Module 5: Ancient Chinese Food History

Listen along with the podcast episode for this module here. Or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, or wherever you listen to your favourite podcasts.

The core of food culture is connected to humanity's discovery of fire. Fire use has been documented for over half a million years, as demonstrated by the ruins of hearths in northern China's Choukowtien cave. The "Peking Man" left signs of cooking around the fireside of various animals' burnt bones. The food culture of Ancient China began at the dawn of the last Ice Age, which caused the land to become cold and dry. As the Ice Age lifted around 15,000-8,000 BCE, the climate conditions began to improve dramatically. The area went from cold and dry to warm and wet, allowing for plant growth and the beginning of agricultural societies. Historians believe that this caused an influx in the population, a rapid growth in environmental productivity, the beginning of trade and enhanced communication. The ancient fire was holy. Kitchens had altars for sacrifices and kitchen deity offerings. China worshipped the kitchen god Zaojing.

By 500,000 years ago, hominids of the Homo Erectus species intermittently inhabited a large cave on the outskirts of Zhoukoudian, about twenty-five miles from Beijing, in northern China. While there was no glacial action in Asia, winter would have been severe. Although it is uncertain whether hominids wintered this far north, it is where the first well-documented proof of fire was identified. Fire permitted hominids to use non-cooking food ingredients that would be otherwise inedible or poisonous. Burned deer bones and some with slash marks are evidence of the cave residents' meat consumption, but whether the meat was collected by hunting or scavenging is unclear.

These early modern humans practiced this hunting until the end of the last glacial era, around 12,000 years ago. In Europe, the glaciers' decline culminated in the expansion of trees and a significant shift in eating patterns, with people killing woodland animals, including deer and rabbits, and allowing better use of the sea's resources. By this period, however, populations in the Middle East and along the Yangtze River Valley in southern China were experimenting with plant agriculture, which was the beginning of the agricultural revolution, establishing the basis of civilized modern living and the beginnings of civilization.

Microscopic analysis of burned plants' remains decide if they were domesticated or wild, suggesting if the people were agrarians or hunter-gatherers. Charring leaves silica ghosts of the epidermal cells that show telltale markers to differentiate between domesticated and wild crops when analyzed under an electron scanning microscope. Such investigation of seeds, husks, and plant remains in China helped expand the archaeological record of rice's earliest domestication from 8,000 to 11,500 years ago, pinpointing the location to the middle Yangtze River.

In approximately 6,000 BC, the earliest Chinese civilization began in the village on Ban Po, within the floodplain of the Yellow or Huang He River, located in north central China. Contrary to many other ancient agricultural societies who used walls to protect their statehood and their grain stores, the village of Ban Po used a moat. The people within the village lived in huts that had plastered walls with thatched roofs made of straw. Pigs and dogs were also raised within the village. Millet was considered a communal grain and was buried in hundreds of pits that were scattered throughout the village.

Shu Huangdi, who ordered the construction of the Great Wall of China, standardized written Chinese, which assisted in the unification of China. Chinese history begins the same as the history within the Old Testament of the Bible. At first, there was Pangu who was the creator that created humans from the parasites on his own body. After Pangu died, he was followed by wise rulers that developed inventions that allowed China to become the first civilization in history. Fuxi was the first to domesticate animals and as a result was also the first to invent marriage, to domesticate women as well. Shennong invented medicine, trade, agriculture, the hoe and the plow. Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, invented writing, the arrow, the bow, the cart, and ceramics. Centuries later, Emperor Yao appeared on the scene as a wise ruler who decided not to pass on the empire to his son, and instead decided on a wise man named Shun, to be his successor. Shun selected his minister Yu, to be his successor. Yu founded the Xia dynasty in 2,205 BC, and it ended in 1,766 B.C.

The Xia dynasty (c. 2,200-1,500 BCE), whose existence is debated among some scholars, and the Shang dynasty (c. 1,500-1,000 BCE), saw the rise of civilization in China, which promoted a long-lasting social structure of the rich becoming more rich, and poor becoming more poor. The elite statuses within Chinese civilization had an abundance of gain, wine, pork, and many other foods, while villagers were required to live on a diet of millet and mallows.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived from 551-497 BC. Confucius declared that all would be right in the world if the peasants were subordinate to their rulers, there was respect for the elderly, if the women respected men and if friends shared a mutual respect between them. The philosopher also compiled the I Ching or the Book of Changes, as well as the Book of Songs, which was a compendium of song from court and peasants, revealing interesting spotlights into the cuisine and culture of his era. For many centuries, the philosophy of Confucius was used as the basis for the Chinese Government. The Confucian scholars who ruled China in the 15th century AD, decided to refuse trade with other countries, which proved very damaging to the Chinese economy.

