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Early Chinese Food: Neolithic To Now

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(1) pages: 27 to 30

Food is and was essential for every human being in every society, neolithic to now. What people ate is based on their environment, culinary skills, and cultural development. The question is: What did the Chinese first eat? We know that millet was the first crop found in the north, rice the main crop found in the south. Broken grains of all of them were found at several sites in several places, in several pots, and in or on several items of equipment. They appeared in northern China as early as 7000 BCE in or on reaping tools and on semi-lunar knives and grooved adzes, then later they found sorghum, and after them, other crop seeds. In the south, rice phytoliths were found a bit later. All of these are symbolic of the early Chinese food cultures. What is not known is when they ate them and how. We do know they did drink fermented beverages made from these grains. Wine pouring devices were found, even some as fancy as the one seen here.

During their early beginnings, Chinese and peoples of all early societies were hunters and gatherers who later planted the seeds they found and they watched them grow. They gathered these wild grains and learned to plant and harvest them from the seeds they planted.

Principal early grains gathered then cultivated in the north were different from those in the south because climatic conditions were different. In the north there was broom-corn millet (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica). In the south, it was rice (Oryza sativa). Much later, there were legumes including soybeans in the north (Glycine max) and red beans (Phaseolus angularis) in the south.

In addition to gathering and planting, the Chinese collected roots and tubers such as artichokes in the north (Stachys sieboldii), and Chinese yam, taro, and greater and ordinary yams in the south (Dioscorea batatas, Colocasia antiquorum, D. Alata, and D. Esculenta).

Vegetables found in the north and later domesticated include garlic, mallow, knot-weed, Welsh onion, and varieties of Chinese cabbage. In the south they include amaranth, white gourd, luffa, lily, and Manchurian water rice (Allium sativum, Malva verticillata, Polygonum hydropiper, Allium fisulosum, Brassica chinensis and B. pekinensis, also Amaranthus mangostanus, Benincasa cerifers, Luffa acutangula, Ipomoea aquatica, Lilium tigrinium and Zizania latifolia. As to beverages used early on, we know that in the North wines were used for sacrificial purposes, in the south tea (Thea sinensis) and wines were consumed. From about 5000 BCE, Neolithic cultures did date back to those at Yangshao, Hsinto, Tawnekuo, Machiapang, Homutu, Tabei, Talungtan, and Tapenkeng. We know they did expand and increase their populations over time. The Yangshao culture is believed the earliest of these Neolithic communities. It was discovered in 1920 by farmers in that same-named village which is in Northwestern Honan near a river tributary. Others were found at Weishui--Lower Fenho Yangshao near Banpo, Miaotikou, and at Hsiwangtsun. These are documented as having been there over long periods of time; they were on the banks of the Yellow, Weishui, and Fenho Rivers or their tributaries.

The people living in these communities ate wild game and many other edible plants. The animals whose bones were found at these sites and assumed they were consumed include, but in no known order nor amount, antelope, bamboo rat, badger, brown bear, elaphure, fish, wild gorse, marmot, various mollusks, rabbits, rhinoceros, snails, and turtles. These are in addition to the foxtail and broom-corn millet harvested first with wooden and stone tools, later with metal hoes and spades, chipped knives, stone discs, leather ropes, and grinding equipment.

Many pottery jars are also found at these sites, many probably used for storing liquids, whole grains, and flours. Also found are bones from dogs and pigs, fewer from cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals; and many silkworm cocoons, bone needles, and bone fishing implements. In addition to the grains and vegetable seeds, there are indications of use of other vegetables and of hemp. Many are from slash and burn farming, some from from aquaculture.

On one very early trip we made in the 1970s, we did visit Banpo Village in the Shaanxi Province. This large neolithic site was occupied repeatedly, and archeologists who did search it did find remnants of repeated slash and burn farming, perhaps to make the soil easier to dig and more fertile. They also did find stone spears and sinkers for fishing, and fish bones assumed to be from those living here who ate the fish. The pottery found has pictures of sea animals and those from the land on them.

When we visited this site, guides there told us that aquaculture was practiced even before Neolithic times, and aquatic plants harvested, some even cultivated. They believe fox nuts, water caltrop, lotus seeds, cattails, water chestnuts, wild rice, water shield, and rush were gathered. Among the bones found in large quantity include those from deer, elaphure, rhinoceros, turtle, and other animals such as the dog, pig, water buffalo, and carp. These are in large enough supply to indicate their meat was no doubt consumed.

Burial sites, such as those at Machiapang, show a culture that used reddish-brown, brown, or grayish black ceramic containers, a few tripod-types, some with flat bases and/or bowls, others with large pedestals. Seeds found in or near are of rice, acorns, water-caltrop, and foxnut or pieces of them.

