20 Historical Facts About Chinese Food

21 November 2021

If you enjoy Chinese food, here are 20 historical facts about Chinese food that heavily influenced and shaped the Chinese food we eat today.

In this first article of our new Chinese Food Focus: First Bite series, we’ll take a brief look at some historical facts about Chinese food you should probably appreciate, especially if you enjoy such food.

chinese_temple_in_autumn
chinese_temple_in_autumn

20 Historical Facts About Chinese Food

Who doesn’t enjoy Chinese food? Ok, I know, not everyone. I appreciate it for sure, but I know very little about Chinese food or its natural origins.

Where In Wembley Can I Enjoy Great Chinese Food?.

Below are 20 historical food aspects of what affected the rise of cooking in China from early times, leading to the food we’ve come to enjoy today.

    1. Early National Beliefs
    2. First Evidence
    3. Cooking Firepits  
    4. Planting And Harvesting
    5. Cooking At Scale
    6. Early Ovens
    7. Cooking Methods
    8. Food Availability and Geography  
    9. Traders and Movement
    10. Early Settlements
    11. Importance of Trading
    12. Geography & Variety
    13. Ongoing Transformation
    14. Living Circumstances
    15. Traditions and Beliefs
    16. The Power of Food
    17. Aroma, Texture, Taste & Colour
    18. The Four Natures & Five Tastes
    19. Outside Influence 
    20. China’s Popular Cuisines

Introduction – 20 Historical Facts About Chinese Food

I first tasted Chinese food in the 70s, and beyond choosing my favourites, I realised then that I knew little about the food or the culture surrounding it.

At that time, China had already been a civilisation for thousands of years, relative to our timeline. Its food structure was already sophisticated, mature, known and well-understood.

China Landscape
Scenic view of the Yulong River at Yangshuo, Guilin, China

So, below we’ll look briefly at some of the milestones that led to what we see on our Chinese menus today.

As you read on, let’s first look at a few facts about China, the country.

    • In 1949 China had a population of 541 million in 1949. That number is about 200 million greater than the United States has today. Today, China has a population of around 1.4bn.
    • China occupies approximately 9.6 million square kilometres and comprises 23 provinces and six regions.
    • China is the 3rd largest country in the world after Russia and Canada.
    • The first pre-imperial dynasty got formed around 2070 BC.
    • The size of the country means that it spans five geographical time zones, with Beijing as its capital, Shanghai as its economic zone, and Shenzhen as its technological centre.

So below is a short set of 20 historical facts about Chinese food that together have shaped the development of the food we eat today.

To appreciate this development, we need to cast our minds back to rural times. Let’s look at some facts that played a part in this development.

01- Early National Beliefs

Most people believe that Chinese food got started by a man named ‘Peng Chang-Kuei

However, this is not the case. Cooking would have evolved across the entire country instead of through a single individual, especially as the means of communication across the country in those early days were unevolved.

Know that China is physically a vast country, with wide-ranging geography in parts.

02- First Evidence

The first known evidence of what people might consider cooking, involving more than just boiling or frying, dates back to 5000 BC during the late Stone Age in China.

03- Cooking Firepits

During these times, it is believed many hunter-gatherer tribes all over mainland China gathered around firepits to cook their meals. China has a vast landmass, so this almost certainly took place alongside what other groups discovered. 

04- Planting and Harvesting

Some tribes discovered how to plant crops and harvest them for consumption, which led to them forming a community. Settlements such as these grew more prominent over time and eventually evolved into what we know as modern-day Chinese cities.

05- Cooking At Scale

As the population grew, so did the need for a more efficient way to cook food on a larger scale. This need continues to this day.

06- Early Ovens

Thus, some people began to build enclosed ovens made from bricks and clay, which opened up into giant pits, where fires could burn. With this new technique, you needed only to place the food inside and leave it until ready. We now believe such a pit is functionally the same as what we today regard as modern-day stoves or ovens. 

