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"Peasant" Food

About three years ago, there was a thread with this same title. I want to rekindle discussion of it.

I consider it an extremely interesting sub-genere of the culinary world. This is because of the inguenity that was born out of avaliablity of little or poor resources.

What I think is great is when the so called 'peasant' food becomes adopted by the nobility. As was the case when Louis XIV was traveling through Bretagne and came across crepes. Before you know it - guess whats on tonights menu at the palace of Versaille?!

Please contribute Peasant food of the world!

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  1. "Wuo wuo tou"

    It's a big, yellow Chinese bao made of corn flour. The story goes that as the last Ching Dynasty queen (Tsi Xi) was fleeing the capital in the fall of the empire, she and her ensemble came across peasant Chinese farmers. Without anything else to eat, she had what the poor ate - wuo wuo tou. She loved it. It's cheap to make and rough to the taste. There is a hole on the bottom, which is usually filled with pickled vegetables.

    I've had it once at Ji Rong restaurant in SGV, CA, but the place has since closed.

    3 Replies
    1. re: chica

      I believe Ive seen this dish in the lthforums. It is exactly the thing that lead me to a posting a while back concerning the role of corn (& other columbian exchange introductions) in asian cuisines?

      Have you ever made it chica?
      How was it served? WHat pickled veggies?
      Do you know what region of CHina it orignats from?
      Thanks a million for solving this mystery for me.

      1. re: kare_raisu

        No, I've never made it - I wouldn't know how.

        It's served plain and simple - the bao with pickled vegetables. The vegetables are called "za tsai." I don't know how to make this either, but it's a very popular, cheap dish Chinese restos serve.

        The empress was in Beijing, the northern part of China. Corn, too, was more likely to grow in the north.

        The empress was actually fleeing eight invading countries...to make a long story short, she eventually returned to her palace, woke up one day, remembered the bao, and declared she wanted it. The servants went out and got it for her, but when she ate it, this time, she said it was tasteless and bad.

        Today, the Chinese use this wuo wuo tou story to show the lesson that when we're poor and in need, anything tastes good. Yet when we're rich and resourceful, we get picky. But we're all the same - it's only the circumstances that have changed. In other words, we take our luxurious lives for granted and not know what we have until we lose it.

      2. re: chica

        My Brother-in-law was "sent down" to Xunke, in remotest Heilongjiang Province during the Cultural Revolution and for many months wouwoutou was the only food available. Needless to say, he hates the sight of it. Zhou En-Lai, on the other hand, claimed to love it (possibly a bit of reverse snobbery at play there).


      3. I think that so called peasant food is the best. It's the food of love food.


        1. My father grew up poor in Hungary, and "Hungarian Garlic Bread" was something that he would have as dinner.

          Piece of rye bread, pan-fry in hot oil until crisp/brown.
          Take a whole garlic clove, rub vigorously on the bread. Due to the bread texture, it's almost like a fine grater.
          Sprinkle liberally with salt.

          2 Replies
          1. re: JugglerDave

            Gah! Same here! My parents were Hungarian and they did the exact same thing. I've forgotten entirely about it - it was a staple of our Sunday evening dinners which tended to be of the hunt-and-gather variety. Thanks for the memory.

            1. re: JugglerDave

              Dave, I tried this and it's *very* good. I used a great rye bread with caraway seeds, and a soybean extra virgin olive oil mix from Argentina and went at it. It's amazing how that piece of fried bread acts like a microplane zester. The garlic just completely coats the bread. Delicious. I forgot to add the salt at the end though. IMO still good! I'm gonna love introducing it as my "Hungarian Specialty". LOL. Thanks.

            2. Gruel. Ale. Scraps of meat. Root vegetables. Herbs added to balance unbalanced humours.

                1. Kare, For years Andre` Soltner operated the top French restaurant in New York, Lutece. Many of his most popular dishes originated from French country (Peasant) cooking.
                  Soltner often offered a French Country Pate` for $20.00 a plate. What it really was was simple head cheese in disguise. I love that story. (Great cookbook if you can find it.)

                  1. Anything that consists of meat and vegetables wrapped in some dough, the most common being burritos and boiled Chinese dumplings.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: PeterL

                      I wouldn't consider chinese dumplings 'peasant' meal. They are cheap and available today, but it is traditionally more of celebratory food and very laborous. you have to remember that meat was not a daily staple for chinese farmers.
                      I think meat wrapped in dough being cheap accessible meal is a modern day phenomena. The pastries take large amounts of both meat and starch. Most cultures are either agrarian or livestock based, so while one ingredient is readily available the other not so. I would consider meat pastries originally as a food of privileged.

                      1. re: welle

                        In Europe, they were a peasant thing. Flour was one of the cheaper foodstuffs around and there was usually a family member or two who spent much of the day toiling away in the kitchen on exactly this sort of thing.