People did write about foods found and dated from the second and first millennia BCE. These told us what they believe the early people living here ate. There was some writings and illustrations on turtle shells, less on bamboo, wood, and fabrics because they do not survive as well as those found on bone, stone, bronze, and other metals, and those on stone have as many as twenty to fifty characters, and are from Shang Dynasty times (1700 - 1100 BCE).

Archeologists believe the writings may have been from political and ritual activities of upper class folk doing mercantile activities. When Huang Ti worked at some of these sites, he did order burning all artifacts, so the remaining fragments of the originals are probably corrupted.

Some researchers indicate they may have been ideas from texts such as the Book of Poetry, Book of History, Book of Changes, Book of Rituals, and/orThe Spring and Autumn Annals. Every one of these are items written in early times, and the do reinforce that rice was found in China’s south, millet in its north. Furthermore, there are at least five different types of rice.

Those living in colder climates need a lot of high energy food and do consume more meat than those in the lower southern latitudes. Primates rely on a lot of uncooked animal food, grains, and vegetables for most of their intake. South of the Yangtze River, in Hong Kong, and in Taiwan, they now eat white and other rices as staples, but when they were hunters and gatherers, they ate whatever they found. After they settled down and planted seeds, they then ate rice cooked in water, some from grinding stones probably used to rid their seed coats and make them more easily digestible. Some was brown or rice not hulled, some red or black rice of long grain and short grain, and some various glutinous rices. They also ate animals found and killed when hunting.

Before the Shang Dynasty, these are probably badgers, bears, wild boar, water buffalo, wild cats, deer, elephant, fox, mice, monkey, muntjak, otter, panther, pig, tiger, and weasel. About the time their agriculture began, people guesstimate they consumed a bit more than half of their calories from meat, about forty percent from grains and vegetables, and the rest from domesticated plants.

Those that lived near rivers or the sea ate shellfish, crabs, frogs, shrimp, turtle, tortoise, and fin fish. They made boats and rafts to go out and catch carp, catfish, trout, a variety of other fish, and maybe an occasional alligator or crocodile. There are indications of the making of ponds to contain and grow sea animals. The amount of animal protein they consumed did decrease when vegetable domestication increased. In The Book of Poetry, there is mention of sixty-four different vegetables consumed. When they learn to use fire, meat, grains, and vegetable consumption increases.

The Chinese were and still are known for their extensive culinary. They take pleasure in preparing and consuming food and drink. An early clue is that vessels containing food and drink were and still are buried with their dead in both earthenware containers and hollowed out bamboo sealed at its ends with leaves or hand pastes. Making these foods more digestible happens when heating them. Some are cooked on or over the fire or in boiling water. Sticks lifted them out of the liquid or off the fire, and by 5000 BCE, foods are also steamed, some from dried or pickled food items. There is no mention of wine made from fruit in pre-Han times, only of wine from grains. The Chinese did think it important to use them for sacrificing to the spirits, and for use as stimulants and medications. When people settled down and figured out how to grow more vegetables and staple grains, they found more substitutes for the wild foods used. In mornings, and for ill or elderly, the did long-cook their grains in lots of liquid, a practice more popular in the south where they needed fewer calories than in the north. They steamed ground flour foods as breads, noodles, and/or buns, and they added foods to flavor their rice and their noodles. Many were leftover from the day before, sometimes fish or fatty pork were their flavorings.

By the 1930s, China was thought of by its rice and wheat growing regions. Most in the rice areas and nine percent in the north of these areas did eat some at almost every meal. For the poor, things to flavor the grains were few, oil and fat of greater importance to them. Nowadays, those not poor avoid more fatty foods than do the affluent, but that was not always the case.

As to animal consumption, about 400 BCE, the Chinese changed from eating sheep and cattle to consuming more pig and poultry and some dog. Though not committed vegetarians, they do eat lots of them and less meat than people from other countries. The less affluent flavor their rice, noodle, or bun foods with a few legumes, some use soy sauce, sweet and white potatoes, also cabbage, peas, and beans.

In the 1500s, lots of leavened wheat foods was introduced expanding their diet. Those living near rivers and coastlines consume more fish at many of their meals; and they did develop better ways to catch them or raise them in pond-like places. Many dried or salted their fish and other sea foods, and rarely did they smoke them.

They did and continue to eat chickens, ducks, and geese, and some ate cats, rats, and yellow dogs. This intake did decrease, at least since the time of Mencius (about 280 BCE); and it is not popular these days. it was mentioned in the Li Chi for those that could afford them. They are still adored meats roasted, boiled, steamed, and even raw.

As to rodents, their primary purpose then and now is as a cure for deafness. In the south, snakes are appreciated with cat and chicken for their taste. One writer reports “they taste good when cooked together.” Sesame oil and oils from other nuts and seeds, and from beans, were and are appreciated. Peanut oil was not used then as it was introduced into China then; the Portuguese did that in the 16th century.

