2015-01-02 Beijing Food Tour

Ancient Chinese food

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You can credit the ancient Chinese food culture for presenting to the world, a cuisine that is full of flavor, aroma, and color along with all the wisdom of cooking methods acquired over a long period of time that goes back to about 5000 years!

ancient food

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 as early as about 5000 BC. People cooked rice by boiling it in water, the way they do today. Or they made it intowine. Rice wine has been popular in China since prehistory.

But rice doesn’t grow in northern China, which is much drier and colder. People in northern China gathered wild millet and sorghum instead. By 4500 BC, people in northern China were farming 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 in the Shang Dynasty, about 1500 BC. People brought wheat to China from West Asia. 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.

Since meat was so expensive, and because Buddhists didn’t eat meat, starting around the Sung 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.

As recorded by Marco Polo, in his writings, people in China started eating porridge made out of boiled millet in milk during the time of Kublai Khan, around 1200 AD.

Food has always been an important aspect of Chinese culture and its delightful culinary history dates back to about 5000 years. It has evolved with its flavor and cooking methods ever since. And over this vast period of time, the Chinese have developed and mastered a complex system of preparing food, such as identifying ingredients that make compatible combinations; making use of cooking techniques that are multi-phased such as first steaming and then deep-frying or stir frying, then boiling; and administering multi-phased flavoring like marinating between the stages of roasting, or after steaming, or before stir frying. Chinese culture has always considered food as an art, and emphasis has always been laid on the culinary techniques, preparation, serving and appreciation of food.

Carefully imbibing Confucianism and Taoism, the Chinese always laid a lot of emphasis on satisfying the olfactory, visual, as well as the gustatory senses, which they do by giving equal importance to incorporating aroma, color, and flavor. They usually have a combination of 3-5 colors, which are chosen from ingredients that are caramel, black, white, yellow, red, dark green, and green in color. Typically, a vegetable and meat dish is cooked using one principle ingredient and then including 2-3 ingredients of secondary importance which have contrasting colors. It is then prepared according to ancient methods of cooking, adding sauces and seasonings, resulting in an aesthetic dish full of aroma, color and flavor.

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