Chinese Food History, Chinese Food History and its historic evolution

The History of Chinese Food

China’s Two thousand years of famine … read more

“The Search for General Tso” and his Chicken … A Film … read more

“Let’s examine the history of Chinese food and its celestials to find out how this mother cuisine influenced the rest of the world.  The cuisine of the first European explorers who reached the new world in 1492 had very little variety or change 24/7, they had almost no regional or national constructs and, since most of the world was illiterate, the few cookbooks in existence were those from antiquity usually written in Latin, Greek or cuneiform. However, in the middle kingdom of the same period, Chinese constructs had been written, first on bamboo, then silk and finally paper, for over 2000 years reflecting some six millennia of chameleon like culinary absorption from other cultures.”

Silk book

Silk book

 Mass printed and distributed wood block printed broad sheets, as the one distributed in 1594 describing the sweet potato’s virtues, planting, harvesting and cooking, [which showed an amazingly rapid adoption of new world crops] had been in use for centuries to promote various historic Chinese foods among the masses and the farmers. For 3500 years scholars, poets, moralists, rulers, politicians and philosophers had been writing treatises detailing the texture, aromas, flavors, colors and pleasures of both royal and plebeian Chinese food and cuisine.  One surviving document written 1000 years before the current era, 3000 ago, details and defines the duties of the royal dietitian at a time when the inhabitants of Europe were still digging for roots and harvesting wild greens. The custodians of Chinese cuisine were always willing to embrace new cultivars or foodstuffs that their far-flung enterprises might contact.  Stalwart new world examples include the chili pepper, peanut, the earlier mentioned sweet potato and maize which all arrived around the same time but may have taken centuries to adopt.  You might also find it surprising to note that today over 20% of China’s population consumes the sweet potato as its major carbohydrate and the tomato is the most popular vegetable in the urban centers of the country.  Upon arrival, most of these new world immigrants were usually relegated as marginal crops to the poor but eventually became major Chinese food archetypes both through necessity and government promotion.

A list of videos is at the end of this post.

A early wood block broadside

A early wood block broadside

We’ll begin our historical investigation of China’s food with a brief climatic survey of that vast country.  The North and South have radically different climates that determined both the types and availability of indigenous protein sources and crops grown in antiquity as well as now. The North is comprised of grasslands, mountains and deserts that suffer from sporadic rainfall, cold winters, hot summers and frequent droughts.  If you have the Yuan’s your regular menu will feature noodles with pork or mutton supplemented with unleavened breads, beer, peaches, apples and melons.  If you are just one of the masses, your meals will be gruels or congees of millet, barley, wheat, corn and sorghum with a sprinkling of preserved vegetables or maybe a little soy sauce. The south in contrast has a temperate climate with seasonal rains that produce plenty of rice along with fresh water and sea fish, poultry and pork.  The region produces taro root, eggplant, soy derivatives, various leafy greens and tomatoes and prolific amounts of longans, litchis, mangoes, bananas, and coconuts annually. Migrations due to famine, drought, disease or barbarian threat has always existed in China and in the last 30 years, an estimated 400 million people have moved to urban areas from the countryside bringing their culture and cuisine.  Famine has long been one of China’s major problems and in the last 150 years, it has claimed over 60 million people.  Only in the last few years has the country been relatively famine free even though this does not preclude a diet of just rice, sweet potatoes, or congee for much of the population.


Climatic survey of China

The first domesticated protein sources in China were the Chow purple/blue tongued dog and the pig both being farmed around 6000 BCE. Until recently pork, as it was in antiquity, is at the top of the Chinese food pyramid and it comprises 70% of all the animal protein consumed annually. On a classic Chinese menu in China, unless otherwise noted, all the featured items are made with pork. The written character or rune for pork and meat are the same and the symbol for house or family is a pig under a roof. The penchant for pig is easy to understand; the fertile porker can produce litters of twelve, it’s can be raised in the smallest of spaces on a limited diet of scraps and waste and leaves almost no footprint at its demise. Lard is the dietary fat of choice, with duck running second, for the majority of the populace although the more affluent rely on Western oils like corn, soy or hydrogenated vegetable oil. Per capita pork consumption for 2006 was about 4 ounces a day for those who can afford it but these figures are somewhat skewed since the vast majority eat little meat of any kind and it’s hard to track production and consumption figures in the rural hinterlands.  It’s of interest that many food anthropologists propose that this preference for pork may have slowed the Muslim spread in China’s early history.

no pork

The Chow and the Pekinese are very old breeds from China they, along the Shih Tzu which was bred much later,  became highly revered in China as “lion” dogs sometime after the arrival of Buddhism circa 200 BCE. “The Lions Roar” is a symbol of the spoken or the thought Dharma [holy text] and the Buddha often equated with a roaring lion. China had no lions so the dogs acted as stand-ins in the Chinese Buddhist culture.


Modern day Chow out for a Sunday Drive

Most of us think of the wok as the primary crucible of Chinese cuisine but in reality that station belongs to the simple three-legged invention known as the ding or clay/bronze pot to us barbarians. The Chinese have used this iconic vessel as a serving dish for cooked food since about 6000 BCE, from the same period that the Egyptians, Persians and Turks were domesticating sheep, goats and grains. A form of this favored pot is still used to serve a vegetable, meat or grain stew called a keng.  The ding is a stellar example of the esteem bestowed on food, cooks and their tools by the culture throughout the ages until modern times.  The ding was the state symbol for the Shang dynasty because it’s first appointed prime minister was a professional cook named I Liu. I Liu waxed philosophically, around 1300 BCE, when he said that “a good stew was like good government and a good emperor like a good cook”.  He provides us with a culinary bon mot that went: “The transformation of the cauldron (ding) is so utterly marvelous and of such delicacy the mouth cannot put into words and the mind cannot comprehend them” … this man liked to eat! During this period the pottery wheel came to china which meant that pots became easier to make and cheaper to buy and “hot pots” soon became the Cuisinart of their day in areas that had lots of fuel to burn.



