Chinese Dishes — History, Development, Culture, Names, and Facts
But what did ancient people eat in old times, and how did Chinese dishes originate and develop throughout history?
Ancient Chinese Dish Series in Yellow River Region — Grains and Hunting Food
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 ways to preserve food.
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 sauces were important dishes for royals and nobles to eat together with staple food.
The ruling class could eat meat as often as they wanted; hence they were also called "Meat Eaters" to represent their privileges and responsibilities.
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 primary staple food, with local vegetables being their main dishes. Meanwhile, meat dishes were luxurious and only for important festivals such as Chinese New Year, or they got lucky in hunting.
Ancient Dish the Bean Rice (Dou Fan)
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 dishes.
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
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.
Shaobing with Minced Meat As Stuffings
In addition, Yin Yang and Five Elements theories had been developed and widely used as an essential cookery rule, guiding people to eat proper dishes based on local climate and personal physical conditions.
Roast Duck (Kao Ya), Picture from ZEYULEE.
The Popularity of Rice and Development of Regional Cuisines in the 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.
Deep Fried Spring Rolls (Chun Juan)
Hence, eating rice as the staple food and the wide use of seafood in dishes became influential in southern diet habits.
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)
Thriving Culinary Arts, Wide Using of Ingredients, and Forming of Three Meals A Day in the 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 of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)
During this period, staple food included all types of fermented wheaten food and porridge from royals to civilians.
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, gradually forming an important regional cuisine, the Sichuan Cuisine.
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), 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), Picture from Weishiji WX.
Widespread 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 food culture, was popularized with the widespread use of iron pots.
Sweet and Sour Pork (Tangcu Liji)
After Emperor Zhao Gou established Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279), southern China developed as another political and economic center. It formed more regional cuisines based on varied geographical features, climates, and local products.
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
Meanwhile, the main diet habit regarding staple food has been formed: wheaten food for northerners and rice for southerners.
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 when cooking and eating mutton and lamb reached a peak.
Grilled Gigot (Kao Yang Tui), Picture from Wankang Meishi.
Importing 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 and Sliced Ham with Spicy Sauce, Picture from Sushi Xiaolaodi.
Meanwhile, the chili pepper was introduced and welcomed in some humid southern regions. It 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), Picture from Yanmou Mumu.
Until then, most Chinese food cooking methods till then have fully developed, and combined with agricultural and economic development, more dishes were invented and widespread in this unified wealthy empire.
Stewed Crab and Pork Meatball (Xiefen Shizitou)
Further Development of Chinese Dishes and Formation of Eight Cuisines
Since the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), culinary art has thrived rapidly to a new level.
Today's Eight Cuisines have been gradually formed, as well as other tasty regional cuisines.
Soy Sauce Stir-Fried Rice (Chao Fan), Picture from Zhou Shanshan.
You Might Also Like:
Exquisite Dessert in Chinese Food Culture
Chinese Alcohol Culture and Toasting Etiquette
Origin, Classification, and Culture of Chinese Tea