Until recently, China had no fine-dining restaurants or the Western-style kitchen brigade. However, the court had a completely different spread of imported specialties: the "eight delicacies." The selection was variable but contained camel's humps, apes' tongues, bears' paws, and other fictitious animal varieties. In reality, they did consume the bears' paws, but they cooked them for a long time, rendering them into a gelatinous form. The attraction was their rareness rather than their flavour, but real bear hunters still love bears' paws in Siberia and North Canada. Rare varieties of mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other vegetable foods were less flashy but probably still more popular, as were complicated and thorough preparations of ordinary animals like chicken, duck, and fish. Dishes from the empire's far reaches, such as Central Asia and Tibet, always graced the table, particularly when entertaining dignitaries from those areas. Exotica such as birds' nests and sea cucumbers come from southeast Asia. The court displayed its cosmopolitan, world-ruling strength and hospitality. Many imperial dishes remain to this day, and restaurants often re-create them. Historical records state that several emperors avoided elaborate meals, choosing plain food to signify the emperor's virtue; ease, unappeased by displays of ego, and empathy for common citizens are values in both Chinese secular and philosophical practices.

Central Asian forces were high after the Han dynasty, and a wave of western foods reached China. The Silk Road, the main trading route through Central Asia, connected East and West; its golden period spread from Han through the Tang (621–960), Sang (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368). Persian bread, lettuce, walnuts, large beans, and even dark herbs such as fenugreek and cumin came to China with Galenic medicinal ideas and Indian Buddhist foods. The pinnacle came in the Mongol Empire—Yuan China's Dynasty (1279–1368)—when Beijing court served dishes from Arabia, Persia, Turkistan, Cashmir, and the whole Mongol-dominated world. Nomadic Mongol dishes such as the roast wolf and Arabic delicacies such as lamb made with saffron and rosewater. The rest of the planet would not see such diverse eating until the twentieth century.

During the Yuan Dynasty, from 1271–1368, the time of Mongolian rule in China, Eurasia came under one economic structure, with Mongolian trading routes leading to Asia's corners. By 1280, Mongol-controlled China, Central Asia, and Iran, with trading lines stretched into more distant territories. Genghis Khan conquered Asia's majority, seizing northern China by 1234. His grandson claimed the Chinese throne by 1279. After the Mongol rulers drove out Southwest Asia's last Abbasid Caliphate, the Asian continent was united for the first time in history.

But Asia was profoundly intertwined long before Mongol khanates developed. In AD 751, the conflict among the Arab and the Chinese Tang empires on the Talas River in Central Asia culminated in Central Asia's complete Islamization, which was the only strategic encounter between the ancient world's major forces. However, these empires and their successors were economically linked for at least a millennium: commerce along the Silk Road predated the Han Dynasty. Historical records say that Zhang Qian, China's first diplomatic ambassador, entered Central Asia in 126 BC. The recorded reports in the Shiji, though embellished with depictions of magical beasts and other fictional items, testify to the early Han period's direct contact between Central Asia and East Asia. Although these records may indicate that Central Asia was historically foreign to the Han, Central Asian mountains never impeded cultural flow. People passed through valleys like water through a leaky faucet for at least two centuries before Zhang Qian's westward journey. Archeological data suggests that these regions' food systems had influenced each other since the early third millennium BC.

A nativist backlash in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) rehabilitated a Chinese cuisine much more refined and nuanced than Han or even Tang's. The growth of an affluent middle class, particularly in Sung, led to haute cuisine creation. Merchants and bureaucrats rivalled feasting. Stores stocked well; domestic and foreign commerce flourished. In the early 1400s, a Ming prince, Zhu Xiao, compiled an excellent and detailed guide to famine food and which was distributed to local governors throughout the country.

However, Ming's most significant food revelation was the advancement of sea travel and interaction with the New World. Much of China, particularly the south, was unfit for rice or wheat. Millet was a bad replacement. Suddenly corn, white potatoes and sweet potatoes arrived. Maize was widespread before the 1600s. The remarkable distribution of New World crops arrived in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). By the late 1600s, sweet potatoes entered China, and white potatoes by 1800. Peanuts, tomatoes, chiles, guavas, and other Modern World crops revolutionized agriculture by bringing nutrient-dense, productive, and easy-to-grow foods into China. In particular, chillies are incredibly abundant in vitamins and minerals; they and other New World crops were essential to the population boom that brought China from 50 million citizens in early Ming to 1.25 billion today.