Bronze Ding

Around 970 CE, during the Tang dynasty, some potter discovered that by adding Kaolin clay to his everyday potting mix a new finer grained product called porcelain resulted. 600 years later, this new amalgamate and the tableware made from it became known as “China” in Europe.  So when the Celestials where eating with chopsticks off of porcelain plates, out of porcelain bowls, with porcelain spoons and drinking tea from porcelain cups European nobility ate off of stale piece of thick bread, known as trenchers, with their hands using crude communal ladles, cups and knives.  In fact, one food myth tells us that it was Catherine de Medici who introduced the fork to the French [European] court of Henri II about the same time that Cardinal Richelieu had knives blunted so diners would have a harder time stabbing each other at the table and that’s a long way from the dainty and hygienic use of chopsticks.  Furthermore the British Navy did not accept the use of forks on board ships until 1897 because they were thought of as a new unmanly appliance. The Chinese had used ceramic spoons to eat congee and keng for millennia, they invented fast fellows/nimble lads aka chopsticks in the fourth century BCE and even established table etiquette centuries before Europe had any dining conventions.


Porcelain tureen

The Japanese adopted chopsticks from the Chinese but Shinto taboos about contamination, like leaving your shoes at the door, prompted them to invent waribashi [disposable chopsticks] in the early 18th century. Unfortunately the Chinese adoption of the waribashi precipitated an ecological disaster, much like the mulberry trees and silk production did centuries earlier, the demise of the Chinese Elephant. The Chinese succumbed to the Shinto hubris and today the two nations combined use almost 90 BILLION pairs annually. In other words chopstick manufacturers in Asia are running out of trees and maybe those diners will have to start eating like Americans {today’s fast foods are designed to be eaten with one hand} with their hands.

Kind of a Zen image of chop sticks

Kind of a Zen image of chop sticks

China’s cereal based diet meant that arable lands took precedence over woodlands and forests. Since trees were early man’s fuel source a cooking technology that maximized these limited reserves needed to be developed. The Ding [think hot pot … rice/slow cooker] was the first valued culinary accoutrement because it could remain in the fire from the first embers to the last extracting every iota of available heat to cook the evening stew, rice or grain. The G2 thin wok meant that uniformly shaped and sized pieces of food could be quickly produced at high heat using a limited amount of fuel … a process that also made the dinner table knife superfluous. It’s likely that twigs, branches or animal bones were the ancestors of chop sticks, first implemented to retrieve morsels from the Ding, that later morphed into the utensils we know today.  When the European elite were eating with their hands off of thick bread plates, known as trenchers, using communal spoons, cups and knives the poor of China followed established table etiquette. About 1,500 years ago Mongol horsemen cooking over campfires simmered soup in their upturned metal helmets. This primitive cooking would eventually become one of China’s signature dishes; the hot pot.

An array of clay pots cooking on a modern range

An array of clay pots cooking on a modern range

China cuts 3.8 million trees annually to produce nearly 90 billion pairs of disposable chop sticks half of which are used internally and half exported. The 1.5 billion global users of chop sticks are causing irreparable damage to Asia’s slower growth forests of birch, cottonwood and spruce. China has recently begun to limit domestic timber harvest and chop stick production but over 100 acres a day are still being harvested which adds up to 3.8 million trees or some 10,800 square miles of forest used to produce the 60 billion chop sticks used in country annually. China is considering taxing the throw away variety and recently a movement to “carry your own” chopsticks has emerged among China’s upwardly mobile youth. One of the more interesting developments is that a factory in Americus, Georgia, USA is producing some 10 million pairs of chop sticks daily for export to China made from renewable poplar and sweet gum trees. The reusable remedy is cost prohibitive for many since they can cost up to 70 cents a unit when production and ware washing costs are factored in comparison for the 1 cent price of disposables.

Reusable chop sticks with carrying case

Reusable chop sticks with carrying case

One of the earliest  definitive guides to Chinese food ceremonies, equivalent to our table manners tomes, written sometime around the first century CE, was called the Li Chi and provided this easy to remember primer on the serving and eating of fish …

If the fish is dried, turn its head towards the guest.

If the fish is fresh, turn its tail towards the guest.


If it is summertime, turn the belly of the fish to the left.

If it is winter turn in to the right.


This is done because winter is in the reign of Yin and not Yang.

Yin corresponds to the below and since the belly is lower it is Yin.

Moreover, during the winter, the belly should be the best-nourished part, the fattest and the most succulent.

The belly is placed on the right hand side and since you eat with your right hand, you should begin by eating the best part of the fish.


If it is summertime, the rules are reversed since the summer is the reign of Yang.


