What did people eat in Ancient China? - Ancient Chinese Food
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Food in Ancient China

Chinese food

October 2016 - When you think of Chinese food you think of rice, and rice was the first grain that people farmed in China. There is archaeological evidence of rice farming along the Yang-tse River by about 6000 BC. People cooked rice by boiling them in water, the way you do today. They ate rice with fish and shellfish, like other people in prehistory. Or they made rice into wine. People have been drinking rice wine in China since prehistory.

But rice doesn't grow in northern China, which is much drier and colder. People in northern China grew millet instead, starting about 8000 BC, and they gathered wild sorghum. By 5000 BC, many people in northern China ate mainly millet. They ate it boiled into a kind of porridge.

Another food people associate with China is tea. Tea grows wild in China. By about 3000 BC (or it could be much earlier), people in China had begun to drink tea. Soon everybody drank tea.

Wheat was not native to China, so it took much longer to reach China. People in northern China first began to eat wheat about 2500 BC. Central Asian traders brought wheat to China from West Asia (and brought millet the other way). People in China boiled wheat like millet, to make something like Cream of Wheat.

These were the main carbohydrates of China - rice, millet, sorghum, and wheat. In northern China, people mostly ate millet, wheat, and sorghum. In southern China, people mostly ate rice. For fat, they crushed soybeans for soybean oil. Poor people ate almost nothing but these foods - they hardly ever had meat or fruit.

When people could afford it, they bought or grew vegetables to put on their rice. Cucumbers and bok choy, for instance, are native to China. For fruits, the Chinese had citrons, peaches, and apricots. Ginger and anise are also from China (Americans use anise to make licorice).

On special occasions, people also put little pieces of meat on their rice. By 5500 BC, the Chinese were eating domesticated chicken, which came originally from Thailand. By 4000 or 3000 BC, they were eating pork, sheep, and cattle, which all reached China from Central Asia.

Video of how to eat with chopsticks

Because meat was so expensive, and because Buddhists didn't eat meat, starting around the Song Dynasty (about 1000 AD) people also put tofu, or bean curd, in their food as a source of protein.

Because China doesn't have big forests, it was always hard to find fuel to cook with. Chinese people learned to cut up their food very small, so it would cook quickly on a very small fire.

During the Han Dynasty, millet wine became very popular and was even more popular to drink than tea. Also beginning in the Han Dynasty, about 100 AD, Chinese people began to make their wheat and rice into long noodles. People ate noodles instead of bread to save on fuel, again.

The rise of the Silk Road about this time brought many new foods to China. About 500 BC, people in China learned how to keep bees for honey (and for wax). By 300 BC, China was getting its first taste of sweet oranges from Central Asia. About 350 AD, traders brought sugar from India to China. About 900 AD, Central Asian lemons started coming to China too.

Marco Polo, who may have visited China from Venice, wrote that by the time of Kublai Khan, about 1200 AD, Chinese people ate millet boiled in milk to make porridge. Even as late as 1200 AD, Chinese people did not bake bread. But they did also get purple carrots from Central Asia through the work of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. About 1350 AD the artist Ni Zan wrote a cookbook - a Collection of Rules for Drinking and Eating - that included recipes for soy sauce, noodles, crab and fish, mushrooms, tempeh, snails, and jellyfish, among other things.

Learn by Doing - Chinese food project
Chinese food after 1500 AD

Bibliography and further reading about food in ancient China:

Ancient China
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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