“Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish – too much handling will spoil it.”

Laozi, Chinese philosopher
By E.N. AndersonUniversity of California, Riverside

Known for their variety and inventiveness, the regional cuisines of China are enjoyed across the world and have evolved over a history stretching for thousands of years. Although covering vastly different landscapes and geographies, China has for much of its history been a land of scarcity, where the mostly agricultural population learned to make use of limited resources. From the staples of rice in the south and wheat in the north, to the use of peppers in the southwestern provinces, to the love of soups and gentle flavorings in the southeast, Chinese cuisine is as vast and multifaceted as the country itself.

China’s cuisine has spread to all corners of the earth, and the lavishness and variety of Chinese meals is legendary. Yet, through most of history, the vast majority of Chinese people have eaten very simple fare and have considered themselves lucky if they had enough of that. Dense population, unpredictable weather, poverty, and progressive environmental damage combined to give the country a reputation in literature as a land of famine. Only since about 1970 has China been free of major food shortages. The cuisine developed its sophistication partly through the constant need to use every possible resource with maximum efficiency.

History

Early humans populated East Asia approximately one million years ago. They lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering plants and shellfish. Agriculture began before 8000 bce in China. Recent finds have shown that by this time, rice agriculture was well established along the Yangtze (Chang) River and agriculture based on foxtail millet (Setaria italica) was established in the drier, cooler drainage basin of the Yellow River (Huanghe). By 4000 bce, the cultivation or domestication of many of the basic elements of Chinese food was already widespread: rice, Chinese cabbage, pigs, chickens, sheep, cattle, and various fruits and nuts. Hunting and fishing were still important, however. Archeological finds have revealed that by 3000 bce, a wealth of sophisticated cooking implements and eating utensils existed. Inequalities in wealth were also well established by this time. Perhaps wheat and barley had also arrived from the Near East. They had appeared by 2000 bce, but were rare until later.

Chinese cuisine enters the written record in the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 bce), when recipes began to appear in ritual texts. Supernatural beings and human elders had to have food prepared according to specific rules. The Classic of Poetry (Shijing), a collection of folk and popular songs from about 500–1000 bce, includes the names of most of the commonly eaten plants and animals. Although the record of ritual cooking runs primarily to meat—always a luxury and feast food—and grain, with liberal amounts of jiu (mildly alcoholic drinks brewed from fermented grains, usually translated “wine,” but technically beer or ale), the Classic of Poetry gives a wider perspective, with mentions of vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, fish, and game. Grain was the staple food, with vegetables a very long second in importance. The basic distinction between fan (cooked grain) and cai (vegetables, or any dish eaten with grain) was already being made. It continues to be basic in Chinese food. Soybeans were known, but not much used.

In the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), contacts with West and South Asia brought new products, including grapes and wine, and more importantly, advanced milling technology. This enabled the Chinese to do far more with wheat and soybeans, both of which need to be ground to be useful. It is probable that China’s enormous wealth of wheat products—noodles, dumplings, breads, steamed buns, fermented pastes, sauces, gluten products, and more—began its evolution at this time. Soybeans were used for soy sauce and pastes, and probably for tofu (bean curd), though the evidence is thin.

In the next several centuries, Chinese cooking became more elaborate. In the Song dynasty (960–1267), growing prosperity and the arrival of new foodstuffs led to the development of the complex, sophisticated cuisine we know today. Crucial to this, according to modern scholars, was the development of a middle class. Unable to afford the sheer quantity of game and domestic meat that dominated the tables of the nobility, the middle class developed complex culinary techniques, making small amounts of ordinary ingredients into refined, elegant fare. Buddhism, which values simplicity, contributed to this development. In the northwest, Persian and Central Asian influences were particularly strong, due to trade along the Silk Road.

When the Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan dynasty (1267–1368), influences from western Asia flowed into China, profoundly shaping court cuisine. Dishes from Baghdad and Kashmir were served along with Mongol and Chinese foods. Such influences remained primarily in the north and west. The east developed a highly complex cuisine that made much use of fish, shellfish, and vegetables.