Even though most of us think of rice and Chinese food in the same mouthful the grain did not arrive until about 11,000 BCE and then only in a wild state until slash and burn methods emerged about 4000 BCE.   Rice paddy technology appeared about 700 BCE and it meant malaria and lifelong intergenerational bondage to the flooded rice fields and the loss on any other supplementary inputs you might have gleaned as a hunter/gatherer.  Flooded rice paddy agriculture brought large groups of people together making them much more susceptible to famine and pestilence than their migrating ancestors. The diet of most rice dependent cultures tends to be a very bland one particularly for the poorer segments and most of these people spent their lives short of food, fuel, cooking oil, utensils and even water. Rice paddy agriculture requires using every inch of arable land for cultivation and that means that any appreciable amount of animal protein is a once or twice a year occasion and it’s far more likely to take the form of pickled ant eggs, some pork belly or a few dices of dog ham than a cutlet of pork, poultry or mutton. Beef, actually water buffalo, has historically been a rarity in China even for the affluent, although the globalization of American cuisine is changing that, while for most rural peasants the only source of beef is a beast that dropped dead in the harness. Other cereals of import include millet, that unlike rice requires no processing to use, consumed as noodles and congees in the north since 7000 BCE and wheat and barley which were introduced from the Middle East in the period between 3000 and 2000 BCE.

A seedling puller used for transpalting

A seedling puller used for transplanting

More than 9,000 years ago after learning to cultivate rice the Chinese discovered they could ferment it into a variety of alcoholic beverages. But this new discovery apparently posed a major survival threat and a variant gene evolved that decreased the inebriating effects of alcohol but causes the imbibers face to flush … turn red … and the skin temperature to rise. Interestingly the same effect occurs amongst the native population of the Americas where alcohol is euphemistically called white man’s fire water in the well known Hollywood trope. Geneticists call this occurrence Epistasis … genetic change in response to a local condition.

A racist Hollywood inspired flask

A racist Hollywood inspired flask

Around 200 BCE China’s warring factions solidified and centralized the governmental system which helped guide the middle kingdom from Bronze Age technology to that of iron. Iron Age knowledge increased agricultural and industrial outputs and the resultant monetary and physical surpluses underwrote war and conquest.  The adoption and combination of the mounted archer expertise of the Mongols and a new armamentarium of iron weapons made China’s armies formidable. Confucianism and Taoism became social forces and Indian Buddhism, along with its vegetarian menu, arrived a few centuries later. This triad of religions soon coalesces to form the philosophies of The Three Doctrines that shaped Chinese food, philosophy and politics for the next two millennia.

Mounted Chinese Archer

Mounted Chinese Archer

The short-lived Qin [pronounced Ch’in] dynasty [think terracotta army] 221 BCE – 206 BCE strengthened governmental control, established standardized weights and measurements, codified the Chinese writing system and tried to wipe out Confucianism, and other schools of thought that did not agree with the Qin,  by burning books, burying scholars and writing its own harmonizing history.   Earlier pieces of the Great Wall were linked during this period by a huge conscripted labor force that survived on sauerkraut like, wine soaked cabbage, that eventually reached Europe via the Tartars, and the brick of the famous wall were bonded with mortar made of rice. The next dynasty, the Han 206 BCE to 220 CE, conquered Korea and Vietnam and in a census conducted in 220 CE concluded that thirty percent of the worlds estimated 200 million inhabitants were Chinese. The next six hundred years saw the invention and wide scale adoption of the noodle, which probably occurred concordantly in a number of far-flung and different cultures, the development of gunpowder, the national adoption of tea as the beverage of choice and the growth of Buddhism and its proscribed vegetarian diet. During the Tang dynasty, about 1000 CE, overland and sea trade increased  using Arab and Persian ships that docked in Canton, the only Chinese port open to barbarians, that brought  another cross-pollination of national cuisines. By 1150 China, technologically spurred fleet of ocean-going traders grew ginger and vegetables on board to prevent scurvy and may have helped to spread the technology of brewing around the world.

Burning of the books and burying of the scholars

Burning of the books and burying of the scholars

Bamboo book

Bamboo book

By the thirtieth century, the Mongol Temujin-Genghis and his grandson Kublai Khan had succeeded in dominating China and the insuring Pax Mongolia insured a safe overland trade route through the Gobi desert.  These bandit free conduits linked Asia to Europe and India to Manchuria allowing the west to be inoculated with new inventions, consumer items, philosophies and eventually, in 1346, The Black Death. The overthrow of the Ming Dynasty, by a peasant army under the leadership of the Buddhist monk Hung Wu, heralded another period of rapid commercial and industrial growth triggering population increases that severely taxed the agricultural technology and capacities of the period.  By the time the Jesuits opened the first Christian missions in 1601 China was desperate and willing to accept any new foreign cultivar that might help stem the hunger experienced by the majority of its citizens.  The last dynasty, known as the Qing or Manchu from 1644 to 1911, adapted and fused many foreign cultivars to China’s food lexicon that are now thought of as the essence of the cuisine.

The Mongol Horde

The Mongol Horde

Before discussing the various region cuisines lets investigate how food influenced and along with climatic change help spread the Black Death. Let me again state that food and its evolution is the history of mankind and here’s a prime example of how what we eat has shaped us in both antiquity and today. Also the same conditions that existed 700 years ago are remarkably similar to those of today and illustrates that climatic change affects us in unthought-of ways. By 1330 Genghis [Chinggis] Khan’s Mongols had reached almost all the way to Constantinople both protecting and traveling the trade routes that supplied Europe through various entrepots in the conquered and neighboring areas until they were overthrown by the Ming in 1368. A sudden virulent eruption of the bubonic plague occurred in the Yunnan hinterlands of China, where it had been endemic for perhaps a millennia, sometime around 1320 and slowly made it way east to urban China where the larger metropolitan population logarithmically accelerated its contagion.The plague combined with the harbingers of drought, epidemic, and famine to eliminate one third of China’s total population including six million who died of starvation between 1333 and 1337. And we’re all familiar with the story of the Tarter Kipchak khan Janiberg, AND his VENITIAN allies, lobbing plague infected cadavers over the walls of the Genovese occupied trading city of Kaffa, that later lent its name to Coffee, which prompted the besieged residents and rats to quickly set sail for Messina, Sicily. Unfortunately those on board, along with the rats that accompanied them, and the Xenopsylla cheopis fleas that that in turn accompanied them, were all infected with the Yersinia pestis plague bacteria and we all know how the Black Plague made its mark.