One hundred and fifty years of Russian influence and fifty years of the region's extreme Chinese subjugation have significantly altered foods through well-documented Soviet collectivization issues and homogenized local diets. Xinjiang's tumultuous past continues, with Chinese migrants and employees, mainly from Sichuan, flooding the area after the 1960s. In China, Uighur cuisine is divided from the rest of the food culture and is considered Muslim cuisine.

Present literature splits China into several federal or local culinary areas. Almost all have Fujian fare, the nature of which can be found in its variety of soups, sauces, vegetables, fish, fruits, mushrooms, spices, dried fruits, and a special treat named "Tribute Candy." This after-dinner or snack sweet is a mix of baked peanuts ground into maltose or ground peanuts wrapped in a paper-like coating of glutinous rice. It is typically served with fresh fruit at the end of the meal and is appreciated by anyone who enjoys sweet, delicious food.

The consistency of the products was once the most significant dimension for assessing food quality and restaurant-quality—cooking techniques developed to amplify fresh food with rapid cooking using simplistic but measured techniques. Split-second pacing was characteristic of the cuisine; for example, when the boiling or frying sound changed, the object would be swiftly whisked off the blaze. Foods are also briefly boiled before being stir-fried to retain tenderness during fast frying, specifically in Cantonese dishes.

Today, Yunnan is China's most ethnically diverse province, with approximately 40 minority groups and their languages belong to at least four entirely unrelated varieties. Most of these communities have simplistic cuisines centred on grain and local vegetables, but far-south Thai-speaking citizens have elaborate dishes similar to northern Thailand. In the violent time between the Ming and Qing dynasties, Sichuan's population was diminished by approximately 75% and repopulated mostly from Hunan and neighbouring regions, resulting in a remarkable culinary resemblance between Hunan and Sichuan. In exchange, Yunnan gained many of its Chinese inhabitants from Sichuan, but they adapted to local circumstances and were affected by non-Han nationalities.

As we mentioned in the previous episode, salt comes from salt lakes and wells. For two centuries, drilling bottomless salt wells was a significant and lucrative industry in Sichuan. Unlike sea salt, this salt, like most foods in these mountainous areas, lacks iodine. Therefore, goitre was widespread in historical times and was considered synonymous with consuming local salt instead of sea salt.

North of Sichuan, in Shaansi, lamb is common. Shaansi's main city is Xian, which was China's capital, and was called Chang'an for several centuries. It eventually lost to Beijing during the Liao Dynasty. Xian has several recipes, many using barley, beef, onions and vinegar.

Fujianese foods are identifiable by the rich stocks and sauces used in thick and thin soups. They usually eat two or three soups at main meals and five or six soups at banquets, and many common ingredients marinate in wine or the remaining sediment called lees or hung jiu . Fujian foods—also named Min—are popular everywhere they speak Min or Wu dialects. Sometimes found in Fujian and the southern Guangdong province in Shantou or Swatow, to where several descendants of a well-known ostracized eighth-century politician escaped.

This Teochiu variation, Chiuchow, is considered the most exquisite cuisine. It uses plenty of seasonings, fish sauces, citrus marmalades, and satay-type sauce pastes. Every Fujianese food is enjoyed locally by people living on Hainan Island and locals nearby. While common in China, this cuisine is unknown outside China. Fujian's foods are strongly linked to Taiwanese cuisine since many Fujianese fled through disruptive historical periods.

Fujianese cooks may serve a bird's nest or shark fins as the main dish, which is common; and presented as a rich stew-type soup. Many foods have slow preparations, are lard baked and are seasoned more liberally than in neighbouring provinces. Fujianese food culture contains three regular meals: mornings commence with rice soup, other small dishes or juk seasonings, two to three soups served with main meals and five to six soups with an equal amount of accompanying dishes shape a banquet. Other than breakfast chou or juk, soups can be clear or thick and stewy. Dipping sauces complement some foods, such as garlic crushed in a vinegar base, while the key component is chicken or maltose for fried fish. Dishes and soups use complicated stocks and sometimes hot and sour sauce. Some are heavily pigmented, mostly red from red wine lees.