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a native Chinese dynasty, reasserted Chinese traditions, partly because of a new nationalism. Cuisine perceived as central Asian became steadily less popular. Dairy products, for instance, were popular in west and north China during the entire period of Central Asian influence but lost ground during the Ming dynasty. Animal herding was displaced by grain agriculture in many areas as the population rose. Most East Asian adults cannot digest lactose (milk sugar) and get indigestion from fresh milk, but they once consumed much yogurt and similar products in which the lactose is destroyed by fermentation.

The Ming dynasty saw the arrival of new foreign influences. Portuguese and Spanish traders introduced New World crops domesticated by Native American peoples. China’s economy was radically transformed by maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, chili peppers, tobacco, and minor crops from pineapples to guavas. Maize and sweet potatoes (and, later, white potatoes) became famine staples and animal feeds; peanuts were a new source of protein and oil.

The Qing dynasty (1644–1912), China’s last imperial dynasty, saw a steady increase in European influence on China. The expansion of the tea trade integrated China into the expanding world trade in foodstuffs. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the incorporation of China into the global economy proceeded apace. China has taken advantage of the global economy to spread Chinese cuisine worldwide. Such items as soy sauce and tea are now known and used throughout the world.

General Characteristics

Chinese cuisine shows similarities with other cuisines of East Asia, partly because of China’s influence in the region. Throughout East Asia, meals are typically boiled grain with some form of mixed topping involving vegetables, spices, and soy products. Soup is abundant and important. The grain is most often rice, simply boiled (often miscalled “steamed”). Boiled rice (or a substitute such as millet or cracked maize) is topped with a mixed dish, usually involving a good deal of highly flavored sauce that can soak into the rice. Next most common, especially in China itself, are noodles—usually made of wheat, often of rice or other grains. These are most often cooked in soup, but they are frequently boiled and then fried with vegetables and flavorings (the familiar “chow mein”—more correctly chao mian—and its relatives). Steamed buns, small breads, dumplings, and other products—usually made of wheat but often of maize, buckwheat, or other grains—are common. These are usually eaten by themselves, as snacks or quick meals. In some of the poorest parts of China, heavy flat cakes of maize or buckwheat were staples. They have since been replaced by wheat and rice products over the last thirty years.

Within China, pork is the commonest meat. China is home to two-thirds of the world’s domesticated pigs. Chickens—native to China—come second. Fish and shellfish abound wherever there is water. Thousands of species of marine life are used. Most fish are now supplied by pond farming. This practice was invented in China at least two thousand years ago and continues to increase. Hundreds of species of vegetables and fruits are eaten.

Traditionally, oils were most often made from cabbage seeds (rapeseed oil). Later came unrefined sesame, maize, and peanut oils, whose marked tastes added much to the cuisine. Today, rapeseed and soy oils are common; maize and peanut oils continue to flourish; all are refined and essentially tasteless.

Food is usually boiled, steamed, or fried. Soup is traditionally present at virtually every meal, and often is the entire meal. Water was (and still often is) highly polluted, and had to be boiled; making it into soup or tea thus made good sense. Frying usually involves the famous process called chao in Chinese and “stir-frying” in English: food is cut into small pieces and stirred in a small amount of extremely hot oil. This process spares oil and fuel. The custom of eating with chopsticks (kuaizi) was already established by the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE).

The mix of spices and flavorings distinguishes Chinese food from other cuisines of East Asia. Flavorings in a Chinese meal almost always contain at least some of the following: soy sauce, fermented soybean paste (or whole beans), garlic, onions (often small green onions), chili peppers, fresh ginger, Chinese “wine,” or Chinese vinegar. The latter two are made by the fermentation of grain, using special strains of fungi and bacteria that yield complex and distinctive flavors. In impoverished or climatically stressed areas, food flavorings may be little more than garlic and onions and a bit of soy sauce. In overseas restaurants that cater to non-Chinese, the flavorings are usually reduced.

