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.
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.
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.
- Early National Beliefs
- First Evidence
- Cooking Firepits
- Planting And Harvesting
- Cooking At Scale
- Early Ovens
- Cooking Methods
- Food Availability and Geography
- Traders and Movement
- Early Settlements
- Importance of Trading
- Geography & Variety
- Ongoing Transformation
- Living Circumstances
- Traditions and Beliefs
- The Power of Food
- Aroma, Texture, Taste & Colour
- The Four Natures & Five Tastes
- Outside Influence
- 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.
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.
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.
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.