07- Cooking Methods

This pit method gave birth to many different cooking styles that have grown over time, including stir-frying, deep-frying, pan-frying, Wok Hei (flavour from a wok), steaming, smoking and many others.

08- Food Availability & Geography

Food is always affected by the local geography and what’s locally available. So the population grew in China, and their respective locally involved cuisines evolved to accommodate various lifestyles and palates. 

09- Traders & Movement

After many years of settlement in mainland China, traders would journey from one city to another, trading different spices and other food products they had acquired during their travels.

As mentioned above, China borders 14 different countries, so trading with neighbouring countries is valuable. 

10- Early Settlements

Eventually, some settled in certain areas, which led them to develop new cooking styles specific to those areas where local produce was abundant.

For example, people believe that the cuisine of Szechuan (Sichuan) province got developed by Han dynasty settlers who came across a large river filled with giant red chilis by chance. 

Since then, people have created dishes like Kung Pao Chicken (Gong Bao Ji Ding) using this local ingredient as the main ingredient.

11- Importance of Trading

During the Qing (Ching) dynasty, as trade between China and other countries, became more common, many traders brought back foreign influences to China, giving rise to new cooking styles such as Chow Mein and Fried Rice Dishes.

12- Geography & Food Variety

It wasn’t only trading that influenced China’s direction. China’s geography played a part too.

For example, the waterways, rivers, and canals between regions made it easy to exchange goods and foods.

Know that the land’s sheer landscape and physical characteristics led to a massive variety of food and vegetables, only a handful of which exists outside of China.

13- Ongoing Transformation

During this time, Chinese food underwent a considerable transformation and has never stopped evolving since then.

This development should not be surprising as food preparation is constantly in flux.

People move around, travel, adopt and adapt to their circumstances based on what’s available and how much it costs.

14- Living Circumstances

How they live, their living circumstances and the available tools and utensils are also relevant. For example, migrants with a reduced set of functional foods can blend different foods with other local foods.

Humans have always adapted.

15- Traditions and Beliefs

In China, people’s actions tend to be more purposeful, based on the rules and beliefs of society.

16- The Power of Food

There is much more to Chinese food than simply eating it. For example, food gives Chi (the vital force necessary for every living being).

It is responsible for maintaining the yin and yang, all underpinned by Traditional Chinese Medicine and the I Ching, an ancient divination text, held in high regard by the Chinese.

17- Aroma, Texture, Taste & Colour

Judging by the pleasing visuals of Chinese food, it is unmistakable that the Chinese judged the food not only for its aroma, texture and taste but also its colour.

18- The Four Natures & Five Tastes

Chinese meals reflect The Four Natures (hot, warm, cool and cold) and The Five Tastes (pungent, sweet, sour, bitter) with a purpose behind the food salty).

19- Outside Influences

The Portuguese and Spanish introduced chilli peppers, potatoes and corn into China. All of these now form a part of many signature Chinese dishes.

20- China’s Popular Cuisines

China boasts eight popular cuisines – Canton, Sichuan, Hunan, Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangsu and Shandong.

chinese_sweet_and_sour_food_with_pork_and_fresh_vegetables
Asian sweet and sour pork cuisine

Conclusion

Finally – Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular food types globally. This article discussed historical facts that underpin “Chinese” food and how the food-preparation methods evolved.

We also identified the different regional cuisines within China that are well-known for their unique flavours and ingredients. I was only aware of Cantonese and Sichuan cuisines.

Where In Wembley Can I Enjoy Great Chinese Food?.

It should be clear that China’s path to great food with its inbuilt sophistication, diversity, variety and culture, while not dissimilar to the way other countries have taken, is unique and characteristically thoughtful.

Other modern newer food sources offer alternatives to cuisines that effectively hack our senses with food that make money but offer less nutrition, creativeness and health – more pity us.

If you have any thoughts, be sure to leave them in the comments section below.

Don McDonald

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