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China's Early Food Culture

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Winter Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(4) pages: 19 to 20


Cooking and the food culture of this country is known in considerable detail. For those who wonder how, be advised that in the 1970s, an excavation of a Han Dynasty tomb uncovered it well-stocked with bamboo cooking utensils, metal woks, ceramic steamers, and more than three hundred recipes for dishes made with chicken, duck, pheasant, quail, dog, pig, lamb, and other foods telling how they were prepared and how served.

These and other finds included murals showing bakers, cooks, and winemakers and their dishes. There were written explanations about how to make many of the foods, what beverages they consumed with them, and the pastries they loved with them, too. Some told about the intricacies of making them and other foods consumed then, too.

We know from this and past excavations, they were growing rice at least eight thousand years earlier than first thought. There are those who dispute this, but only because they say it was one and a half times before the above dates. They used soy beans at least five thousand years earlier than most thought, bred pigs a thousand years less than that, and likewise for cows, sheep, and goats.

Then and now, some few percent of their land was arable, and it took more than half of their people laboring on it and still they had to import food from the Middle East, Malaysia, and India to adequately feed themselves. More recently, with imports from North and South America, and thanks to Europeans, Americans, and Arabs, many transported it to many places in China by land and sea, and nowadays, also by air.

From earliest times, Chinese cooked foods coming into their country boiling, steaming, and more recently using metal woks and pans. They ate them with chopsticks and spoons, and drank some of them. Some of these foods came from other lands, rivers, lakes, ponds, and seas, and came into their country through the four thousand miles of their coastline. They incorporated foods from the cradles of other cultures including some from Manchuria, Mongolia, Russia, Korea, the ‘Stan’ republics, Tibet, India, Nepal, and Burma which is now known as Myanmar, from Laos and Vietnam and from places further afield.

China’s early beginnings did include foods of the Yangshao culture more than five thousand years before the Christian era when they raised rice, millet, and barley, imported then grew wheat, netted or caught fish by line or net, and captured then domesticated small animals. Later, they imported and then grew grapes, pomegranates, squash, figs, peaches and other foods from the Middle East, learned to mill their own and imported grains, grew or imported vegetables, brought in almonds from Turkestan, cardamon from India, oranges from Indonesia, snow peas from Holland, and potatoes and taro from Europe. Much later and much closer to these days, they imported and then grew their own chilies and corn that originally came from the Americas.

The Chinese do love all foods made well. They have eaten many kinds over the centuries, adopted and adapted others from all over the world, and as their proverb indicates, first one eats with the eyes, then takes food in aromatically, then ingests it through their mouth, and finally learns how to grow it themselves. This magazine discusses many of these foods from early times to date in articles such as but not limited to: Food Facts on the Silk Road; Hangzhou and Ancestor Tables; Early Chinese Cookbooks and Restaurants; Chinese Food Perceptions in the US; Chinese Adventures in the Global kitchen; Chinese Food in History, and still others. They are in this magazines complete Index at www.flavorandfortune.com.

Woks when they were first used in China. While Chinese food may be ancient, we never did see consistent dates for the use of their metal cooking pot, the wok. We once read a few were found in early excavations of places at the beginning of the Han Dynasty (in 202 BCE). And, in a 1998 Oxford Symposium article titled ‘On Food and Cookery’ by Anne and Gerald Nicholls they said “few would deny the art of Chinese cooking is one of the oldest in the world”.

They mention the sand pot and advise it can be strengthened with wire around its outsides, that it might have been used during the Chou Dynasty (12th century BCE - 221 BCE) a thousand years earlier than many have said. They said it was used for frying, roasting, and braising, was made of clay or pottery, even a few of bronze. Then they go on to say that in the Tang Dynasty (618- 907 CE) they used a wide metal pan, a kuo, but never said where, when, even how. We know the word ‘wok’ is Mandarin but we never saw their earliest date of use, did you?

There were two main metal cooking pots called ‘wok,’ one with small metal handles on both sides, the other called a pau with one long handle which was often of wood, a few short ones of metal. Both, made of metal, had handles of wood or metal, both used to fry or stir-fry foods, and those with wooden handles did keep cooks further away from the heat sources, but when they were first used offers various dates, no consistency.

Another typical Chinese metal pot, some divided in the center or with a single bowl sat on a funnel-shaped center to heat and cook foods using charcoal or alcohol at their base to heat the foods. Some were called ‘Mongolian Firepots,’ and they had moat-shaped rings suspended around their chimneys for the liquids to heat the foods in; and the foods were put in these moats. The heat came up the center, the moat sat around it, and the moat’s liquid cooked the food thanks to its heat source at its base. Newer ones now use electricity as their heat source.

Popular early pots were not made of metal but of sand and called sand pots. Later ones had wires around to strengthen them, as they went directly on their heat source. Some were thin and fragile, wires strengthening them, some easier to clean as they had glazed interiors, glazed interior covers, too.

We once had a sand pot with no exterior wires. It did crack and scald us. We replaced it with one with wires around the outside and never had that scary experience again. Nowadays, many Chinese pots are heated by electricity, often a safer method of heating them. Most were in use before the Xia Dynasty which some did not believe was real.

The Xia Dynasty about a dozen years ago Chinese experts did question if this Dynasty was imaginary or legendary. Now, we know it actually did exist because archeologists in the Henan Province did find one of its important cities, namely Yangcheng.

They learned that in the Xia Dynasty was some time from the 21st to 16th centuries BCE, it was there and Gaocheng was its capital. It was west of Zhengzhou, in Dengfeng County, and may have been about forty miles away. There, archeologists found more than a thousand pottery pieces, basins, stemmed cups, wine goblets, and many things made of stone, bone, and shells carbon-dated thanks to Professor An Jinhuai of the Henan Institute of Archeology. He directed the excavation and is also credited with seeing their porcelain making some time in Shang Dynasty times (16th-14th centuries BCE). He said Xia people were active there, in what today are the West Henan and South Shanxi Provinces in the Yellow River Basin. This area in now called ‘the cradle of Chinese civilization’.

The Book of Mencius records King Yu as founding this Dynasty, and he lived there making Yangcheng its capital. Experts point out the term then used was ‘king’ and note it predates the word ‘emperor’ in most Chinese historical tomes.

Sima-Qian of the Western Han Dynasty, said that King Yu lived in Yangcheng and it was about forty miles from Zhengzhou, the Songshan Mountains in pictures are in its background, the Yinghe River can be seen in its foreground. It is on a high earthen mound, a wall believed to be its Western Wall very near. Some say the Eastern section of this city was probably washed away by flood waters of the Wudu River. They do believe the city was the same size as the mound above it, and skeletons in groups of two to seven that were found in pits below were in its many residences in postures looking like their deaths were unnatural. Maybe they were slaves offered as sacrifices.

Designs on the pottery found there had small checks and vertical lines, probably fragments from cooking utensils and wine and steaming vessels. The latter were recognized by the holes in their bottoms. They also found arrowheads, a pottery spinning wheel, knife, hairpin, and more.

Professor An believes this was a Xia city and knows that the shards, carbon-dated as more than four thousand years old, were even mentioned in some historical records. Those digging there also found a rock-cut water supply system and ceramics marked ‘Yangcheng’, and they are why he and others believed King Yu lived here.

Some forty sites of Xia culture were nearby, most to be explored in the future. This delayed exploration behavior is the protocol China now uses to reserve places and excavate them later when techniques yet to be discovered will determine more than if they are investigated now. A small cooking vessel was found nearby and may have been a child’s toy. It was photographed in a museum and dated from Xia Dynasty times.

                                                                                                                                                       
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