                        Ain't nothing fancy about potato-cheese pierogi or kreplach... and meat is far from the only kind of filling out there.

                        I don't know for sure about China, but I have a feeling it wasn't much different there.

                        1. re: hatless

                          Chinese dumplings bear no resemblance to European dumplings, which tend to be lumps of dough tossed into stews without much care. Chinese dumplings involve thin, delicate skins and meticulous wrapping technique.

                          1. re: frenetica

                            Pierogi, kreplach, ravioli, tortellini and pelmenny may not be as delicate as har gau, but they do involve enough folding and crimping -- and differing styles of it at that -- that I'd hardly call the process "tossing lumps of dough in a pot". European dumplings aren't just spatzle and kopytky.

                            I'd love to see a source for the notion that wontons and potstickers (not exactly thin, delicate stuff there) were strictly a food of holiday celebrations and the well-to-do. Gau maybe, but I need some convincing on the idea that dumplings only found their way into North China's countryside.

                          2. re: hatless

                            Maybe it's not noble food, but not 'peasant'. Which peasant family had a luxury of sparing extra hands for a day in a kitchen? Eventhough, today we associate them as 'peasant' foods most peasants probably ate those pastries on special occasions. Day to day food was bread and honey or dairy during the day and stews/soups for dinner. Maybe wealthier farmers and middle-class merchants ate them more often, but not your regular hard-working peasants. For some reason I think clergy ate them all the time.
                            A great example of how peasants ate in Europe (based on example of Russia) can be found in 'Anna Karenina', when Levin goes to cut grass for hay with peasants. After all that hard work, for lunch the peasants had just hard bread with honey and drank kvas.
                            Wheat is also relatively expensive grain (more land, more water). Wheat has become widely available and affordable in Western world only last century due to better irrigation.

                            1. re: welle

                              Real peasant dumplings have very little meat. It's usually whatever is cheap and available. The meat part as you pointed out came about in more modern times. The advantage of a dumpling or a burrito is that a farmer can carry them out in the field in a tidy package.

                          3. Aren't most soups, stews, casseroles, one pot meals, jambalayas, burgoos, and casoulets peasant foods based on what’s readily available to be picked or hunted at a particular time of the year? Which leads me to wonder if all food wasn’t at one time peasant food. Maybe it is the “readily available” that makes a difference.

                            1. Portugese restaurants serve wonderful seafood stews, mussels, clams, lobster, in a red or green sauce, with spanish rice.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: wontonton

                                It's fisherman food. Unless you consider them peasants of the sea.

                              2. Coq au vin! Note that it's not "poulet au vin" but "coq", meaning an adult rooster with its tough stringy meat. This peasant's way of stewing the old bird's sinews to oblivion in cheap wine has become this gourmet symbol of French cooking.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: frenetica

                                  Saurbraten is the German method for tendering a tough cut of beef in a strong marinade and then roasting it with vegetables for a fancy but inexpensive Sunday dinner.

                                  Most ethnic dishes are peasant food, they had to learn to utilize what they could grow or gather, and then use inventive methods cook it. Peasants didn't have the luxury to import fancy ingredients from foreign countries.

                                2. Well, isn't today's nobility adopting peasant food? They are just selective about the 'favored' peasants.

                                  So we have upscale Vietnamese, slowly (very slowly) Mexican, Chinese, ignoring others.

                                  Is there a upscale Salvadoran joint out there? If there was ever a dish screaming to be upscaled it is the pupusa. Think of the endless possibilities of fillings and cheese ... goat cheese pupusa with sundried tomatoes and something.

                                  I was thinking about this having my first experience with Salvadoran shrimp soup a golden, buttery seafood stew with sour cream, peppers, tomatoes, onions, egg and rice. I kept thinking as good as it was how it could become exquisite with designer veggies and shrimp in the hands of a top chef.

                                  What about the donut? For a while there was the big craze at every restaurant to serve fried-to-order donuts for seven bucks and more a plate.

                                  Ice Cream? We have organic ice cream with pedigreed produce by name chefs.

                                  Coffee? It wasn't so long ago it wasn't anything special until today's privledged flocked to their favored barista serving wood-oven roasted song-bird, human and earth friendly beans? For the not so priveldged there is still Starbucks.

                                  Bread? The artisnal loaf which IMO still can't match that European loaf sold to the working class family.

                                  Beer? Chocolate? And today's nobility ... let them eat cake ... artisan organic cake.

                                  Two generations ago my relatives lived like Martha Stewart ... with veggies straight from the garden, eggs plucked that morning from a chicken coop, etc. Today it takes Martha' money to live like a peasant.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: rworange

                                    Didn't ice cream originally travel the opposite route, from the French court to the middle classes and on down as ice and then refrigeration became cheap?

