Chinese food: rice
Rice was the first grain that people farmed in China, and rice is such a basic food in China that the Chinese words for “cook” and “eat” both include the word for “rice”. At first people picked wild rice. But people were farming rice 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.
In the north, people ate millet
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.
All the tea in China
Wheat reaches China
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. Or, if they couldn’t get those things, they lived on chestnuts. 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.
Fish and vegetables
People probably first came to China following the fish north along the Pacific coast, and by about 40,000 BC they invented pottery, probably in order to store fish and make pickled fish or fermented fish sauce. That made their rice taste a lot better!
When people could afford it, they also bought or grew vegetables to put on their rice. Cucumbers and bok choy, for instance, are native to China.
Chicken and other meat
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. But most of the meat may have gone to men: by 500 BC in the Eastern Zhou dynasty, women were eating less meat and millet than men, and more soybeans and barley.
Video of how to eat with chopsticks
Chinese food and stir-frying
Taoism and Chinese food
Around 500 BC, the Taoist philosophy of Lao Tzu brought new ideas to Chinese medicine and Chinese food. Taoists believed that all foods could be divided into yin foods and yang foods. If you didn’t eat a good balance of yin and yang foods, you would get sick.
Which Chinese foods were yin?
Foods that grew up in the air, like fruit on trees, were more yin. So peaches, wine, and citrons were yin. People often called these “cold” foods, though that’s not about their temperature or their spiciness.
Which Chinese foods were yang?
Foods that grew under the ground, like onions and garlic, were more yang. Sea salt, meat, eggs, chicken, fish, and cheese were also yang. People called these “hot” foods.
Foods that grow right on the ground, like rice and wheat, were in the middle.
People liked to pair yin and yang foods – cold and hot foods – up. They would eat a yang food like cheese with a yin food like wine, or with fruit. They felt that these foods tasted good together. Plus, eating them together helped to keep your body in a healthy balance.
Noodles in China
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, just like they cut up their meat and vegetables to save on fuel. Boiling and frying took less charcoal than baking.
The Silk Road brings new foods to China
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 and maybe a new improved kind of sorghum from India to China. About 900 AD, Central Asian lemons started coming to China too.
The invention of tofu
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. (Tofu is a yin food – a cold food.) Around the same time, the loss of northern China to the Jurchen led the Southern Song dynasty to turn southward. People ate more rice and green vegetables, and less meat, wheat, and millet.
The Mongols bring Central Asian food to China
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.
A cookbook from medieval China
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.
Did you find out what you wanted to know about ancient Chinese food? Let us know in the comments! And check out how Chinese food changed when European ships brought American foods to China.