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March 3, 2021

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Great Wall snack, a taste of history, fortune

Zhao Cuiyun smears a palm-sized leaf with corn paste, stuffs it with smashed meat and folds it into the shape of a dumpling. After some 20 minutes of steaming, the oakleaf cakes will be ready for packaging and sale.

Zhao is from the rural area of Qinhuangdao in north China’s Hebei Province known for the Shanhai Pass, the eastern terminal of the Great Wall, and works at an oakleaf cake workshop. Oakleaf cakes are a specialty that has demonstrated the peculiar Great Wall culture and become a cash cow for local residents.

“With the workshop at my doorstep, I can bring home 2,000 yuan (US$308) a month, while being able to take care of my family and the farmland at the same time,” said Zhao, 64.

According to locals, having oakleaf cakes is a tradition passed down by their ancestors from Yiwu, east China’s Zhejiang Province.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), soldiers recruited mainly in Yiwu and led by Qi Jiguang, a renowned military general, were stationed along the Great Wall to resist the enemy from the north.

Ji Yang, a professor with the Northeastern University in Qinhuangdao, said the oakleaf cakes created by the Yiwu soldiers are actually a combined version of the northern specialty of the dumpling and zongzi, stuffed rice balls wrapped with reeds popular in the south, representing a cultural blending of north and south China.

“The soldiers missed their home specialty of zongzi, and, with no reeds or rice grown nearby, invented the cakes using local oak tree leaves, forming a peculiar phenomenon while defending along the Great Wall,” Ji said.

According to the local government, Yiwu descendants now can be found in nearly 160 villages near the 223-kilometer section of the Great Wall in Qinhuangdao built in the Ming Dynasty, including the one where Yang Guiyun lives. Yang is chairwoman of the Mulan Food workshop where Zhao works.

After several failed attempts in starting her business, Yang decided to sell oakleaf cakes in 2005. Her products have gradually been sold in retail outlets such as local hotel restaurants to clients of neighboring cities and provinces, including Beijing, Tianjin and Liaoning.

In 2019, the sales revenue of her workshop reached 21 million yuan, with more specialty categories being produced and sold, such as smashed bean buns and steamed bread made from minor cereals. The workshop has provided more than 30 jobs and mobilized some 200 households to grow oak trees and other related plants, adding 1,500 to 2,000 yuan on average to their annual income per household.

Oakleaf cakes have also become a must-have choice for tourists dining in local rural-style restaurants.

Yang, 49, plans to further expand the sales channels of the cakes, utilizing the booming online livestreaming.

“I hope the cakes can be sold to Yiwu, making the specialty a new bond with the young generations and those in Yiwu,” she said.


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