Medieval plague doctor in his period

Medieval plague doctor in his period “scrubs’

The scourges of drought, flood and famine were acerbated by the climatic phase known as the Medieval Warm Period, followed by The Little Ice Age that may have helped suppress the same plague accelerated by the MWP, which forced the Mongols to move their horses out of the now grass less Gobi to greener Mongolian pastures. When they got there the savanna was rife with a local species of marmot, which were soon joined by a migrating genus of gerbil, from the Manchurian/Yunnan steppes, all competing for the region’s food and water. It’s no surprise that a recipe calling for Nomadic horsemen, plague infected rodents, and bacterium carrying vector fleas all traveling the world’s longest and busiest trade route would create havoc. Fleas harbor the plague bacteria in their stomachs but at temperatures over 77 degrees it harmlessly passes through the insects digestive system without infecting other hosts. However under this temperature mark a substance called fibrin [blood] clots plugging entry to the flea’s digestive tract. When this happens the flea begins to starve and will vault from host to host, natural or not, to get a meal … so in this case the marmot or gerbil is secondary to transmission. Under the 77 degree mark the harvested blood remains in the flea’s mouth growing bacterium that do not pass through the digestive tract and on the next bite this culture is regurgitated into or onto the next host. Once infected any mammal can transmit the infection to humans through contact with skin tissue and humans can spread the bacteria to others through sneezing, coughing, sex or direct contact with infected tissue so in this case the flea now becomes a secondary vector. Here’s a great You Tube educational song by Gwen Stefani about the plague … hear it here

The beak was made from bronze, filled with medicinal and aromatic herbs to filter the bad air and mask the stench of ruptured buboes and human corruption. The doctor breathed through two small holes in the mask with garlic in his mouth, incense in his ears and a bone in his nose ho ho.

The beak was made from bronze, filled with medicinal and aromatic herbs to filter the bad air and mask the stench of ruptured buboes and human corruption. The doctor breathed through two small holes in the mask with garlic in his mouth, incense in his ears and a bone in his nose ho ho.

The salient point in this dialogue is that black rats are not indigenous to China and there were few if any Rattus rattus in residence since the first European contact was made by Franciscan missionaries sometime around 1294. The aboriginal Rattus norvegicus of China, better known as the brown rat, lived in ground burrows and was not a natural plague host as the black rat was in Europe. The Mongol horse, each rider owned at least four mounts, provided not only transportation but food and beverage. When times were lean or during long journeys, the Mongol rider and family would savor some equine blood as a nourishing backup to their meager diet. When times were good a bowl full of kumis, fermented mare’s milk, all around could enliven a cold night on the steppes. But the production of these dietary staples required good pasture for the horses and just as the nomads began migrating in quest for food so did the regions rodents. The climatic changes that precipitated drought and famine created a new ecosystem where man and rodent interacted in ways they historically hadn’t. The two would not have met under regular conditions, and since the plague virus was usually just passed through the flea the effect on humans would have been limited even if they did, but a few degrees change in temperature altered humanities course. Mongols used marmot and gerbil hides for clothing and as a trade medium and, here’s the money shot, the flesh of both rodents were common dietary staples. So the gerbil, marmot and the Mongols were responsible for the spread of the bubonic plague by infecting both the black rats and populace of Kaffa and the inoculation of Europe.

Once the infection reached Europe it is thought to have become pneumonic, spreading airborne from human to human  via  coughs and sneezes.

Substitute gerbils and marmots in the upper left of this image and inset a Mongol rider between urban and rural ... notice that the human flea, Pulex irritans think bed bug, also played a significant role in spreading the European plague.

Substitute gerbils and marmots in the upper left of this image and inset a Mongol rider between urban and rural … notice that the human flea, Pulex irritans think bed bug, also played a significant role in spreading the European plague.

Many western researchers of Chinese food maintain that there are four, five six or more definitive schools of style while others admit to five but I think you should also add the pork free Muslim and Buddhist inspired vegetarian to the roster. In addition any attempt at classification is easily debatable due the geographical and cultural diversity of China and the poor of any county historically have no menu have no menu just sustenance.  Anyway, few of us are ever likely to experience the real thing unless we travel in each respective geographical region and eat off the local menu and not that of the Westernized hotels. But it any case we still should discuss the different regions of Chinese food, to help us understand what we’ve grown accustomed to in the US, and  even though they are somewhat undefined on the geographical map they are neighbors on the culinary one.

A simplified map of regional cuisines

A simplified map of regional cuisines

Here’s a recent more illuminating map of regional Chinese foods



It’s quite hard to peg the different cuisines of China into just a few types because there are 56 distinct ethnic groups in the country each with their own cultural and culinary memes. Here’s a great visual representation of those differing indigenous groups dressed in their finest party clothes.

People Of China

One of many different indigenous groups

One of many different indigenous groups

The party line is of course that everyone’s just one big happy family but that’s hardly the truth even thought this poster would have you believe differently.

