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Early Chinese Larders

by Michael Gray

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(2) page(s): 21 and 33

Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson and his Austrian assistant, Otto Zdansky, discover caves near the village of Zhoukoudian in 1921. This is a small place twenty-seven miles southwest of Beijing. Later, they discover evidence of early humans, now called Peking Man. At least one of these caves is the size of a football field, and in one area it is a hundred twenty feet, floor to ceiling.

Beginning about 400,000 BCE, this cave is inhabited continuously for some two hundred thousand years until the interior is completely filled with layers of debris. To date, about one hundred thousand stone tools, more than one hundred teeth, fourteen skulls, and many bones representing forty individuals are exhumed from Zhoukoudian, Many wonder what were early humans eating who lived or visited there?

At Zhoukoudian, the oldest finds were radio-carbon dated as from about 500,000 BCE. Remains of the hackberry found there seem to indicate humans, then called hominids, took an interest in this fruit and in other edible plants, perhaps because they were there by chance.

People living at this site are hunter-fisher-gatherers who use fire to illuminate the cave and cook their meat. Seventy percent of the animal protein they eat is probably deer. However, bones of bear, tiger, hyena, elephant, rhinoceros, camel, water buffalo, boar, horse, and leopard are also unearthed. Although some seem to represent human food, it is likely others are brought in by hyenas and wolves who may have spent more time in the caves than did the hominids.

Research shows agriculture beginning in northern China around 6,000 BCE in what is now known as Banpo Village. Just east of Xian, this is almost exactly in the center of the country. The first crop there is foxtail millet, a staple of Neolithic Chinese. Later, wheat, barley and hemp are planted. Rice was not even though north China was warmer and more humid then it is than now.

Soybeans, generally considered first cultivated somewhere in China, are traced no earlier than 1045 BCE. When they are, they become part of the diet, and are a major source of protein, especially for peasants and laborers. Other than the soybean, botanists believe many other beans there include broad beans, red beans, and velvet beans.

Soybeans are later brined and then hydrolyzed and made into soy sauce. Eventually, they learn to stop the process and the beans become dry and blackened, and they are delicious. Savory pastes, pickles, and fermented soybeans are made then, too, and all become immensely popular.

Silkworms are known at Banpo and believed raised as a food source. It is assumed they were domesticated, but evidence is scanty. None the less, they are thought to be the first insects raised; and this is three thousand years before the honeybee. By 4,000 BCE, large farming villages are widespread and wild foods supplement millet, a few vegetables, and animals; all used to flavor their pots.

Pigs and dogs are domesticated during these times, chickens follow. Animals provide ancient Chinese with meat, fat, and bones, also antlers, skins and feathers. Milk and milk products were not popular at this time. People did eat bamboo shoots, persimmons, grass seeds, walnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, mulberries, fish, clams, and mussels, and of course deer are part of their larder.

Hemp, better known as marijuana, is one of their edible seeds. Clothing is made from the fiber of this plant. People are aware of hemp's many properties, and they use it as pain reliever and anesthetic.

Cooking in these early times is mainly by boiling and steaming, though there is some roasting. A typical dish might be a millet stew with mallow–vegetable no longer well-known, turnips and reeds, and an occasional piece of deer, rabbit, dog, fish, or fruit added. Long grain and short grain rice is available before 5,000 BCE, but not a popular grain then.

Early records relate harvests and agriculture, they are among divination information on several oracle bones found. By 300 BCE, sources indicate Chinese farmers can judge changing seasons by closely observing natural phenomena such as hibernation, migration, blossoming, and changes in weather and celestial phenomena. They record what takes place at regular intervals. Observations and other phenomena are collected and eventually written down. Many are preserved in the Shi Jing. That tome mentions no fewer than forty-six plants we can call vegetables, most probably growing wild. It also mentions two hundred and sixty common domestic and wild animals-- birds, fish, and insects among them. hese are found in the north circa 1000 BCE.

Between 1992 and 1995, a joint Sino-Japanese team discovers prototype paddy fields with irrigation systems. These are near Suzhou, and are the oldest discovered to date. Cultivated rice is excavated from more than one hundred twenty Neolithic sites in south China and twenty sites in the north with Southern Chinese growing various rice strains. Some of these find their way to Japan around 1000 BCE and to Korea not long after that.

By the end of the Han Dynasty (220 CE), a comprehensive agricultural treatise called Nongshu becomes an established genre with specialized works on crop systems, horse breeding, irrigation, locust control, pigeon raising, and more.

Rulers of ancient China attach huge importance to food. They use as their main symbol of royal power, a massive cooking vessel known as the ding. At the Zhou court (1045 – 256 BCE) there are twenty-one different official posts and a staff of two thousand three hundred people involved in cooking and preparation of food for banquets, ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices, also for medicine.

Zhou texts mention four kinds of alcoholic beverages, likely fermented and made from grains, fruits and berries. Alcohol is an indispensable part of every feast, of many meals, and it is important at virtually all ritual occasions.

One of the earliest Chinese cookbooks from Zhou times (1045 - 221 BCE), does list twenty methods of cooking including boiling, steaming, roasting, red-cooking, clear-simmering, pot-stewing, stir-frying, deep-frying, shallow-frying, splashing, plunging, rinsing, cold-mixing, sizzling, salting, pickling, steeping, drying, and smoking. It is by using these food preparation techniques that foods from China's early larder are prepared; steaming and boiling are probably the most common ones. All of these techniques are the basis for today's recipes.

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