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America’s Foods Came Early To China

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Spring Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(1) page(s): 12 and 14

When did foods from the American continents cross the Pacific? Which were the ones to first make the voyage to China and where in America did they come from? Who, how, and when were these first foods that travelled to China documented?

The current guru of first foods traveling to China from America is Ho Ping-ti. He was born in Tianjin in 1917. He considers himself a native of Jinhua in the Zhejiang Province, and comes by his scholarly talents thanks to an illustrious Song Dynasty ancestor, Ho Ji (1188 - 1269 CE). He was an early family member who founded the Beishan or Northern Mountain School of thought. If you never heard of this school of thought, be advised, they are a sub-group of Neo-Confucianists.

Back to our current guru, Ho Ping-ti, who in 1938 graduated from Qinghua University, the prestigious school some call 'The MIT of China.' Later, in 1952, he went to New York City's Columbia University and earned a PhD. His research was is in British and Western European History. It was earned while teaching at the University of British Columbia; he arrived at that univeristy in 1948.

Ho is well known for a 1955 article titled: The Introduction of American Food Plants into China. That item was published in American Anthropology, Volume 57 on pages 191-201, and in it Ho suggests dates for American foods that are earlier than most others believed at that time. In it, he says several foods came to China from one or another of the America's by land or by sea, and he documents a half dozen of them, as follows.

PEANUTS were thought to have come to China in the early 1600's. No, he says, because he finds mention of them and taro in a Huang Hsin-teng tome, and Huang lived from 1490 to 1540 CE. Writing that these hsiung yu came from Fujian, he says they are also known as lo hua sheng. Calling them 'flowers fallen to the ground,' Ho finds peanuts first mentioned in Suzhou in 1538. Dr. Wang Shih Mao, in Hsueh Pu Tio Shu also mentions them, but not until 1587. Wang does not say where they come from but does advise they are brought to Shanghai with cotton traders before 1516 CE.

As Peruvian and Portuguese traders did travel and trade with the Fujianese early on, they could have brought these underground legumes purposely or inadvertently to either Shanghai or to Fujian. There are dozens of peanut varieties, most botanically known as Arachis hypogaea and all of them self-pollinate. Many were known in Peru before the 1600's making his hypothesis well-founded.

SWEET POTATOES, botanically known as Ipomocea batatas and no relative to the yam, Ho Ting-pi says came to China from the Philippines earlier than 1594 because in China in that year they helped stave off starvation. Thought to have come to China thanks to a provincial governor, Ho and others report that it is not the governor who should get credit for importing sweet potatoes because they arrived a generation earlier. He says they came from somewhere in South America, their native habitat, and he documents them in 1563 when they were called the 'red tuber.' The following year he finds them called 'yellow tuber.' In Chinese, he says they are called kan shu, fan shu, chin shu, or bai shu, and all of these are varieties of the sweet potato. Ho says they may have come from India or Manila, of that he is not sure, but he is certain they came to China first into the Yunnan Province.

MAIZE, which the Chinese called fan mai, yu mai, or jung shu, is the third food Ho writes about. He believes they came to China earlier than prevailing thinking. He finds Portuguese arriving in China in 1516, two or three decades earlier than maize was first said to be there, and this 'foreign wheat,' he says, is written about in 1555 CE in the History of Kung Hsien in Western Honan. Ho credits a monk, Martino de Hevrada, who did see it growing in Fujian, and he says Hevrada found it common and used as a tax in 1577. Because it was, he surmises it must have arrived two or three generations earlier than 1550.

In the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (1977), Professor David Keightley of the University of California at Berkeley says these 'firsts' might be superceded by new archeological finds, so no final judgment if Ho is correct is possible at this time.

TOMATO is another food from the America's Ho says arrives in the 1500's. Then called fan chieh, seeds of this Lycopersicon esculentum are found in a tomb dating from the early 1500's. Reported in a Chinese-English language magazine, these newly found seeds did germinate and produce fruits resembling tomatoes. We have yet to see photographs and if any reader has, would love to get a look at them. Can someone accommodate us?

CHILI PEPPER is another item coming to China with the Portuguese in the 1500's. These hot peppers, called la chiao, are said to be either Capsicum frutescens or Capsicum annuun, or maybe both. He advises they first arrived in Macao, probably came from South America, perhaps specifically from Peru, or maybe from the Philippines.

WHITE POTATO, another American import, Ho says first came to China from Peru in late Ming Dynasty times (1368 - 1644 CE). They are cultivated later, in Taiwan in the 1650's and called yang yu or ma ling shu. Later they are called ho lan shu or the Holland potato. Perhaps they have another origin, as their name suggests, but Ho does not provide more information about them.

What is interesting, is that the Chinese adopted these foods quickly and began using them as they do other fruits and vegetables. Every one of these six foods in the composite picture on tis page is still in use and still popular in China.

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