Ancient Foods: Chinese

While rice was not only a prominent food for the Chinese of today, it is also the first grain that was farmed in the country. A deep representation of rice farming is found in the archaeological evidence of ancient times, as along the Yang-tse River showed signs in about 5,000 BC. At that time, inhabitants prepared rice by boiling it in water, which is the same way we still rely upon today. Sometimes, the rice was made into wine, which then became a well-known and popular drink in China since prehistoric days. Joining the rice farming of the past is a wealth of other food items connected to the ancient Chinese.    

Some think that rice was found all over China, but in the northern part of the country, the climate and land is much drier and colder. In the north, the people used wild millet and sorghum instead. By the time 4500 BC came around, the people in northern China were farming millet on their own. At that time, they would boil the millet and consume it like a type of porridge.

Tea is also another association people make with the ancient people of China, as it grows wild in China. By around 3,000 BC (or possibly much earlier), the people of China had started to drink tea, which quickly spread to others. Since wheat was not a native crop of China, it took a bit of time to reach the dinner tables of the Chinese. Wheat at that time was brought in from those who came from West Asia. The people in northern China were the first to eat wheat during the Shang Dynasty (about 1500 BC). The wheat was boiled like the millet and eaten like Cream of Wheat.  

Overall, ancient Chinese mostly ate rice, millet, sorghum, and wheat, where the north typically relied on millet, wheat, and soghum. In the south, this is where rice was king. Those who were less fortunate than others had a diet that consisted mainly of nothing but these food items.  

When it was affordable, they purchased or planted vegetables to pair with their rice. A convenient crop that is native to China is soybeans. You probably didn’t know that cucumbers were also native to the Chinese. When it came to fruits, the Chinese utilized lemons, oranges, peaches, and apricots. Native flavorings included ginger and anise, which is the plant that is responsible for making licorice.  

When a special celebration arrived, the ancient Chinese places little pieces of meat in their rice. By 5500 BC, domesticated chicken started to become a part of their diet, which originally hailed from Thailand. By 4000 or 3000 BC, pork began to appear in dishes, as this was a native food source in China. As sheep and cattle were not native at the time, they were able to add these items about 4000 BC when they came from West Asia. In ancient China, meat was one of the most expensive food items and since Buddhists did not eat meat, it wasn’t until the Sung Dynasty (around 1000 AD) that this type of food was acknowledged as a dominant source of protein. Until then, people cooked with tofu or bean curd.  

Since China did not have any large forests about their land, they were constantly in need of locating a way to find fuel to cook their meals. The Chinese began to practice clever energy-saving techniques, as they started to cut their food into very small pieces, as this was a good way to cook food quickly on a small fire.

During the Han Dynasty, millet wine became a highly popular beverage and at the time, surpassed the popularity of drinking tea. The Han Dynasty started around 100AD and also marked the moment with the Chinese started to turn their wheat and rice into long noodles.

Another historic milestone in ancient Chinese cuisine involved a visit from Marco Polo, who was interested in Kublai Khan at that time (about 1200 AD). He also noted at this time, the Chinese was not baking bread amongst other culinary achievements.