Chinese Dishes — History, Development, Culture, Names, and Facts

Today in Chinese Food Culture, there are main Eight Cuisines that were officially formed in Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), as well as other tasty regional cuisines. 

 

But what do ancient people eat in old times, and how did Chinese dishes originate and develop throughout history? 

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

chinese dishes
 

Ancient Chinese Dishes in Yellow River Region — Grains and Hunting Food

 

From the Neolithic Era to Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), the ancient Chinese civilization had been formed in the Yellow River area. 

 

During this peopled, people cultivated Five Grains (soybeans, wheat, broom corn, foxtail millet, and rice) and vegetables, kept livestock, and hunted in nature for food. 

 

Stew, boil, and roast were the main cooking methods, while pickling and air-drying were common means to preserve food.

Chinese dish the Cured Meat

Cured Meat, Picture from Dong Mingyang.

Flavorings were also quite simple, including salt, ginger, green plum, leek, vinegar, sugar, wine, Sichuan pepper, etc. 

 

Hundreds of types of meat sauce were important dishes for royals and nobles, to eat together with staple food. 

 

The ruling class could eat meat as often as they want, hence they were also called "Meat Eater", to represent one's privileges and responsibilities.

Eight Main Dishes of the King of Zhou (Zhou Tianzi Bazhen)

Eight Main Dishes of the Kings of Zhou (Zhou Tianzi Bazhen), Including Staple Food, Meat Sauce, and Meat, Picture from Honghu Tongshu.

As for civilians, grain and beans were their major staple food, with local vegetables being their main dishes, while meat dishes were luxurious, and only for important festivals or they got lucky in hunting. 

Chinese Dish the Bean Rice or Doufan

Chinese Dish the Bean Rice (Dou Fan)

chinese dishes
 

The Invention of Tofu and Introduction of Exotic Food

 

Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) was a unified, prosperous empire when Chinese dishes developed quickly. 

 

After Prince Liu An (179 BC — 122 BC), the uncle of Emperor Wu of Han invented Tofu, it was widespread and popularized among civilians, which could provide proteins to civilians and with more delicious taste.     

 

Since then, Tofu has been an important ingredient in many Chinese dishes. 

Chinese Dish the Steamed Tofu Stuffed with Vegetables or Meat (Yipin Doufu)

Steamed Tofu Stuffed with Vegetables or Meat (Yipin Doufu)

Meanwhile, during the reign period of Emperor Wu of Han, Zhang Qian opened up the Silk Road and imported many types of vegetables, flavorings, and fruits, including cucumber, taro, coriander, garlic, black pepper, grape, etc. 

Cold and Dressed Cucumber and Tofu Skin

Cold and Dressed Cucumber and Tofu Skin

With more introduced vegetables, combined with developed technics, people of the Han Dynasty extracted more types of vegetable oil, and refined flour grinding and pastry fermentation skills. 

Chinese Dish Shaobing

Chinese Dish Shaobing

In addition, Yin Yang and Five Elements theories had been developed and widely used as an important cookery rule, guiding people to eat proper dishes based on local climate and personal physical conditions.

Chinese Dish Roast Duck (Kao Ya)

Chinese Dish Roast Duck (Kao Ya), Picture from ZEYULEE.

chinese dishes
 

The Popularity of Rice and Development of Regional Cuisines in Era of Division

 

In the divided Three Kingdoms, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589), the area with intense competition and cultural fusion among regimes, dishes with obvious regional characteristics started to form. 

Spring Rolls (Chun Juan)

Spring Rolls (Chun Juan)

Hence, southern diet habits, eating rice as the staple food and wide use of seafood in dishes, became influential. 

Chinese Dish the Sliced Raw Fish (Yu Kuai)

Chinese Dish the Sliced Raw Fish (Yu Kuai)

In addition, more types of food were imported and cooked into popular dishes, such as eggplants and hyacinth beans.

Steamed Vegetables and Meat Dishes (Nongfu Sanzheng)

Steamed Vegetables and Meat Dishes (Nongfu Sanzheng)

chinese dishes
 

Thriving Culinary Arts, Wide Using of Ingredients, and Forming of Three Meals A Day in Golden Tang Dynasty

 

In Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), ingredients and cooking methods thrived, when agriculture developed to an advanced level and most flavorings were widely used.

