with cornstarch and garnished with garlic.

Compared to other regional cuisines, northern Chinese food isn’t considered especially refined. Portions are large and carby, and dishes are very liberal on oil and salt, but it attests to the resilience of people here and their ability to overcome harsh conditions with a good meal.

Eat ChinaExplainerChinese buns


Host and Producer: Clarissa Wei

Animator and Editor: Ray Ngan

Videographer: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Victor Peña