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Yuan Dynasty Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Fall Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(3) page(s): 33

Before the Yuan, there were many dynasties, this one beginning in 1279 CE. it was before the Liao Dynasty (916 - 125 CE), the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (902 - 979 CE), the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), and one known as the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618 CE). Looking even further back, Chinese agriculture began about 8000 BCE, even then the main meat was probably pigs raised in family yards. Dogs may have been domesticated about two thousand years later, foxtail and panic millet were popular, certainly by 4000 BCE. The Book of Songs mentions wheat and barley as the only two foreign foods in China then, even has some recipes for them. In those day, Chinese knew cattle, sheep, and goats, but where they came from was not known.

Basil, coriander, and fennel were popular herbs in those early days as were many different nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Foods we read about did include walnuts, pomegranate, and others. They may have come from the Middle East earlier. One whose arrival we know for sure was watermelon, coming to China by 900 CE. In different sources we note different dates, and different places they originated.

The Western World, adopts rice and millet from Asia, they had apricots, cabbages, plums, soy and other beans, and persimmons, too; in later years. Grapes went to China, onions and related bulbs were already there, where from or if indigenous, we know not.

By the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), many foods went from China to the West including white fleshed peaches, oranges, black-eyed peas, fluffy white chickens, carp and other gold-colored fish, and the Pekin duck. The years for each are reported variously in assorted sources with little consensus.

One of the first dynasties in China was from the 21st to the 16th centuries BCE. The Shang came after it, probably from then through the 14th centuries. The Zhou Dynasty, most often dated as 1045 - 221 BCE does include carrots coming from Afghanistan to China, as did broad beans; and both went to the West from there.

The Chinese were and still are great food borrowers. We learn about some foods from two Chinese books, the Yinshan Zengyao (1) and Huihui Yanfang (2). The first or (1) was a diet manual published before the 14th century BCE mentioning two hundred and forty-two plants and animals known when published including cow, horse, sheep, goat, donkey, and dog.

The second (2), written by Hu Sihui, said to be China’s court nutritionist and of either Chinese or Turkic heritage, mentions fewer foods, but has ninety-five recipes. Seventy-two of them use lamb or mutton, many use a starch, and sixteen are for breads, eleven are Chinese and one is Indian, many using ginger, Chinese radishes, beans, and/or nut pastes, they may have come from Middle Eastern countries. His volume mentions sixty-seven foods, many are herbs, seventeen are Chinese, and many do have medicinal uses, seven are from Southeast Asia, and seventeen are not delineated as to where from.

Little is known about how much China knew or was impacted by the comings or goings of these foods. This book mentions there is a great influx of plants coming to China, not where they came from or later went to. Perhaps they moved one way or another by 1500 CE.

During and after this, seventy Western food plants grew and were used in China. A dozen mentioned in Volume (2) as were two Western birds coming to China, the turkey and the Muscovy duck. During these times and thereafter, many Chinese restaurants open in bigger towns world-wide. Now, there are more Chinese restaurants world-wide than ever before with hardly a single reasonable-sized town without at least one.

Written materials, in short supply in the early years, may included items lost that did have exist. Some were mentioned, but as there probably was much conflicting information.

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