                                    1. re: hatless

                                      I seem to recall reading somewhere that the concept got its start from Roman rulers sending slaves to the mountains to retreive snow, which was then flavored.

                                    2. re: rworange

                                      When I was a kid,we lived in the peasant way, growing almost all our food. A typical meal would be mashed potatoes, sausage, green vegetable, waldorf salad, biscuits, and rhubarb pie with whipped cream. Oh, yes, and a glass of milk. All this came off our farm, except for the flour, sugar, salt and vanilla.

                                    3. Lobster use to be poor fisherman food. If only the prices still reflected this.

                                      1. Pigs feet,hooves,nose,ears,head,stuffed bladders,sweetbreads, etc.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: melly

                                          In many cultures organ meats are considered delicacy - you only get 1 nose out of whole pig, only 2 ears, just 1 heart. And many places many organ meats supposedly have higher properties than just food (eyes for good sight, brains to be wise etc.)

                                          I must say though when I first saw fried pig skins, I thought to myself that someone must've been pretty desperate to consider eating it first.

                                        2. Lobster wasn't just poor fisherman food; they fed it to prisoners.


                                          Oh, how I wish I had robbed a general store in 18th-century Maine...

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: scoobyhed

                                            During the late 1700's, lobsters were used to fertilize the fields. Whole. Unbelievable.

                                            Image: http://www.lobster.co.uk/images/lobst...

                                            1. re: scoobyhed

                                              Not so fast, Scoobyhed - in her 'Lobster Chronicles' Linda Greenlaw wrote that in some parts of New England serving lobster to inmates more than once a week was forbidden (too cruel and inhumane) and only 'widows, orphans, and servants ate lobster' prior to 19th century.

                                              Even poorest fishermen in NE, probably still had COD and wouldn't touch them 'BUG's. They still call them 'bugs' in Maine.

                                            2. Whatever can be made from the stuff that's still in the root cellar come March or April, that's peasant food for sure. Dried apple or mincemeat pie, salt cod with salt pork and potatoes, anything involving cabbage or parsnips or carrots.

                                              There are two really pleasant Polish restaurants in the LA area, Warsawa in Santa Monica, and Polka in Glassell Park between Glendale and Eagle Rock. Although the food at both places clearly shares common roots, Warsawa's menu of wild game, forest mushrooms and tidbits to be consumed while tossing vodka shots is clearly aristocratic fare, while Polka's pierogies, potatoes, cabbage and pork dishes have PEASANT written all over them.

                                              1. Moldy cheese (bleu cheese) is the ulimate peasant food -- literally rotting but too poor to throw it away. You could say the same thing about escargot...picking up snails must mean you're hungry and of limited means.

                                                In some parts of the world - millet.

                                                In China stir fry is peasant food for the most part.

                                                1. In Southern Africa mealiemeal porridge (maize meal cooked in water with salt - polenta) is a poor man's staple, eaten with soured milk and sugar, or with morogo: stewed wild green leaves of any (edible)description, or with stewed tomato and onion sauce. Meat only on special occasions. Weddings and especially funerals are times to indulge in as much meat as possible (goats, sheep and oxen slaughtered at home)cooked over charcoal or boiled in large pots. Tripe is a great favourite. Softer meats like liver etc are reserved for children and the elderly. Chilli has become a favourite flavouring. In her book on Chinese Gastronomy Lin Yutang's wife writes that peasant food is often more highly spiced because that is more filling (Witness also Madhur Jaffrey in East Asian Cooking that a bowl of rice with the fiery sambal oelek chilli paste is a poor man's meal). In Chinese cooking a small portion of stir-fry helps 'to make the rice go down'.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: Tjaart

                                                    Good old mealiepup! I was just about to mention polenta for the Italians. Now you can go to Zuni in SF and get a plate for $20 with a dab of mascarpone.

                                                  2. You guys haven't even mentioned the peasant food of the U.S. - Soul Food or southern cooking whatever you want to call it. Beans and corn bread, mixed greens (collards, mustard, kale, etc.) cracklins, chitlins. This is still very popular food in most of the south and mid-west.

                                                    Talk about making tasty food with minimal ingridients, beans and corn bread: boil some beans (navy, pinto, red, black it don't matter) with a hamhock, maybe some onion, season with salt and pepper, tobasco make yourself some corn bread and you have a meal.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: jackrugby

                                                      Traditionally they didn't use a ham hock. They'd use a leftover ham bone. Nothing wasted.


                                                    2. Being of italian origin, some foods that come to mind are polenta and risotto. It always makes me laugh when I see what restaurants charge for corn meal and rice. My italian relatives are also amazed when they see us eating corn on the cob. Most italians today feed corn to their pigs, not their families!

                                                      1. I have heard stories from my maternal relatives about the weird organ meats they ate during the depression. Yiddish "lungen stew" among others.