The history of Chinese cuisine is marked by both variety and change. The archaeologist and scholar Kwang-chih Chang says “Chinese people are especially preoccupied with food” and “food is at the center of, or at least it accompanies or symbolizes, many social interactions.” Over the course of history, he says, "continuity vastly outweighs change." He explains basic organizing principles which go back to earliest times and give a continuity to the food tradition, principally that a normal meal is made up of grains and other starches (simplified Chinese: 饭; traditional Chinese: 飯; pinyin: fàn) and vegetable or meat dishes (菜; cài).
The philosopher and writer Lin Yutang was more relaxed:
Chinese cuisine as we now know it evolved gradually over the centuries as new food sources and techniques were introduced, discovered, or invented. Although many of the characteristics we think of as the most important appeared very early, others did not appear or did not become important until relatively late. The first chopsticks, for instance, were probably used for cooking, stirring the fire, and serving bits of food and were not initially used as eating utensils. They began to take on this role during the Han dynasty, but it was not until the Ming that they became ubiquitous for both serving and eating. It was not until the Ming that they acquired their present name (筷子, kuaizi) and their present shape. The wok may also have been introduced during the Han, but again its initial use was limited (to drying grains) and its present use (to stir-fry, as well as boiling, steaming, roasting, and deep-frying) did not develop until the Ming. The Ming also saw the adoption of new plants from the New World, such as maize, peanuts, and tobacco. Wilkinson remarks that to "somebody brought up on late twentieth century Chinese cuisine, Ming food would probably still seem familiar, but anything further back, especially pre-Tang would probably be difficult to recognize as 'Chinese'".
The "Silk Road" is the conventional term for the routes through Central Asia linking the Iranian plateau with western China; along this trade route passed exotic foodstuffs that greatly enlarged the potential for Chinese cuisines, only some of which preserve their foreign origin in the radical for "foreign" that remains in their name. "It would surprise many Chinese cooks to know that some of their basic ingredients were originally foreign imports," Frances Wood observes. "Sesame, peas, onions, coriander from Bactria, and cucumber were all introduced into China from the West during the Han dynasty".
Not long after the expansion of the Chinese Empire during the Qin dynasty, Han writers noted the great differences in culinary practices among the different parts of their realm. These differences followed to a great extent the varying climates and availabilities of foodstuffs in China. Many writers tried their hands at classification, but since internal political boundaries over the centuries did not coincide with shifting cultural identities, there was no way to establish clear-cut or enduring classifications or ranking of foods and cooking styles. Different ethnic groups might occupy only small areas, but their cuisines were included in systematic lists from early on. Certain broad categorizations are useful, however:
The primary and earliest distinction was between the earlier settled and relatively arid North China Plain and the rainier hill country south of the Yangtze River which were incorporated into the Chinese empire much later. First canals and now railroads and highways have blurred the distinction, but it remains true that rice predominates in southern cuisine and flour products (principally various noodles and dumplings) in the north.
The "Four Schools" refers to Shandong's (called after its former polity of Lu), Jiangsu's (called Yang after its most famous branch), Cantonese (called after its former polity of Yue), and Szechuan's (abbreviated to Chuan) cuisines.
The cooking styles of other areas was then arranged as branches of these four:
|Lu (Shandong)||Yang (Su)||Yue (Guangdong/Cantonese)||Chuan (Sichuan)|
Eventually, four of these branches were recognized as distinct Chinese schools themselves: Hunan's cuisine (called Xiang for its local river), Fujian's (called Min for its native people), Anhui's (abbreviated as Hui), and Zhejiang's (abbreviated as Zhe).
Although no reliable written sources document this era of Chinese history, archaeologists are sometimes able to make deductions about food preparation and storage based on site excavations. Sometimes artifacts and (very rarely) actual preserved foodstuffs are discovered. In October 2005, the oldest noodles yet discovered were located at the Lajia site near the upper reaches of the Yellow River in Qinghai. The site has been associated with the Qijia culture. Over 4,000 years old, the noodles were made from foxtail and broomcorn millet.
Legendary accounts of the introduction of agriculture by Shennong credit him for first cultivating the "Five Grains", although the lists vary and very often include seeds like hemp and sesame principally used for oils and flavoring. The list in the Classic of Rites comprises soybeans, wheat, broomcorn and foxtail millet, and hemp. The Ming encyclopedist Song Yingxing properly noted that rice was not counted among the Five Grains cultivated by Shennong because southern China had not yet been settled or cultivated by the Han, but many accounts of the Five Grains do place rice on their lists.