Xiamen, once Amoy, is Fujian's second-largest city known for its popia. Xiamenians love this pancake. It is typically filled with cooked meat and vegetables including bean sprouts, garlic shoots, carrots, and bamboo shoots. Seaweed can also be added, and it is flavoured with a hot mustard or plum sauce. Other familiar dishes are stir-fried Xiamen noodles and Xiamen spring roll. Both are composed of vegetables, sprouts, peanuts, and pieces of grilled seaweed. Classic Fujianese dishes include: diced and fried wine-marinated pork, steamed chicken in fermented tofu, drunken spare ribs, sweet and pungent litchi pork, deep-fried eel in wine lees, omelette oyster, stir-fried razor clams with ginger, spicy and sour squid broth, duck tongue with white and black fungi, fried peanuts, and dried longan soup with lotus seeds. Chi Ping, a Hainanese chicken-rice dish, is well-known.

One food with a presumptive "barbarian" origin is "Mongolian barbecue." This dish is not originally Mongolian; it is more likely a modern development from typical Muslim Chinese dishes. It includes tiny meat cuts, drenched in various piquant sauces, and grilled on high heat in a metal brazier. Another popular Muslim dish with specialty restaurants is lamb hot-pot. Since the Chinese enjoy cooking their own meals, even at restaurants, it is common for restaurants to serve very finely sliced ingredients to dip into boiling stock at the table. The slices cook quickly and flavour the stock, consumed as soup at the end of the meal. Every province has distinct variations of this hot-pot meal; Beijing's is lamb-based, and it is crucial to slice the lamb uniformly and finely. Chinese cooks spend years studying how to slice correctly, and this dish challenges them to prove their skills.

Zhejiang Province comprises the heart of the large Yangzi delta area, China's wealthiest, highest-educated, and most progressive region in history. Shanghai is now a separate metropolitan area; Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Ningbo create an arc around the Yangzi mouth. Each city has its culinary specialties. Shanghai has recently gained popularity as a city, and it is essentially a result of imperialism, which the English established as a port in the nineteenth century. It has its version of Eastern foods, based on local customs, and incorporates influences from all over the Yangzi Valley. Zhejiang is also the centre of Wu's ancient state, which was likely non-Chinese-speaking, and retained a complex and elaborate culture distinct from that of the northwest Central Plain. The word "Wu" is also used to describe the area and the spoken language - a language that is typically misnamed a "dialect," but it is distinct from Putonghua [fu-tong-wah] as it is from Spanish. Zhejiang cuisine is the most elaborate version of a more widespread culinary style described as "eastern," found in Wu's old state and neighbouring regions. Besides Zhejiang, it contains Jiangsu, Anhuei , and part of Jiangxi.

Throughout history, the north typically had the political influence, while the southeast usually had the resources. Zhejiang food's other distinctive virtues are a proclivity towards sweet and unctuous flavours; a rich consistency, plenty of oil and thick sauces; and a commitment to freshness. The sweet taste appears to be ancient and part of the universe's classic fivefold division: a Chinese thinking characteristic from the early Han dynasty, with sweet being an east-related flavour. It is not just cosmological speculation, but an awareness of reality. The west is synonymous with pungency, which is the case with its cuisine to this day. The north is salt, the south bitter, the east acidic and the middle sweet. The freshness is often a product of the landscape, and food preservation is not simple in the mild, humid environment. Typically, food preservation in these areas is also needless due to the twelve-month growing and fishing season.

The warm and amphibious landscape made soup an appealing option. China's soup-eating core is Fujian, where it is customary to offer three or four different soups amidst the main courses in a twelve-course banquet. Ginger, green onions, garlic, wine, sugar and vinegar are popular flavours. They tended to use fewer herbs and bean pastes than in western and southern China.

Language attests to the significance of protein complementarity in East Asia. The Chinese fan translates to 'grain,' but also means 'food.' Ts'ai translates to 'edible leaf and stem vegetable,' but also means 'what goes on rice to complete the meal.' This language is similar to Biblical references of 'bread,' indicating any food required for sustenance. Complementarity relies on the soybean. Rice or wheat is combined with hundreds of soybean products, including curds (tofu), soy milk, soybean boiled or fermented, and soy sauce. In exchange, soy sauce is usually produced from wheat flour, whose methionine strengthens an already high amino acid profile.

Moreover, soy protein digestion is enhanced by typical fermentation in water containing dissolved calcium or magnesium. These inactivate the opponents of trypsin, a digestive enzyme that appears within soybeans. Since the Sung dynasty, sesame oil has been a rich source of methionine and has been China's favourite cooking oil. Even in periods of famine, protein deficiency was uncommon in East Asia. When one goes inland west or north, pulses and legumes such as red bean, broad bean, mung bean, peanut and common pea are combined with cereals to support complementarity. Fermented milk products like yogurt became important in Central Asia.