Tea, and boiled water from vegetables, were and still are common beverages, but not at meals. Water from cooked vegetables is still consumed, hot or cooled plain water is, too, that is after boiling it at an earlier time. Tea drinking by the Fujianese and southern Chinese was and is common, but not at all meals. It is consumed more now in homes than ever before; in earlier times tea was more popular in tea houses. Water and tea made with just a few tea leaves is more enjoyed more for its aroma than its taste.

Wine has been made in China from the time of the Yellow Emperor (2697 - 2598 BCE), the earliest made from millet. In the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) it was also made from grapes, though that practice did diminish. The Xi Chi says thousands of gallons were stored at Farghana east of Samarkand. There was lots of wine drinking during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), when it was consumed hot or warm, not at room temperature nor cold.

Most wines in early times were made with added flavorings, red wines made from red rice or white rice mixed with seeds, fruits, even vegetables. In Fuzhou, they drank and still drink more red and white wines, but most are made from fermented rice. At the end of most meals, rice is served steamed sometimes served as its own course. Often not served during meal or banquets, it is still popular shoveled into the mouth from the edge of the rice bowl held close to the lips. Common after a meal, was spitting; but that is less so now.

Most southern Chinese eat their first real meal just before or near noon, the next one at sundown. At home, some do have a sweet soup and a cup of tea between meals. Many eat congee early; and the northern Chinese call this juk. No matter its name, it is said to be a snack, not a meal. Common for Northern folk and city folk in early times was to eat two meals a day, now three meals are more common. In those early times, the poor did not sit down to eat, but ate standing or squatting on their haunches. Babies were fed until the age of two, after that, they had to feed themselves. Adults took their children out with them when they ate in restaurants; they rarely used baby sitters; they still rarely do.

Foods for adults in restaurants was served in bowls or on platters, and intended for everyone at the table. Politeness required taking some from the nearest side of the bowl or platter, not from the furthest away even if it was something preferred. Politeness also requires leaving the last few pieces of food on the serving dish. Other politeness means not making noise when chewing, not talking when eating, and spitting bones and other less desirable leftovers away from the table. All of these were and often still are acceptable behaviors as they believe dogs and cats will find them and eat them, so not to worry.

After meals, use of toothpicks or the ends of a pit such as from a Chinese olive is commonplace. One uses ones hands to cover ones mouth when picking ones teeth or removing a food stuck between the teeth. These were considered more acceptable in the past than they are today; but they still are practiced.

Below are a few early recipes that can please family and friends. The first one is described as made with two-inch long creatures of nature.” Every one of them looks modern as we have rewritten them in the style of this magazine. Do enjoy them.
Fish with Egg White Puffs
½ pound of whitebait or any white fish
6 egg whites
1½ teaspoons coarse salt
1 Tablespoon Shao Xing rice wine
1/4 cup fresh or tinned milk
a dash of ground pepper
1 cup fish or chicken stock
1 cup vegetable or soy bean oil
½ teaspoon minced shallots
½ teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1. Clean and discard heads, tails, scales, and guts of the fish; then rinse and dry them with paper towels before mashing them to a pulp.
2. Whip egg whites with salt, wine, milk, pepper, stock, and the cornstarch until stiff.
3. Heat wok or fry pan, add a two tablespoons of the oil, and when hot, add one quarter cup of the fish mixture and flatten it making a square or round pancake-shaped item. When light tan and set, turn it over, add a few sprinkles of the shallots and ginger, and allow this side to get light tan, too.
4. Remove this cooked pancake to a paper-towel-lined pre-heated platter. Use the rest of the fish mixture the same way, then discard the paper towel, and serve.
Shrimp with Fermented Doufu
½ pound fresh live shrimp
2 squares fermented doufu, mashed
3 Tablespoons mao tai or a 100 proof Chinese liquor
2 Tablespoons Chinese white vinegar
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1. Rinse the shrimp, and dry on paper towels, then discard the paper towels.
2. Mix fermented doufu, liquor, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil.
3. Mix the shrimp with the doufu mixture, and stir well, then refrigerate covered for one hour.
4. Remove from the refrigerator, drain and discard any liquid, then serve.
Stuffed Crab and Pork, Sui Dynasty-style
1/4 pound chopped crab meat
½ pound finely minced pork
2 egg whites
½ teaspoon hot pepper oil
1 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
½ teaspoon coarse salt
2 shallots, finely minced
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
4 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
10 crab shells, upper parts only, rinsed and dried
1/4 red pepper, seeded and minced
1 leaf bok cai, coarsely chopped
1. Mix crab meat and minced pork and the egg whites, then add the hot pepper oil, rice wine, salt, minced shallots and ginger, cornstarch, and ground pepper.
2. Using half the cornstarch, dust the inside of the crab shells, and shake out and discard any excess.
3. Fill the shells with the crab-pork mixture, and put them on a plate or in a heat-proof steamer basket. Sprinkle some of the red pepper on each one, and some of the bok cai around them. Bring water in its bottom pan, and steam for fifteen minutes, then remove them to the platter, and serve.

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