The most common staple crops consumed during the Han Dynasty were wheat, barley, rice, foxtail and broomcorn millet, and beans. Commonly eaten fruits and vegetables included chestnuts, pears, plums, peaches, melons, apricots, red bayberries, jujubes, calabash, bamboo shoots, mustard greens, and taro. Domesticated animals that were also eaten included chickens, Mandarin ducks, geese, sheep, pigs, camels, and dogs. Turtles and fish were taken from streams and lakes. The owl, pheasant, magpie, sika deer, and Chinese bamboo partridge were commonly hunted and consumed. Seasonings included sugar, honey, salt and soy sauce. Beer and yellow wine were regularly consumed, although baijiu was not available until much later.
During the Han dynasty, Chinese developed methods of food preservation for military rations during campaigns such as drying meat into jerky and cooking, roasting, and drying grain.
Chinese legends claim that the roasted, flat shaobing bread was brought back from the Xiyu (the Western Regions, a name for Central Asia) by the Han dynasty General Ban Chao, and that it was originally known as barbarian pastry (simplified Chinese: 胡饼; traditional Chinese: 胡餅; pinyin: húbǐng). The shaobing is believed to be descended from the hubing. Shaobing is believed to be related to the Persian and Central Asian naan and the Near Eastern pita. Foreign westerners made and sold sesame cakes in China during the Tang dynasty.
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties non-Han people like the Xianbei of Northern Wei introduced their cuisine to northern China, and these influences continued up to the Tang dynasty, popularizing meat like mutton and dairy products like goat milk, yogurts, and kumis among even Han people. It was during the Song dynasty that Han Chinese developed an aversion to dairy products and abandoned the dairy foods introduced earlier. The Han Chinese rebel Wang Su, who received asylum in the Xianbei Northern Wei after fleeing from Southern Qi, at first could not stand eating dairy products like goat's milk and meat like mutton and had to consume tea and fish instead, but after a few years he was able to eat yogurt and lamb, and the Xianbei Emperor asked him which of the foods of China (Zhongguo) he preferred, fish versus mutton and tea versus yogurt. 280 recipes are found in the Jia Sixie's text the Qimin Yaoshu.
The fascination with exotics from the diverse range of the Tang empire and the search for plants and animals which promoted health and longevity were two of the factors encouraging diversity in Tang dynasty diet. During the Tang, the many common foodstuffs and cooking ingredients in addition to those already listed were barley, garlic, salt, turnips, soybeans, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, pomegranates, jujubes, rhubarb, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, yams, taro, etc. The various meats that were consumed included pork, chicken, lamb (especially preferred in the north), sea otter, bear (which was hard to catch, but there were recipes for steamed, boiled, and marinated bear), and even Bactrian camels. In the south along the coast meat from seafood was by default the most common, as the Chinese enjoyed eating cooked jellyfish with cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cardamom, and ginger, as well as oysters with wine, fried squid with ginger and vinegar, horseshoe crabs and red crabs, shrimp, and pufferfish, which the Chinese called 'river piglet'.
Some foods were also off-limits, as the Tang court encouraged people not to eat beef (since the bull was a valuable draft animal), and from 831 to 833 Emperor Wenzong of Tang banned the slaughter of cattle on the grounds of his religious convictions to Buddhism. From the trade overseas and over land, the Chinese acquired golden peaches from Samarkand, date palms, pistachios, and figs from Persia, pine seeds and ginseng roots from Korea, and mangoes from Southeast Asia. In China, there was a great demand for sugar; during the reign of Harsha (r. 606–647) over North India, Indian envoys to Tang China brought two makers of sugar who successfully taught the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane. Cotton also came from India as a finished product from Bengal, although it was during the Tang that the Chinese began to grow and process cotton, and by the Yuan Dynasty it became the prime textile fabric in China.
During the earlier Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589), and perhaps even earlier, the drinking of tea became popular in southern China. (Tea comes from the leaf buds of Camellia sinensis, native to southwestern China.) Tea was viewed then as a beverage of tasteful pleasure and with pharmacological purpose as well. During the Tang Dynasty, tea became synonymous with everything sophisticated in society. The Tang poet Lu Tong (790–835) devoted most of his poetry to his love of tea. The 8th-century author Lu Yu (known as the Sage of Tea) even wrote a treatise on the art of drinking tea, called the Classic of Tea (Chájīng). Tea was also enjoyed by Uyghur Turks; when riding into town, the first places they visited were the tea shops. Although wrapping paper had been used in China since the 2nd century BC, during the Tang Dynasty the Chinese were using wrapping paper as folded and sewn square bags to hold and preserve the flavor of tea leaves.
