The history of Chinese Food

When you think of Chinese food you think of rice, and rice was the first grain that was farmed in China. There is archaeological evidence of rice farming along the Yang-tse River as early as about 5000 BC. People cooked rice by boiling it in water, the way they do today. Or they made it into wine. Rice wine has been popular in China since prehistory.

But rice doesn't grow in northern China, which is much drier and colder. People in northern China gathered wild
and sorghum instead. By 4500 BC, people in northern China were farming millet. They ate it boiled into a kind of porridge.

Wheat was not native to China, so it took much longer to reach China. People in northern China first began to eat wheat in the Shang Dynasty, about 1500 BC. Wheat was not native to China, but people brought it to China from West Asia. People in China boiled it like millet, to make something like Cream of Wheat.

These were the main foods of China - rice, millet, sorghum, and wheat. In northern China, people mostly ate millet, wheat, and sorghum. In southern China, people mostly ate rice. Poor people ate almost nothing but these foods.

When people could afford it, they bought or grew vegetables to put on their rice. Soybeans, for instance, are native to China. So are cucumbers. For fruits, the Chinese had oranges and lemons, peaches and apricots. The native flavorings are ginger and anise (Americans use anise to make licorice).

On special occasions, people also put little pieces of meat on their rice. By 5500 BC, the Chinese were eating domesticated chicken, which came originally from Thailand. By 4000 or 3000 BC, they were eating
pork, which was native to China. Sheep and cattle, which were not native, reached China from West Asia also around 4000 BC.

Since meat was so expensive, and because Buddhists didn't eat meat, starting around the Sung Dynasty (about 1000 AD) people also put tofu, or bean curd, in their food as a source of protein.

Because China doesn't have big
forests, it was always hard to find fuel to cook with. Chinese people learned to cut up their food very small, so it would cook quickly on a very small fire.

During the
Han Dynasty, millet wine became very popular and was even more popular to drink than tea. Also beginning in the Han Dynasty, about 100 AD, Chinese people began to make their wheat and rice into long noodles.

Marco Polo, a visitor to China from
Venice, wrote that by the time of Kublai Khan, about 1200 AD, Chinese people ate millet boiled in milk to make porridge. Even as late as 1200 AD, Chinese people did not bake bread.
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