China’s 56 different ethnic groups happily bathing in the paternalistic and munificent smile of Mao. This is a classic bit of propaganda but it does tells us that it’s very hard to generalize or categorize Chinese cuisine due to the diverse cultural, geographical and racial profile of China’s population … even if they do have a remarkable facial resemblance … different profiles mean different foods.

China’s 56 different ethnic groups happily bathing in the paternalistic and munificent smile of Mao. This is a classic bit of propaganda but it does tells us that it’s very hard to generalize or categorize Chinese cuisine due to the diverse cultural, geographical and racial profile of China’s population … even if they do have a remarkable facial resemblance … different profiles mean different foods.

The southeastern Kwangtung/Canton province’s menu food became the food of the nobility when the capital moved there in the seventeenth century and it was the first example of Chinese cuisine to reach the west primarily because of its proximity to the traversable South China Sea and beyond. Currently there are more Cantonese restaurants in the US then there are McDonald’s … maybe there is still some hope for us even though the offerings have morphed into a distinctly Americanized version. This school uses the subtle nuances and natural [bland] combinations of ingredients with few seasonings tht added emphasis on the quality and freshness of the items presented.  Wok skills are highly evolved here and we Westerners do not know the regions exotic animal dishes like monkey, snake, cat, dog, rat, turtle and numerous creepy crawly insects.  A great deal of chicken stock is used in the preparation of such signature dishes as lacquered or caramelized roasts meats, fried rice, steamed dishes, sharks fin and birds nest soups and of course the benchmark dim sum of the region.

Dim Sum

Dim Sum

The Northeast and Peking, now Beijing, and the Yellow River-Shantung regions, although geographically separate, were historically such close trading partners that their regional cuisines morphed into one style. Peking was the gourmet and political capital of China until the imperial court moved to Canton in the seventieth century. The cuisine of the royal court set out lavish, mammoth feasts where its namesake Peking duck, clay pots of mutton, plates of velvet chicken, trays of spring rolls and bowls of wheat noodles were the standards. Some of the tasty historical favorites included wolf, swan, camel hump, apes lips and bear paws for special banquets of the elite while the poor had no menu. The upper classes favored poultry while the lowly considered themselves fortunate to get an occasional egg, fresh seafood was a rarity and the menu features an astounding array of pickled, salted, and dried items in this climate that still experiences severe weather extremes. The cuisine of this area is often erroneously dubbed “Mandarin” a term only meaning a government official or bureaucrat although the title used by an American restaurant gives it a little cachet in the local marketplace. A wonderful example of the Chinese ingenuity and frugality is in the manner in which duck is served up at banquets. The first course is the crispy skin with scallion pancakes and black bean sauce, followed by a stir-fry or platter of sliced duck meat and steamed buns and then concluded with a soup made from the duck bones.  The cuisine of this area shows influence from the early European colonial presence of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries [think the Boxer Rebellion, opium and Charleston Heston] and you’ll find constructs like French pastries, baguettes and Russian hors d’oeuvres.

A little over the top but after all it's Hollywood

A little over the top but after all it’s Hollywood


Here’s an image of the real participants of this  ‘First World War’

The Western or Szechuan school makes great use of aromatics such as the new world chili pepper, cinnamon, fermented bean pastes, sesame oil and seeds. Animal fats serve as a dietary component especially in many dishes of the poor. The Iberians’ introduction of chili peppers during the latter part of the Han 1650 CE makes us ponder why this culinary darling only appears in the food of this region and not the others.  Szechuan pepper, although it’s not really pepper or chili related, is a standard seasoning that produces a numbing effect on the tongue and palate setting them both up for enjoying the heat of the constructs that follow and in combination with chilies is euphemistically known as Ma la. Other regional flavorings are cassia bark, cumin, cinnamon, star anise, and ground coriander; you’ll also find lots of tofu, chili oil, star anise, and hot pots of lamb, duck or horse with dried tangerine peel. And who amongst us doesn’t know Hot and Sour Soup?

Szechuan Hot Pot  ... note all the floating chilies

Szechuan Hot Pot … note all the floating chilies

Hunan cuisine comes from the lower plains of the Yangtze basin and is known for the use of fresh water fish, especially carp, tender young vegetables with ginger, Shaoxing wine and many sweet and sour preparations. Spicy-spicy dishes reign here with lots of dried and salted products in the constructs. Again what you’ll experience in the US is only just a shadow of what’s served in the area. Hunan is the province where Mao was born and home to Ma la … spicy food.


Along China’s East Coast, 1300 miles from Taiwan, the cuisine of Fukien is famous for its clear soups, suckling pigs, cooking wines and egg rolls. Soup is decidedly revered here and sometimes served more than once in a meal, instead of just last as the hierarchy with the rest of China, dependent on the occasion. The interplay between sweet and sour is highly valued and shellfish along with pork and poultry are the animal proteins of choice. The area is not only known for its soups but its “soupy” constructs like meatballs, dumplings and buns whose liquid centers explode in your mouth when you bite into them. Lots of new world peanuts used here and soup is de rigueur at every meal and when you see a description using “drunken” it’s supposed to be a alcohol marinated construct from this region. The most famous dish might be “Buddha jumps the wall” which is a mélange of various meat ingredients in a fish stock stew so good that any Buddhist monk would climb a wall to get to it.