Methods of food preservation continued to develop. The common people used simple methods of preservation, such as digging deep ditches and trenches, brining, and salting their foods. The emperor had large ice pits located in the parks in and around Chang'an for preserving food, while the wealthy and elite had their own smaller ice pits. Each year the emperor had laborers carve 1000 blocks of ice from frozen creeks in mountain valleys, each block with the dimension of 0.91 by 0.91 by 1.06 m (3.0 by 3.0 by 3.5 ft). There were many frozen delicacies enjoyed during the summer, especially chilled melon.
The Song saw a turning point. Twin revolutions in commerce and agriculture created an enlarged group of leisured and cultivated city dwellers with access to a great range of techniques and materials for whom eating became a self-conscious and rational experience. The food historian Michael Freeman argues that the Song developed a "cuisine" which was "derived from no single tradition but, rather, amalgamates, selects, and organizes the best of several traditions." "Cuisine" in this sense does not develop out of the cooking traditions of a single region, but “requires a sizable corps of critical adventuresome eaters, not bound by the tastes of their native region and willing to try unfamiliar food.” Finally, "cuisine" is the product of attitudes which "give first place to the real pleasure of consuming food rather than to its purely ritualistic significance." This was neither the ritual or political cuisine of the court, nor the cooking of the countryside, but rather what we now think of as “Chinese food.” In the Song, we find well-documented evidence for restaurants, that is, places where customers chose from menus, as opposed to taverns or hostels, where they had no choice. These restaurants featured regional cuisines. Gourmets wrote of their preferences. All these Song phenomena were not found until much later in Europe.
There are many surviving lists of entrées and food dishes in customer menus for restaurants and taverns, as well as for feasts at banquets, festivals and carnivals, and modest dining, most copiously in the memoir Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital). Many of the peculiar names for these dishes do not provide clues as to what types of food ingredients were used. However, the scholar Jacques Gernet, judging from the seasonings used, such as pepper, ginger, soya sauce, oil, salt, and vinegar, suggests that the cuisine of Hangzhou was not too different from the Chinese cuisine of today. Other additional seasonings and ingredients included walnuts, turnips, crushed Chinese cardamon kernels, fagara, olives, ginkgo nuts, citrus zest, and sesame oil.
Regional differences in ecology and culture produced different styles of cooking. In the turmoil of the Southern Song, refugees brought cooking traditions of regional cultures to the capital at Hangzhou. After the mass exodus from the north, people brought Henan-style cooking and foods (popular in the previous Northern Song capital at Kaifeng) to Hangzhou, which was blended with the cooking traditions of Zhejiang. However, records indicate that already in the Northern Song period, the first capital at Kaifeng sported restaurants that served southern Chinese cuisine. This catered to capital officials whose native provinces were in the southeast, and would have found northern cuisine lacking in seasoning for their tastes. In fact, texts from the Song era provide the first use of the phrases nanshi, beishi, and chuanfan to refer specifically to northern, southern, and Sichuan cooking, respectively. Many restaurants were known for their specialties; for example, there was one restaurant in Hangzhou that served only iced foods, while some restaurants catered to those who wanted either hot, warm, room temperature, or cold foods. Descendants of those from Kaifeng owned most of the restaurants found in Hangzhou, but many other regional varieties in foodstuffs and cooking were sponsored by restaurants. This included restaurants featuring highly spiced Sichuan cuisine; there were taverns featuring dishes and beverages from Hebei and Shandong, as well as those with coastal foods of shrimp and saltwater fish. The memory and patience of waiters had to be keen; in the larger restaurants, serving dinner parties that required twenty or so dishes became a hassle if even a slight error occurred. If a guest reported the mistake of a waiter to the head of the restaurant, the waiter could be verbally reprimanded, have his salary docked, or in extreme cases, kicked out of the establishment for good.