 

In this unified empire, the political and economic center was still in northern China, where different types of exquisite wheaten food were the most popular dishes. 

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

During this period, from royals to civilians, staple food included all types of fermented wheaten food and porridge. 

Some Examples of Fermented Wheaten Food of China

Some Examples of Fermented Wheaten Food of China

After the outburst of the An-Shi Rebellion, Emperor Li Longji (685 — 762) fled to the southwest of China and was later followed by more people that escaped there to avoid wars in chaotic times.  

 

Their arrival brought more culinary arts into this region, which gradually formed an important regional cuisine, the Sichuan Cuisine. 

Famous Dish of Sichuan Cuisine the Steamed Chinese Cabbage in Supreme Soup (Kaishui Baicai)

Famous Dish of Sichuan Cuisine the Steamed Chinese Cabbage in Supreme Soup (Kaishui Baicai)

Sugar processing skills also improved and made it possible to cook more styles of sweet desserts.

Bean Cakes (Dou Gao)

Bean Cakes (Dou Gao), Picture from Lingchuan Meishi.

Since the prosperous Tang Dynasty, civilians could eat three meals each day, which had been the diet habit of royals in old times. 

Wonton (Hun Tun)

Wonton (Hun Tun), Picture from Weishiji WX.

chinese dishes
 

Widespread of Stir Fry Dishes and Full Development of Southern China

 

In Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), stir-frying, one of the most important cooking technics of Chinese dishes, has been popularized with the widespread use of iron pots. 

Sweet and Sour Pork (Tangcu Liji)

Sweet and Sour Pork (Tangcu Liji)

After Emperor Zhao Gou established Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279), southern China developed as another political and economical center and formed more regional cuisines based on varied geographical features, climates, local products.

Stir-fried Shrimps with Longjing Tea Leaves (Longjing Xiaren), Famous Dish of the Capital City of Southern Song

Stir-fried Shrimps with Longjing Tea Leaves (Longjing Xiaren), Famous Dish of the Capital City of Southern Song.

In the wealthy Song Empire, fancy restaurants, morning markets, night markets, professional catering, and takeouts, all appeared and flourished, with appearances of more exquisite dishes, drinks, and desserts.  

Some Guangdong Style Desserts

Some Guangdong Style Desserts

Meanwhile, the main diet habit regarding staple food has been formed, which wheaten food for northerners and rice for the southerners. 

Chinese Dish Fried Noodles or Chow Mein (Chao Mian)

Fried Noodles or Chow Mein (Chao Mian), Picture from Wahaha Ali Xiaowanzi.

In the successive Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), Mongolian royals' preferences combined with advanced culinary arts, cooking and eating mutton and lamb reached a peak. 

Chinese Dish Grilled Gigot (Kao Yang Tui)

Chinese Dish Grilled Gigot (Kao Yang Tui), Picture from Wankang Meishi.

chinese dishes
 

Importing of More Types of Staple Food and Chili Pepper

In Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), more types of food were imported, such as sweet potatoes, maize, potato, and peanuts. 

 

They were cooked into delicious dishes and eaten as the staple food for poor people or in famine years.

Stir-fried Potato with Sliced Ham

Stir-fried Potato with Sliced Ham, Picture from Sushi Xiaolaodi.

Meanwhile, the chili pepper was introduced and welcomed in some humid regions in the south and became one of the most important ingredients in these regional cuisines, such as Sichuan and Hunan Cuisines.

Famous Dish of Sichuan Cuisine the Kung Pao Chicken (Gongbao Jiding)

Famous Dish of Sichuan Cuisine the Kung Pao Chicken (Gongbao Jiding), Picture from Yanmou Mumu.

Most Chinese food cooking methods till then have fully developed, combined with agricultural and economic development, more Chinese dishes were invented and widespread in this unified wealthy empire. 

Jiangsu Cuisine Dish the Stewed Crab and Pork Meatball (Xiefen Shizitou)

Stewed Crab and Pork Meatball (Xiefen Shizitou)

chinese dishes
 

Further Development of Chinese Dishes and Formation of Eight Cuisines

 

Since the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), culinary art thrived rapidly to a new level.

 

Today's Eight Cuisines have been gradually formed, as well as other tasty regional cuisines. 

Click to Read More About Eight Cuisines

Stir-Fried Rice (Chao Fan)

Stir-Fried Rice (Chao Fan), Picture from Zhou Shanshan.