Buddhist vegetarianism, which interestingly features lots of ersatz-mock shaped animal constructs made of tofu, is interwoven through the many other regional schools. I’ve always found it rather fascinating that the Shaolin Monks, yes that’s right grasshopper, have developed this art of shaping tofu into a virtual ersatz zoo of animal types and species. I mean if you’re appalled by eating animal flesh why create a surrogate replica? Finally Chinese Moslems, like the Hui and Uyghur, who eat no pork, are rapidly adopting canned and vacuum prepared convenience foods that are prepared using “modern methods” meaning prepared foods are not contaminated by the human hands of infidels.  Once again, you will probably never really experience this Chinese food unless you travel, or perhaps attend some really esoteric Chinese food festival in the US close to an Asian population center, it’s unlikely that you will ever find it in country anywhere else.


Each region’s discipline, depending on the available commodities, will embody a definitive number of prime flavors or combinations that are the cornerstones of each province’s menu and distinctive to it. The concepts of yin and yang [male and female], opposites or counter balances labels food types as either hot or cold, not in terms of temperature but instead, on the attributes of the ingredients much as the Greeks and medieval Europeans applied to the Galenic relationship between  health and humors. Chinese culinary practitioners agree that meat, spices, alcohol and fat are “hot” foods while bland foods like tofu, fruit and vegetables are “cold”. This hierarchy of point and counterpoint may seem odd to Westerners but with a little study you’ll be able to experience and enjoy the cuisine to the fullest when you make your menu matches. In addition, it is important that you try the construct in as many different venues as possible to acquire the knowledge and range of interpretation that will allow you to detect the different nuances of what might become your favorite “get me an order of” dish.


The Chinese had a reverence for the number five and cooking meant creating memorable and healthy constructs through the careful pentagonal manipulation of these different tastes to achieve balance.  Of course, as new cultivars and products entered the culinary universe the categories underwent change but the following archaic list of fives is illustrative.

  • 5 Flavors                     Salty, bitter, sour, hot, sweet and now umami/ MSG
  • 5 Grains                       Wheat, rice, millet, beans, corn
  • 5 Tree Fruits               Peaches, plums, apricots, chestnuts and dates
  • 5 Vegetables                Mallows, coarse greens, scallions, onions and leeks
  • 5 Animals                    Pig, fowl, sheep, horse and beef
  • 5 Elements                  Wood, metal, fire, water, earth


In Beijing, those who can afford them prefer rice and boiled, steamed or fried noodles. By 1900 some 200,000 Chinese were eating sweet potatoes 24/7/365 with little more than a condiment of salted turnips, bean curd or pickled beans.  Historically millet and maize, China’s third largest carbohydrate crop, were the staples of the North and Central regions.  In the South rice is so preferred that wheat and other flour celebratory cakes are replaced by those made with glutinous rice.  During famine, an estimated 43 million Chinese died from 1958 to 1961, and in periods of scarcity taro and potatoes, both sweet and regular, often became the only available carbohydrate.  These Chinese carbohydrate foundation foods, served unsalted, are known as zhushi, ca or fan.  These base starches act as a foil to other more prestigious amendments such as salted vegetables or insects and interestingly enough they are usually absent at celebratory occasions.  When they do appear on the menu they do so in a furtive role and not usually eaten since they are an everyday maintenance food and a banquet or celebratory party is just the opposite.  Anything that embellishes or contrasts starch foundations are called cai or fushi meaning secondary food. It can be as simple as soy sauce, sesame oil, pickled or salted vegetables or as sophisticated as hummingbird’s tongues or monkey brains depending on which of the 56 different Chinese ethnic groups you identify with.

Americans often just eat for maintenance but the Chinese practice of eating for pleasure finds its expression in the hundreds of different regional and sub-regional gastronomic small indulgences that have historically enriched their cuisine. These little snacks, often eaten throughout the day, came to represent defined geographical areas just as fine silk, porcelain or jade might.  Most of these local noshes were sent to the Emperor as tribute which helped spread their fame and cache throughout the middle kingdom.  These tempting bites had their own regional names and so did the newly introduced new world items that were invariable tacked with the Chinese appellation for barbarian as a prefix yielding names like barbarian grain-rice-fish-vegetable and so on. The Chinese love to eat as social interaction and you’ll rarely hear “oh no thanks I just had breakfast, lunch, dinner or a tea break”  replied to the question you want something to eat which in Mandarin would be … have you eaten fan yet?  This fan being whatever foundation food you’ve grown up with such as rice, yams, sweet potato or one of the many other unsalted foundation carbohydrates of your youth.

Sweet potato vendor in Bejing

Sweet potato vendor in Beijing

Cantonese selections, because of the emphasis on cooking skills and the clarity of ingredients, have long been considered the gastronomical pinnacle and it was this region’s cuisine that first found its way to America, during the California Gold Rush or 1849, and became the most well-known of all ethnic foods in this country for over a century. This preference for Cantonese changed when Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, both from the Southwest provinces, took over China’s leadership and inoculated the national palate with their own childhood comfort foods. Along with the two new leaders came the spicy cuisine of Hunan and Sichuan that were spun into a catchphrase of the communist movement declaring, “If you don’t eat ma la you’re not a revolutionary”.  This regional style began its journey to the US soon after Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 where his attendance at state banquets put the presidential endorsement on “eating Ma La” which was the harbinger of discovery and began a period of discovery that tempted, refined and educated the American palate to new and exotic global tastes .

Tricky Dick's probably thinking

Tricky Dick’s probably thinking “don’t they have any forks?’

Mao’s Mystical Mangoes … showing his mythical hero aura.