In the early morning in Hangzhou, along the wide avenue of the Imperial Way, special breakfast items and delicacies were sold. This included fried tripe, pieces of mutton or goose, soups of various kinds, hot pancakes, steamed pancakes, and iced cakes. Noodle shops were also popular, and remained open all day and night along the Imperial Way. According to one Song Dynasty source on Kaifeng, the night markets closed at the third night watch but reopened on the fifth, while they had also gained a reputation for staying open during winter storms and the darkest, rainiest days of winter.
Food historians have branded a claim that human meat was served in Hangzhou restaurants during the Song dynasty as unlikely.
There were also some exotic foreign foods imported to China from abroad, including raisins, dates, Persian jujubes, and grape wine; rice wine was more common in China, a fact noted even by the 13th century Venetian traveler Marco Polo. Although grape-based wine had been known in China since the ancient Han Dynasty Chinese ventured into Hellenstic Central Asia, grape-wine was often reserved for the elite. Besides wine, other beverages included pear juice, lychee fruit juice, honey and ginger drinks, tea, and pawpaw juice. Dairy products were a foreign concept to the Chinese, which explains the absence of cheese and milk in their diet. Beef was also rarely eaten, since the bull was an important draft animal. The main consumptionary diet of the lower classes remained rice, pork, and salted fish, while it is known from restaurant dinner menus that the upper classes did not eat dog meat. The rich are known to have consumed an array of different meats, such as chicken, shellfish, fallow deer, hares, partridge, pheasant, francolin, quail, fox, badger, clam, crab, and many others. Local freshwater fish from the nearby lake and river were also caught and brought to market, while the West Lake provided geese and duck as well. Common fruits that were consumed included melons, pomegranates, lychees, longans, golden oranges, jujubes, quinces, apricots and pears; in the region around Hangzhou alone, there were eleven kinds of apricots and eight different kinds of pears that were produced. Specialties and combination dishes in the Song period included scented shellfish cooked in rice-wine, geese with apricots, lotus-seed soup, spicy soup with mussels and fish cooked with plums, sweet soya soup, baked sesame buns stuffed with either sour bean filling or pork tenderloin, mixed vegetable buns, fragrant candied fruit, strips of ginger and fermented beanpaste, jujube-stuffed steamed dumplings, fried chestnuts, salted fermented bean soup, fruit cooked in scented honey, and 'honey crisps' of kneaded and baked honey, flour, mutton fat and pork lard. Dessert molds of oiled flour and sugared honey were shaped into girls' faces or statuettes of soldiers with full armor like door guards, and were called "likeness foods" (guoshi).
Su Shi a famous poet and statesmen at the time also wrote extensively on the food and wine of the period. The legacy of his appreciation of food and gastronomy, as well as his popularity with the people can be seen in Dongpo pork, a dish named after him. An influential work which recorded the cuisine of this period is Shanjia Qinggong (山家清供; 'The Simple Foods of the Mountain Folk') by Lin Hong (林洪). This recipe book accounts the preparation of numerous dishes of common and fine cuisines.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), contacts with the West also brought the introduction to China of a major food crop, sorghum, along with other foreign food products and methods of preparation. Hu Sihui, a Mongol doctor of Chinese medicine, compiled the Yinshan Zhengyao, a guide to cooking and health which incorporated Chinese and Mongol food practices. The recipes for the medicines are listed in a fashionable way which allow the readers to avoid lingering over the descriptions of the cooking methods. For instance, the description included the step by step instructions for every ingredients and follow by the cooking methods for these ingredients. Yunnan cuisine is unique in China for its cheeses like Rubing and Rushan cheese made by the Bai people, and its yogurt, the yogurt may have been due to a combination of Mongolian influence during the Yuan dynasty, the Central Asian settlement in Yunnan, and the proximity and influence of India and Tibet on Yunnan.
China during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) became involved in a new global trade of goods, plants, animals, and food crops known as the Columbian Exchange. Although the bulk of imports to China were silver, the Chinese also purchased New World crops from the Spanish Empire. This included sweet potatoes, maize, and peanuts, foods that could be cultivated in lands where traditional Chinese staple crops—wheat, millet, and rice—couldn't grow, hence facilitating a rise in the population of China. In the Song Dynasty (960–1279), rice had become the major staple crop of the poor; after sweet potatoes were introduced to China around 1560, it gradually became the traditional food of the lower classes. Because of the need for more food, prices went up and more of the lower class citizens died.
