Old Beijing’s palatial snack
Who would have imagined that neatly arranged copper doornails symbolizing a house’s dignity and status, and painted on ancient Chinese gates in red lacquer, would be linked to a delicious and tasty snack? Doornail (“Mending” ) meat pies have an appealing history.
It is said that this kind of doornail originates from wooden pegs with pointed tips invented by an ancient Chinese philosopher. Initially nailed to a city’s gates, the pegs were designed to hold a layer of fire-dampening mud that was effective in deterring an enemy army. Even in peacetime, these doornails strengthened the gates. Eventually, people fashioned the nails from metals. Legend has it that sharp copper nails could even frighten demons and subdue evil spirits.
Gradually, status and decoration replaced the studs’ defensive roles. In the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), palaces and temples employed “nine-row doornails;” nine rows and nine columns, 81 doornails on the gates. The rank of the buildings’ inhabitants sometimes called for 108 doornails, symbolizing the 108 Stars of Destiny or 36 Heavenly Spirits and 72 Earthly Fiends. Lower ranking buildings were embellished with “eight-row or seven-row doornails.” Materials varied from gold or copper to iron.
The invention of doornail meat pie took place in a Qing imperial kitchen. The chefs, at a loss one day for a quick snack, wrapped beef and green Chinese onions into a flour dough, and baked the dough into golden, round, bulging pies. To their delighted surprise, this simple bite garnered the favour of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908), who asked the head chef for the nibble’s name. Thinking quickly, and inspired by the pies’ shape and colour, he replied “Doornail Meat Pie.” Empress Dowager Cixi was pleased to hear an auspicious name for a delicious treat. The creation quickly spread beyond the palace walls and rose to fame worldwide.
Today, appetizing Mending have long been one of Old Beijing most-requested snacks. Pour a little bit of rice vinegar on top of a meat pie to balance its greasy taste. Pick it up with chopsticks to hear its crisp shell crunch. Take a bite to spill its delicious broth into your mouth and release a rich aroma of marbled beef and fragrant onion. Wash it down with a sip of hot millet porridge, and savour your new favourite snack.
Doornail (“Mending” ) meat pie
210g boiled water
300g ground beef
10g sesame oil
1 raw egg
2g Sichuan pepper powder
10g soy sauce
2g white pepper powder
ginger and salt to taste
1. Pour water into flour, and blend with chopsticks to form a dough. Knead until smooth and lump-free. Cover dough with a damp cloth and let stand for 1 hour to rest.
2. Chop scallion and dice onions. Mix and blend all filling ingredients.
3. Knead rested dough into a long roll. Cut roll into small portions (30g). Knead portions into round chunks. Flatten with a rolling pin, turning them into round wrappers that are thick in the middle, thin on the rim and with an 11cm diameter. During the process, you can sprinkle some dry flour on the workstation to prevent sticking.
4. Scoop 30-35g filling into a wrapper. Fold wrapper and turn into a 4 cm-diameter ball by pressing pleats to seal the contents. Place on a plate pleat-side down.
5. Oil frying pan. Place on high heat, then reduce heat to low. Next, place meat pies in pan pleat-side down. Add a little water to the inside edge of the pan and cover to simmer 3 - 5 minutes. Then flip pies. Once both sides are fried golden brown, remove from heat. Ensure filling is thoroughly cooked. Serve hot.
Photography by Hsuyi Shih