Mangoes are thought to have originated in northeast India about 30 million ago and some groves in that area are said to be 4000 years old which adds credence to the myths and holy texts that claim Siddhartha Gautama Buddha contemplated in one. The Portuguese brought them to the new world in the fifteenth century and now you get them in a smoothie from McDonald’s … that’s progress? In March of 1968 Mao Zedong received seven mangoes from the visiting Pakistani foreign minister. Myth tells us that the chairman, who wasn’t into to mangoes, handed them off to Wang Dongxing. Wang regifted them to show support for seven, of the many, selected propaganda teams from rural factories and farms sent to Beijing to quell dissonance between various cells of The Red Guard [especially the one occupying the Qinghua, aka Tsinghua, University] as well as spin and weave a little damage control. These unwanted mangoes took on a mythical, but short lived, aura and spawned a whole industry of buttons, pins, posters, plates, banners and replicas made of various materials incased in their own slogan inscribed plastic tabernacles … much like our snow bubbles. My favorite myths describe how one mango was pureed and then infused into several gallons of water so everyone in a certain factory could have a spoonful of the sacred liquid. Another details how one of the mangoes was sealed in wax, and installed on an altar in a factory so the workers could file past, genuflect and utter their favorite idiom from Mao’s little red book.

In Chinese propaganda posters the artist often use the same face for everyone ... examine this image. This is classic worker team building ... Notice the tray of mangoes.

In Chinese propaganda posters the artist often use the same face for everyone … examine this image. This is classic worker team building … Notice the tray of mangoes.

The often elusive and sought after Cantonese benchmark of harmony is called Ts’ui which is a time-based essence that quantifies the texture and taste of something freshly cooked to the point of gastronomic bliss. The construct exhibits both the perfect resistance to the tooth and provides a tapestry of the five tastes that takes years for the diner and chef to study and define. Flavor principles are culturally specific repetitive taste combinations that give any cuisine its recognizable distinctness and it citizens their nationality be they Asian or Western. The enjoyment of Chinese cuisine requires that the diner, as well as the chef, be aware of the juxtaposition and interplay between soft and firm, hot and cold, granular and smooth,  bland and spicy, and sweet and sour and this skill set must be developed and refined over a life time.

Over 100 years experience and expertise here

Over 100 years experience and expertise here

Often the uninitiated find some dishes, in particular Cantonese, bland and lacking taste because they are not educated or experienced in the principles of the cuisine and the depth of the 8000 codified recipes.  As contradictory as it sounds the goal of increased complexity in preparations is to produce a construct with a more refined and simplistic flavor. In addition, the resultant flavor principles cross all lines between rich and poor, feast or famine, pork or pigeon and chicken or carp; as I’ve said before it’s not what you put in but when and how you put it in. Chinese food technology has been shaped by severe fuel shortages attributed to the intensive use of rice paddy technology that cleared the land for fields leaving little fuel [trees] for cooking.  This lack of fuel placed the emphasis on preparing and planning the constituent ingredients and the speed of the cooking protocol. Once you begin to cook very few changes or adjustments are possible, as opposed to most of the constructs of the fuel rich west, and therefore the sequential timeline, uniform size and the application of high heat are the essentials Cantonese cuisine.

hot wok

Nevertheless, no matter what school of Chinese food you’re discussing there are certain markers and memes that are common to the treatment of ingredients and the procedures or pieces of equipment. Chinese food is rooted in the scarcity of carbohydrates, protein and fuel which accounts for its recognized economy of production. For instance; you use the waters of preparation repeatedly in the meal, first as a source for steaming, then blanching and finally as the base for soup, served at the end of the meal instead of the beginning as we do in the West. Once a dish leaves the Chinese kitchen it needs little or no additional manipulation before the diner can enjoy it.  Even in the case of a whole, duck, chicken or fish the protein is either cut in the kitchen or deconstructed in a manner that makes it accessible with just chop sticks, and perhaps a ceramic “soup” spoon, at the table. Metal and porcelain, until only recently especially with the advent of plastic, were materials much too pricey for anyone but the elite and furthermore the technology of production was geographically limited to the urban centers of China. So for centuries the cook needed only a wok with a steaming grid or a bamboo steamer, a few rice bowls that could be made of wood, a serving vessel or two, some larger kitchen chopstick, a ladle, a brush to clean the wok, a spatula and of course a clever and cutting surface to produce some of the world’s best food. You might also have a ting or hot pot too depending on the region. The high conductivity of a thin iron wok means that fuel can be conserved while still producing a quick searing heat that quickly cooks the bite sized ingredients that have sometimes been precooked or blanched in the above mentioned “soup” water.

You also need a wire strainers with a bamboo handle

You also need a wire strainers with a bamboo handle

Cutting, seasoning and the skillful application of intense heat are the consummate skills of the Chinese chef. The historical dearth of fuel means the component ingredients in Chinese food are cut into like pieces so they’ll cook uniformly and in many cases are moved in and out of the wok in the cooking process. This consistency also means the constructs can be eaten by using only a deft hand and a pair of chop sticks.  The culinary trinity of ginger, which probably arrived from India about 600 CE, soy sauce and green onions or leeks attends every school of Chinese cuisine. Condiments and seasonings like black rice vinegar, rice wine, fermented bean pastes, sesame oil, chili oil, garlic, red pepper pastes, various pickled and salted vegetables, and oyster sauce are the school supplies and the wok, cleaver, steamer, clay pot, spatula, skimmer and cutting board the laboratory equipment. Roasting in not represented in the home-cooking repertoire and is usually only done in commercial or restaurant environments.  The stir-frying or chow method of cooking is unlike western procedures where a pinch of this or that is used to adjust or refine the intended flavor profile.  The proper preparation of Chinese food requires that all the needed components be instantaneously available and predetermined due to the staging and high heat from the cooking source.  Your home range puts out about 9000 BTU’s per burner while a commercial Szechuan range put out up to 170,000 BTU’s.  So each ingredient is precooked to the point needed for the respective kitchen by steaming, braising, smoking/baking in the case of ducks, ribs and fat back, or frying and then combined and added in crescendo to construct the finished product.