The tendency to identify foods and frame nuanced dietary rules is more ancient than humanity itself. Many food systems worldwide are explicitly theological. However, specific food systems were more secular, intending to preserve or restore physical fitness. These diets were most influential in Greece, India, China, and the modern West.

Some may contend that the apple tree has influenced world history from the moment Eve took the first taste. Few people know that the intoxicating substance extracted from the opium poppy was one of the critical reasons China shut down its borders after the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949.

Military envoy Zhang Qian, who returned from one of his diplomatic missions to Central Asia in the late second century B.C., brought a small, tender vine in a rawhide bag, shielding it from the hot sun as it travelled through the deserts. The vine had grapes, and sweet wine came to China from Dawan, most scholars believe to be the Fergana Valley in modern Uzbekistan. Data from a newly excavated grave from the Yanghai cemetery in Xinjiang indicates, however, that wine was worshipped hundreds of years before Zhang Qian's legendary journey.

Another early Chinese traveller noted equal abundance along his trip. Kiu Chang Chun left Central China in 1220 with special permission from Genghis Khan. Chang Chun travelled from Mongolia to Hindu Kush, to Afghanistan and back to China. A travelling companion, Li Zhichang, recorded the three-year trip. He found that as they reached Central Asia cities, citizens came to bring grape wine gifts and various kinds of fruits. He mentioned cotton and fruit development near Almaty's medieval village, which he noted was called A-li-ma, from the local word for fruit; he commented on the large irrigated apple orchards surrounding the town. He mentioned rice and vegetable production along the Amu Darya River and fruit orchards in the Tien Shan; he noted peaches, walnuts, and a tiny apricot peach. He commended the vitality of the land around Samarkand, noting that all grains and legumes growing in China also grew in the area, except buckwheat and soybean. He also praised the watermelons and eggplants—a long, narrow, purple variety—of the Zerafshan region. Addressing irrigated farming in Inner Mongolia's Yin Shan Mountains, he noted that although fruits ripened late due to the cold in the higher elevations, efficient irrigated fields and gardens existed. As the era of colonization and discovery started, a wave of European, Chinese, and Arab adventurers, traders, traders, warriors, and scholars poured into Central Asian trade cities, and many of them reported tales of vibrant markets and rich fruit varieties.

A year before his death on February 18, 1405, Amir Timur also sought to push eastward, rallying a large-scale military assault on China's Ming Dynasty. Although this campaign collapsed in its primary object, Ming's mercantile ambitions were redirected from Central Asia. As Ming tended to the nautical routes to the south, the ancient city of Zayton became a flourishing trade centre, ruled by Islamic traders, linking East Asia to Europe.

Shortly after 121 BC, Emperor Wudi (Wu of Han), who commissioned Zhang Qian's expedition, expanded the Great Wall to Dunhuang, and the Jade Frontier Post became the westernmost of Han military forts. The fort's ruins are only some eighty kilometres northwest of Dunhuang. As a result of the establishment of military posts, caravan cities developed in western China, especially along the Hexi Corridor, a pass through the Qilian Mountains leading to Chang'an on the Yellow River's west side. Private and military records written on wooden slabs were retrieved from Han military guard towers in the western regions. Archeologist Aurel Stein retrieved related records from garbage piles at watchtowers near the Thousand Buddhist caves, along the route from Cathay's old entrance, about 1900. Each of these records, bound to silk strips, lists the duties delegated by the watchtower's military leader: planting lands, growing garden crops, building canals, and fixing domestic equipment. Military Han incursions into the area brought a wave of agricultural invention, particularly in the Taklimakan Desert, which increased population and supported further trade. The Han Dynasty invaded the Kororaina territory in 108 BC and set up provincial military outposts. Historians indicated that combining the Chinese military with local citizens contributed to the increased popularity of oranges, pears, pomegranates and dates throughout the Han Empire. However, Han's expansion into northern Central Asia contributed more to the eastward influx of Central Asian grain.

In 386 AD, the Tuoba invaded the Han and loosely retained it as the Wei Dynasty until around 550. The Tuoba, who were from the north and sometimes described as a nomadic tribe, retained strong cultural and commercial relations with Central Asians. Some scholars claim that the 400-500 era was among the most important for trade along the northern roads, fostering the tremendous appetite for the Tang elites' exotic products. Before its fall, the Wei Dynasty's capital had an international quarter (as did the Tang capital l