Chinese Food History

In the long Paleolithic Period (3 million years to 10 thousand years ago), human beings in the primitive society of China mainly lived on hunting. They didn’t know how to use fire and ate everything raw. In that age there was no fine food and cooking. About 50,000 years ago, one Chinese ancestor, Suiren, who was the head of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, invented “manual wood drilling to make fire”, which started the era of cooked food. By the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), “Eight Delicacies” appeared, which indicated that cooking had become an art. During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty to Qin Dynasty (770 – 207BC), four major cuisines, Shandong Cuisine, Jiangsu Cuisine, Guangdong Cuisine and Sichuan Cuisine were successively born. From the Han Dynasty (202-220 BC) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), people in the central plains gradually blended their food with the ingredients from the western regions and the flavor of the minorities in the northwest, making the food more abundant. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1636-1912), the “Eight Cuisines” gradually formed, each with distinct features.
Chinese Food History


Grain Prevailed from Neolithic Period to Shang Dynasty (10,000 - 1,000 BC)

In this period, the processing of grain was relatively primitive and simple. The Chinese ancestors processed the grains roughly by grinding base, rolling rod, pestle and mortar. It was difficult to get a large amount of milled grain to meet the daily needs. So they had to eat grain with shell and only those high classes could enjoy the milled grain. It was not only the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC) that the stone mill was invented and people started to eat milled grain, which is a historic leap in Chinese food history.

“Eight Delicacies” Appeared in Western Zhou (1046 - 771 BC)

With the rapid development of productivity, cooking methods had been very diverse by the Zhou Dynasty, mainly including boiling, steaming, roasting, deep-frying and stir-frying. As the variety of ingredients increased, various cookers were invented and more advanced cooking methods also emerged. The appearance of “Eight Delicacies” in this period indicated that cooking had become an important art.

“Eight Delicacies”, also known as “Eight Treasures”, refers to eight kinds of ingredients cooked with different methods. The ingredients include rice, pork, mutton, beef, venison and the cooking methods include roasting, stewing, boiling, pickling, and grounding, etc. “Eight Treasures” set a precedent of making dishes with various cooking methods and ingredients. Many delicious dishes of later generations were developed from them. People even adopted “Eight Treasures” in the names, such as “Eight Treasures Gruel”, “Eight Treasures Noodles” and “Eight Treasures Porridge”.

Gradual Emergence of “Four Cuisines” from Eastern Zhou to Qin (770 - 207BC)

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770 - 476 BC) and Warring States Period (475 - 221 BC) in Eastern Zhou Dynasty, along with the integration of various nationalities, the food gradually developed in the north and south style.

In the north, Qi State, the present Shandong Province has a long food history and advanced cooking techniques, which promoted the appearance of Shandong Cuisine, China’s earliest local cuisine.

In the south, the Chu people unified the southeast of China and possessed abundant food ingredients including aquatic products, livestock and poultry, vegetables, which helped the development of cooking techniques. The embryonic form of Jiangsu Cuisine came into being.

In the west, Qin State conquered Ba and Shu States, bringing with the food culture of Central Plains. The three kinds of diets influenced each other and merged with each other to form the predecessor of Sichuan Cuisine.

By the end of the Qin Dynasty, Qin established the Nan Yue State after annexing parts areas of Guangdong and Guangxi. The king of Nan Yue introduced the advanced cooking techniques and utensils from the central plains. Combined with the rich food resources of the region, a unique cuisine had been formed - Cantonese Cuisine.

So far, China’s Four Cuisines have been basically formed, which is an important milestone in Chinese food history.

Ingredients from Western Regions Enriched the Food of Central Plains in Han (202BC - 220AD)

During the Han Dynasty, the communication between central plains and northwest regions become more and more frequent. Zhang Qian, pioneer of the Silk Road introduced walnut, carrot, cucumber, pomegranate, pepper and other products from the western regions to the central plain, greatly enriching the food ingredients of the central plain. At the same time, many cooking methods and unique diets from the western regions were also introduced into the central China, including cakes which later developed into mooncakes and cheese. Meanwhile, the peach, apricot, pear, tea and other products and food culture were introduced from the central plain to the western regions.

A Climax of Chinese Cuisine in Tang (618 - 907)

Chang ’an, present Xi’an and the capital in Tang Dynasty was the cultural center of the world, which promoted the communication and integration of different nationalities in many aspects, including in dining. And the communication of food among different nationalities brought up the prosperity of Tang cuisine. According to historical records, a special banquet called Shao Wei Banquet once prevailed in Chang ’an in the Tang Dynasty. It consisted of 58 dishes, including cold and hot dishes, barbecue, soup, dessert and pastry.

Tea Food Popular in Liao (907 - 1125) and Jin (1115 - 1234)

With the trade of tea, tea food had also entered into the daily life of people. On the wedding ceremony, tea food was a must. The so-called tea food on the banquet was similar to dough twist, honey cake and other fried snacks. Only at the end of the banquet, the distinguished guests were provided with tea while others were provided with cheese.

Mongolian Food Got Popular and Halal Food Appeared in Yuan (1271-1368)

In the Yuan Dynasty, China’s dining developed widely together with its territory. Mutton hotpot was created by Kublai Khan who was the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. Roast whole sheep was also produced, which is still a popular dish today. China’s first roast duck restaurant was opened in Beijing, the then capital.

With the westward expedition and the large number of Muslim immigrants from Persia, Arabia and other places, a new ethnic group - Hui nationality was formed. Together with other Muslim nations, they created and developed halal food in China, another important landmark in Chinese food history.

Luxurious Court Dishes in Ming (1368 - 1644)

During the Ming Dynasty, Chinese cuisine had great development. The food was quite luxurious, especially in the court, which was even wasteful. All kinds of ingredients from all over the country, such as Termite Mushroom dishes, morels, sea cabbage, seaweed, asparagus, pine nuts, yams and walnuts appeared in the daily diet of the court.

Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of Ming Dynasty, played a great role in promoting the development of royal court cuisine. He ordered the establishment of a number of large restaurants, decorated in luxury and equipped with theaters, stage and other entertainment facilities. And he gave the civil and military officials rewards to go to the restaurants, which greatly promoted the development of court cuisine.

Eight Cuisines Shaped in Qing (1644 - 1911)

In Qing Dynasty, some regional dishes had become more and more distinctive and formed their own unique style. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, the four regional cuisines - Zhejiang Cuisine, Fujian Cuisine, Hunan Cuisine and Anhui Cuisine formed, shaping the Eight Cuisines together with the previous Shandong Cuisine, Jiangsu Cuisine, Sichuan Cuisine and Cantonese Cuisine.

A high point in Chinese food history, the Man-Han banquet also appeared in this period. This is a full and formal banquet combining Manchu and Han delicacies. In the Qing Dynasty, it could be held only by the royal family and officials. With grand and noble scale and complex process, it contains more than 300 kinds of dishes, covering the best ingredients, most skilled cooking methods and most delicious flavors from all over China.

Scientific and Healthy Diet in Modern Times

After millions of years of development and inheriting various cuisines, ethnic flavors, and medical dishes, etc, Chinese food is now quite complex and rich. In addition, Chinese people pay more and more attention to scientific cooking and healthy diet.
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- Last updated on Jul. 26, 2023 by Brenda Lian -
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