Here is a 170,000 Btu wok burners ... looks a little like a jet engine

Here is a 170,000 Btu wok burners … looks a little like a jet engine

Salt as a table condiment is not used in Chinese cuisine even though you’ll find a shaker on the table of your favorite restaurant it’s only for us round eyes.  China did trade with the West in salt but it was rarely used at the table and the cuisine instead used a variety of fermented, pickled or salted preparations added in the kitchen.  MSG is also an integral part of the Chinese food larder and many a Chinese chef is plagued by the western attitude towards it even though it’s in about 50% of everything we buy at the grocery store. A naturally occurring compound, and a human trace element,  it was chemically isolated in 1908 in Japan from seaweed called Kombu, and to date it has not caused any two-headed babies, sumo wrestlers or celebrities and frankly you’re probably ingesting many other food additives that have a histories much shorter than a hundred years.  Soy sauce is a natural form of MSG that used to be an artisan product but is now manufactured in billions of little plastic packets for global consumption.  Of course pricy artisanal varieties are available that use whole steamed beans and not the waste from soy products that find their way into over 70% of the American diet. Beans or waste products are first steamed, yeast is added and the product ferments and ages in the manner of modern and old world vintners then strained, pasteurized and sold.

A grouping of salted and pickled vegetables

A grouping of salted and pickled vegetables

The Chinese, who came to Gold Mountain, as San Francisco and California were euphemistically titled, were mostly from the impoverished Toishan district of Kwangtung the province we call Canton.  This area was separated from the rest of China by mountains and the only way out was West via the China Sea.  Upon docking on the left coast these mostly male immigrants went to work in the gold fields of California.  Many, finding no gold, became merchants, vegetables farmers, cooks and laundry men supplying fellow expats and the international community of forty-niners with goods and services in the fields and small boom towns of the period.  Later the Rocky Mountain mineral strikes and construction of the Central Pacific railroad lured them and their cuisine east.  When the rail line was completed, many of the 10,000 celestials, known derogatorily as Crocker’s pets, moved back to the Sacramento Valley of California and San Francisco. The first Chinatown had a population of 3000 in 1850 with an allied agricultural and commercial structure to support the growing community.  Soon a sizable number of occidentals began frequenting the wondrously named restaurants of San Francisco’s Chinatown like Tsing Tsing Lee’s “The Balcony of Golden Joy and Delight” with over 400 seats where a dollar could get you all you can eat presaging the huge Asian buffets of today.  The population reached 22,000 by 1880, the enclave would become America’s largest Chinese community until first New York, and then Los Angles overtook it in the late nineteen hundreds. Today it continues to grow and be influenced by other Southeast Asian cultures most recently the Vietnamese and Hmong.

A communal wok, individual rice bowls and chop sticks and the teapot on the camp fire

A communal wok, individual rice bowls and chop sticks and the teapot on the camp fire

Is Chinese Take out more popular on Christmas day? … read more

Chow Mein and Chop Suey were the trendy dishes of the 20’s and so many chop suey/chow mein parlors opened that they spawned both sandwiches and hits like “Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone” by Sidney Bichet and “A Bowl of Chop Suey and You-ey” by Jack Oakie from the 30”s and Louis Prima and Keely Smiths “Chop Suey, Chow Mein” in 1950’s. By the end of WW II these dishes were as popular and as well-known as meat loaf in the US and in 1947 an American icon, the Chung King combo pack, hit supermarket shelves and the Formica kitchen tables of many a suburban kitchen.  The seminal Chinese cookbook for Americans, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese – with a forward by Pearl S, Buck no less – was published the same year.  The author Buwei Yang Chao coined the American terms “red cooking” for simmering meat in a soy flavored base yielding a master sauce, “clear or white simmering” for cooking in a clear broth and the well-known  common term “stir frying” or ch’ao meaning to cook in hot fat with constant turning. By the 50’s more than half the Chinese in America lived on the West coast of California in the first and third largest Chinatowns outside of the mainland. Going out for Chinese soon became as popular as the Sunday drive with an adventurous, unknown and mysterious cachet.  As people from other areas of China migrated so did the many styles of Chinese food that are now commonplace in any US city with varying degrees of authenticity often based on product availability.

The combo pack ... feed 6 people for under $1 Wow!

The combo pack … feed 6 people for under $1 Wow!

I suppose that any blog with its data packages should include a few videos so here they are. The first is a segment offered up by the history channel and a little flippant. The second is a Ted Talk, the third from a food confab in Los Angeles, Ca. and the last seven entries are a stunning group of  50 minute foodie videos from China’s CCTV. This series was such a huge success in China that a second season in being filmed.  see videos click

Mongolian ice fishing, lotus root harvest

Flours, grains, rice and noodles  

Tofu, milk tea, rice wine and soy sauce   

Pickles, cured meats, fish paste and shrimp paste  

Barley, steam pot cooking, traveling banquet chef    

The five flavors of Chinese Cuisine   

Old farming methods still used today