Jonathan Spence writes appreciatively that by the Qing Dynasty the "culinary arts were treated as a part of the life of the mind: There was a Tao of food, just as there was Tao of conduct and one of literary creation." The opulence of the scholar-official Li Liweng was balanced by the gastronome Yuan Mei. To make the best rice, Li would send his maid to gather the dew from the flowers of the wild rose, cassia, or citron to add at the last minute; Li insisted that water from garden roses was too strong. Yuan Mei takes the position of the ascetic gourmet, in his gastronomic work the Suiyuan shidan, he wrote:
The records of the Imperial Banqueting Court (光禄寺; 光祿寺; Guānglù Sì; Kuang-lu ssu) published in the late Qing period showed there were several levels of Manchu banquets (满席; 滿席; Mǎn xí) and Chinese banquets (汉席; 漢席; Hàn xí). The royal Manchu Han Imperial Feast is one that combined both traditions.
After the end of the Qing dynasty, the cook previously employed by the Imperial Kitchens opened-up restaurants which allowed the people to experience many of the formerly inaccessible foods eaten by the Emperor and his court. However, with the beginning of the Chinese Civil War, many of the cooks and individuals knowledgeable in the cuisines of the period in China left for Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. Among them were the likes of Irene Kuo who was an ambassador to the culinary heritage of China, teaching the Western of the more refined aspects of Chinese cuisine.
Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the nation has suffered from a series of major food supply problems under the Communist Party of China. Poor, countryside provinces like Henan and Gansu experienced the worst. By January 1959 the food supply for residents in Beijing was reduced to 1 cabbage per household per day. Many peasants suffered from malnutrition, and at the same time increasing the amount they handed over to the state. Beginning in 1960, the Great Chinese Famine contributed to more problems due to bad government policies. During this time there was little to no advancement in the culinary tradition. Many fled to neighbouring Hong Kong and Taiwan to avoid starvation.
|Year||Percent of grain handed over|
to the Communist party
In Beijing in the 1990s, a Communist-style cuisine, which is also called Cultural Revolution cuisine or CR cuisine has also been popular. Other recent innovations include the Retro-Maoist cuisine, which cashed in on the 100th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birthday, whether it was officially endorsed or not. The menu includes items such as cornmeal cakes and rice gruel. In February 1994 the Wall Street Journal wrote an article about Retro-Maoist cuisine being a hit in China. Owners of a CR-style restaurant said, "We're not nostalgic for Mao, per se. We're nostalgic for our youth." The Chinese government has denied any involvement with Retro-Maoist cuisine.
One of the cuisines to benefit during the 1990s was the Chinese Islamic cuisine. The cuisines of other cultures in China have benefited from recent changes in government policy. During the Great Leap Forward and Cultural revolution of the 1970s, the government pressured the Hui people, to adopt Han Chinese culture. The national government has since abandoned efforts to impose a homogeneous Chinese culture. In order to revive their rare cuisine, the Huis began labeling their food as "traditional Hui cuisine". The revival effort has met with some success; for example, in 1994 the "Yan's family eatery" earned 15,000 yuan net income per month. This was well above the national salary average at that time.
A common saying attempts to summarize the entire cuisine in one sentence, although it now rather outdated (Hunan and Szechuan are now more famous even within China for their spicy food) and numerous variants have sprung up:
|English||The East is sweet, the South's salty, the West is sour, the North is hot.|
|Pinyin||Dōng tián, nán xián, xī suān, běi là.|
|Jyutping||Dung1 tim4, naam4 haam4, sai1 syun1, bak1 laat6*2.|
Another popular traditional phrase, discussing regional strengths, singles out Cantonese cuisine as a favorite:
|English||Eat in Guangzhou, clothe in Suzhou, play in Hangzhou, die in Liuzhou.|
|Pinyin||Shí zài Guǎngzhōu, chuān zài Sūzhōu, wán zài Hángzhōu, sǐ zài Liǔzhōu.|
|Cantonese||Sik joi Gwongjau, chuen joi Sojau, waan joi Hongjau, sei joi Laujau.|
The other references praise Suzhou's silk industry and tailors; Hangzhou's scenery; and Liuzhou's forests, whose fir trees were valued for coffins in traditional Chinese burials before cremation became popular. Variants usually keep the same focus for Canton and Guilin but sometimes suggest 'playing' in Suzhou instead (it is famed within China both for its traditional gardens and beautiful women) and 'living' (住) in Hangzhou.
For references on specific foods and cuisines, please see the relevant articles.