Chinese Food and Related Customs

Chinese Food and Related Customs

Does the thought of delicious Chinese food make you feel hungry?
And just what is your favorite Chinese food dish?
Whenever you want to have a conversation with Chinese people, you will find that their favorite topic is food. They love their food, and they love talking about it.
So, what is so special about Chinese food? And why do they cook it the way they do?

History of Chinese Food

chinese people who are eating

In ancient times, in the days before supermarkets, in China as much as anywhere else, “cuisine” was more a case of availability than taste. There is evidence that as early as 5000 BCE, rice was grown in central and eastern China. The rice was boiled to be eaten, as well as being made into rice wine. In northern China, where rice doesn’t grow, people farmed millet, and gathered wild sorghum. The millet was boiled and made into a kind of porridge.

Meat was saved for special occasions, and served in small pieces. By 5500 BCE the Chinese were eating pork, and also around 4000 BCE sheep and cattle were imported. The Chinese crushed soybeans and ate soybean oil for fat. Since meat was so expensive and Buddhists didn’t eat it, in around 1000 AD they used tofu and bean curd as a source of protein.

However, the special thing about China, even from long ago, is that diet and cooking was largely driven by philosophy and beliefs. It is said that in about 2000BCE the legendary Emperor Fuxi taught people to fish, hunt, grow crops and cook. And Confucius (after about 550 BCE) had great respect for the art of cooking, and established culinary standards and proper table etiquette – many standards which are still held to today. Nevertheless, social class also had a big impact on individual diet, as certain foods could only be eaten by those of noble birth.

One of the most notable things that westerners observe about Chinese dining (and cooking) is the use of chopsticks as a utensil. The earliest evidence of a pair of chopsticks (made out of bronze) dates back to about 1200 BCE. As the population grew and fuel for cooking fires was scarcer, people saved fuel by cutting food into smaller pieces that would cook faster. This eliminated the need for knives at the dining table (and Confucius taught that knives should not be used at the table) and chopsticks became the utensil of choice, initially just for cooking but eventually for dining as well.

During the early part of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), people ate noodles made from wheat dough or millet. During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 CE) Chinese people explored all possible sources of food for diet diversity and good health, although cows and bulls were off-limits for religious reasons. The drinking of tea became popular for all social classes. The Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years, but during this time millet wine was more popular than tea.

By the Song Dynasty (960 – 1127 CE) cosmopolitanism led to the proliferation of restaurants serving Chinese delicacies to common people that had previously only been available to nobility.

a chinese meal

In winter the Chinese people would store ice blocks and then when it got hotter they would ice in rice wine to make it really cold. In the late Tang Dynasty, they started to sell ice cubes and they would add sugar in the ice to attract more customers. In the Northern Song Dynasty they started selling sweetened ice cubes, and iced plum juice. From the Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1368 CE) a new breakthrough brought about the appearance of ice cream.

The great famine that resulted from the Cultural Revolution, launched by Chairman Mao in 1966, and still within the living memory of so many nowadays, also had a long-lasting effect on Chinese diet. In times of great hunger, people were willing to eat anything to survive, and this adventurous attitude to unfamiliar foods is still evident today.

By Ruth Wickham
Chief Editor & Writer