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Chinese Cuisine Has Central Asian Roots

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food and History

Winter Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(4) page(s): 29


Food in Central Asia has been influenced by activities on the Silk Road and other trading routs. Some included the movement of melons and coriander that came east, other foods went west including soy beans and sauces. There are many ways we know this.

In the 1330s, a court nutritionist named Hu Su Hui, whose heritage was Turkic, wrote a book that recommended moderation in intake. Titled: Necessary Knowledge on Drinking and Feasting he shared Baghdadi, Kashmiri, Mongolian, and Turkish foods and recipes, most using light seasonings. In this book were dishes and foods from the Near East that were probably new to China. These regions exchanged foods, facts, and fabrics, met and mixed many other things from Beijing to Rome including seasonings, vegetables, fruits, meats, breads, noodles and even staple foods. Many are documented in the Yin Shan Zheng Yao, often referred to as the YSZY.

The main caloric differences were the meats, many animals recently domesticated. Agricultural movements included wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas, millet, maize, fruits, soybeans and other legumes, dairy items and fruits. These foods provided variety in what people ate, and people did learn to mill grains and make noodles and buns with these ground flours. The Chinese now could make jiaozi and baozi and a plethora of noodle dishes. The JSZY discusses many of these foods, medicines, and alcoholic beverages made from them.

Meats were mostly boiled, lamb was made on skewers, and when not boiled, it was prepared on hot rocks. Soups were cooked in water, dishes were seasoned with cinnamon, ordinary cardamon and tsasko. Scallions were called 'bunching onions,' and many foods were made with milks and cheses.

Several books, including those of Hu Shiu, the YSZY Ni Tsan's Clour Forest Collection of Riches for Drinking and eating, and Lin Hong's Simple Ways of Mountain Dwellers, all shared Mongolian, Han, Altaic, and Turkic foods, health notions and cures; and they also included Chinese ones.

Many foods were new such as cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, melons, onions, and garlic, and they did not always move in the same directions. Seasonings also moved in different ways; they included black pepper, soy sauce, any a different vinegar, cumin, and chili peppers. Organ meats included lung, stomach, and brains that were plain or stuffed, and fruits including plums, apricots, ears, apples, cherries, grapes, pomegranates, and oranges. These often moved to newer places as did teas and alcoholic beverages.

It should be noted that the YSZY mentions two hundred and forty-two animals and plants, only twenty-eight from the west including cows, horses, sheep goats, donkeys, dogs, and honeybees. Carrots came the other way, specifically from Afghanistan. Brad beans came from Iran and were often cooked with eggs and/or nut pastes.

Agriculture was invented independently long before these times, from China by 8000 BCE and from the Near east circa 9500 BCE. Pigs were domesticated by 6000 BCE, the dog about the same time, and both transferred east to west or visa versa. I.Panic millet which the Chinese called ji and botanically is known as Panicum miliaceum went west about 4000 BCE, wheat, barley, cattle, sheep, and goats came to China around 2500 BCE. When the honeybee moved is less certain. Chickens were domesticated in South China and went west, foxtail millet went many places from China to elsewhere in Asia, then it went to Europe. The horse was domesticated in the Ukranian Steppes about 3500 BCE.

Early Southern Chinese depended upon rice all kinds of millet, buckwheat, many fruits, cabbages, and beans. In the Book of Songs, only wheat and barley are mentioned; and by the Tang Dynasty, many Near Eastern pants were grown in China. Many of them are detailed in Laufer's Sinolranica volume, but that was published in 1919. Later still, in 2007, Sun Simiao's Recipes Worth a Thousand Gold mentions not only wheat and barley, but basil betel nuts, cardamon, coriander, fennel, pomelo, sugar beets, walnuts, and other foods not mentioned before. Many foods did come from Southeast Asia moving elsewhere.

Many foods are in the YSZY, a Chinese food and nutrition manual for court and thinking people. It was compiled in the early 1300s long before many others, and was translated into English by E.N. Anderson and P. Buell more recently. It is very worth reading as an excellent reference manual about foods in China at the time it was written.

                                                                                                                                                       
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