Chinese cooking evolved as a cooking of scarcity. Several characteristics of the cuisine follow from this. First, food, especially meat, is cut into small pieces. This allows it to cook more quickly and go farther in serving, and makes it manageable with chopsticks. Second, dishes and stoves are designed to use little fuel. This, with the thin slicing, allows ordinary people to cook a meal on a handful of grass or splinters; until recently, this was all the fuel available for many or most families. Third, by putting small dishes of cut-up vegetables and meat on the rice, in a closed pot, cooks can produce a three- or four-course meal in one pot, cutting back still further on fuel use. These are only a few of the many tricks for saving fuel and food.

Another type of efficiency is gained by using almost everything edible. Tough leaves can be boiled for soup. Frogs, small shellfish, and minnows are consumed. Wild herbs and berries are sought out. Many crops are grown, the choice governed by what grows best in each local habitat—streamsides, rice paddy banks, groves, pots, even roofs. The result is an enormous variety of foodstuffs and of dishes. Restaurants often have four hundred dishes on their menus and can make many more on request.

Most important of all, Chinese cuisine is based on foods that produce an adequate diet on a minimum of land. Rice is the highest yielding of all grains. Sweet potatoes and other root crops extend the range of cultivation. Soybeans are high in protein that complements rice protein in the diet. Chinese cabbages and other popular vegetables are high in vitamins and minerals.

Many foods are eaten solely for their high nutrient value. An example is gouqi (Lycium chinense), commonly known as goji, or “the poor people’s vitamin pill,” whose leaves and berries are among the richest sources of vitamins known. Long before anyone analyzed vitamins, the leaves and dried fruits of this plant were known to be nutritious and strengthening. Handfuls of the fruit are used in soups for women recovering from childbirth or for persons convalescing from sickness.

Regional Variations

Within these general guidelines, Chinese cuisine varies greatly by region. The basic divide is between north and south. The north is dominated by wheat, with maize, sorghum, millets, and rice playing minor parts. The south is dominated by rice. The northern limit of the Jiang River basin is the approximate dividing line; the Jiang drainage basin grows both rice and wheat (and now a great deal of maize). Maize is produced in large amounts almost everywhere in China, but it is usually used for animal feed and is not popular with humans.

In the north, distinctive subtypes have evolved in the major geographic divisions. Particularly famous are the cuisines of Shaanxi (centered on Xi’an), Hebei (centered on Beijing and Tianjin), and Shandong. All are characterized by the dominance of noodles, dumplings, and steamed breads. All use a great deal of onions and garlic. Lamb, very rare southward, is used in the northwest. Shanxi food is simple and often flavored with local vinegar. Beijing food is more elaborate and has its own elite tradition in the form of the cuisine of the Forbidden City; the disappearance of the imperial court led to great reduction of this cuisine, but it survives in a few restaurants and banquet halls. Shandong food uses many vegetables, soybean products, seafood, and dumpling varieties.

The classic centers of the south are Hunan-Sichuan, the Yangtze delta, and Guangdong. Hunan and Sichuan have always had a spicy cuisine. Until chilies arrived from the Americas, the “heat” came from smartweed (Polygonum spp.), Sichuan “pepper” (actually a prickly ash or fagara, Xanthoxylum spp.), and black pepper and relatives (Piper spp.). Chilies gave local cooks a chance to escalate the heat level. This spicy style has spread to or has influenced most of southwest China.

Life in the Yangtze delta originally centered around several great cities: Hangzhou, Suzhou, Ningbo, Shanghai (recently), and others. Each city has its own variant of a general style characterized by sweet-sour dishes, much oil, a smooth and mellow texture, and very heavy use of vegetables and seafood.

Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine is marked by its enormous variety of ingredients (even by Chinese standards) and its heavy use of various fermented soybean products, including the distinctive fermented “black beans” (Mandarin doushi, Cantonese tausi). Seafood is intensively used and often made into salty pastes and sauces; these resemble similar Southeast Asian products. Several other important southern styles exist, including Chaozhou (Teochiu, Chiuchow), Fuzhou, and others.

Minority Cuisines

Distinctive cuisines also characterize the many minority groups that speak non-Chinese languages. The largest of these, the Zhuang minority (speaking languages very close to Thai), is noted for heavy vegetable use and for certain fermented products. Some Zhuang villages are characterized by high life expectancies, due in large part to their healthy diet of relatively unprocessed grains and varied local vegetables.

Tibetan food traditionally was based on roasted barley ground to flour (tsamba) and often beaten up in tea with yak butter. More elaborate foods, including pork, vegetables, and dumplings similar to jiaozi, have tended to replace this diet recently.

More distinctive, with links westward, is the cuisine of China’s far west, the huge province of Xinjiang. Until recently, most of the population spoke Turkic languages and ate foods typical of central Asia and the Iranian world. Rice was often cooked as pilaf—stir-fried before boiling, purely a west Asian style (Chinese fried rice is boiled, dried, and then stir-fried). Bread is similar to Persian bread and is often a staple. Lamb or mutton is the major meat. Fruit, including apricots, melons, and grapes, is much more important than it is eastward; pilafs often include apricots or raisins. Spicing is sparse or may be influenced by west Asian cuisine (coriander, cumin, cinnamon); absent are the distinctive Chinese flavorings such as soy sauce, brown pepper, and Chinese “wine.” Noodle dishes and dumplings, similar in appearance to Chinese counterparts, thus taste very different.

Current Changes

Chinese food continues to evolve and change. One change—deplored by traditional gourmets—is the overuse of monosodium glutamate, which was isolated from seaweed in Japan in the early twentieth century and only since the 1960s spread into Chinese cooking. Another addition is the “fortune cookie,” invented by a Chinese bakery in California in the late nineteenth century; it reached East Asia in the mid-twentieth century. Western food, including the fast food offered at McDonald’s, has come to China. Another recent development has been the spread of the Cantonese custom of making a leisurely breakfast of dim sum. The Cantonese phrase dim sam (Mandarin dianxin) literally means “dot the heart” but may more idiomatically be translated “hits the spot.” Dim sum are small, savory, high-calorie snacks, most often various kinds of stuffed and steamed dumplings and buns. They are eaten with endless cups of tea. Traditionally a breakfast for workers or for weekend outings, dim sum has become exceedingly popular in urban China, and in many distant urban centers to which Chinese have migrated.

Issues for the Twenty-First Century

Today the Chinese diet is more varied and vitamin-rich but disturbingly high in fat, refined sugar, highly milled grain products, and—for many—alcohol. This trend has had a predictably negative effect on health; deficiency diseases have been replaced by diabetes and heart disease. Overuse of wild foods, especially rare animals (with the distinction between medicine and cuisine blurred), is now a serious problem. Erosion, deforestation, spread of cities and roads onto farmland, and other processes are destroying much of the landscape. Unless conservation is taken far more seriously, China may again be the land of famine.

Further Reading

Anderson, E. N. (1988). The food of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Anderson, E. N. (2014). Food and environment in Early and Medieval China. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Benn, J. (2015). Tea in China: A religious and cultural history. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Cheung, S., and Tan, C.-B. (2007). Food and Foodways in Asia: Resource, Tradition, and Cooking. London: Routledge.

Coe, A. (2014). Chop Suey: A cultural history of Chinese food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

He, B. (1991). China on the edge. San Francisco, CA: China Books and Periodicals.

Hollman, T. (2014). Five flavors: a cultural history of Chinese cuisine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hu, S. (2005). Food plants of China. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Huang, H. T. (2000). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 6. Biology and biological technology. Part V. Fermentations and food science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lin, H. J. (2015). Slippery noodles: A Culinary History of China. London: Prospect Books.

Mallory, W. (1926). China, land of famine. New York: American Geographic Society.

Mones, N. (2007). The last Chinese chef. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Newman, J. (2004). Food culture in China. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Simoons, F. J. (1991) Food in China. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Tan, C.-B. (2011) Chinese food and foodways in Southeast Asia and beyond. Singapore: NUS Press.

Watson, J. L. (Ed.). (1997) Golden arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.