Food and Culture of China

A History

Officially the People’s Republic of China, it is a sovereign state located in East Asia. It is the world’s most populous country, containing a population of over 1.35 billion. China was first unified under the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE. This period of time is considered the beginning of Chinese history and ultimately starts their relationship between their culture and food (Chen). Consciously or subconsciously, the Chinese have developed a cuisine which can sustain the largest population possible on the least amount available.

Although the Qin dynasty rule was short, only about fifteen years long, the succeeding Han dynasty lasted about four hundred years, and to this day has created a lasting identity. The Han dynasty created the silk road and started large-scale trade with neighboring groups, bringing new foods, spices, technology, and goods to China. Foods which were brought back from the silk road were: grapes, pomegranates, walnuts, squash, peas, coriander, garlic, and sesame; all of which have become staple products throughout China (Chen). During this time Chinese dignitaries traveled to India in the south and returned with the knowledge of milling, especially wheat. This technology resulted in the creation of noodles from wheat flour, which ended up influencing cuisines all over the world, most notably that of the cuisine of Italy. Taoist monks during the Han dynasty were experimenting with the idea of alchemy and transforming one substance into another, and experimented in the realm of food. The most notable outcome of this experimentation was the development of tofu, the credit is given to Prince Liu An; ever since, tofu has been an important part of the Chinese diet. Tofu, made from the protein of the soybean is nearly a complete protein, and when combined with rice has as much or more nutritional value than chicken, beef and other meats (Chen). Protein, being an essential nutrient for growth, comes from animals in most of the world. Raising animals for human consumption though takes a lot of resources, much more than soybeans do, and when you are trying to feed over a billion people having a very efficient source of protein like tofu is essential. Tofu has become an essential part of not only Chinese cuisine, but of vegetarian and vegan cuisines around the world as the primary source of protein, and allowing hundreds of millions of people to survive on a daily basis.

Between 618 and 907 CE, the Tang dynasty ruled China focusing on bringing more trade to the country, which included new foods. Among the new foods introduced were: eggplant, spinach, pumpkin (similar to butternut squash), dill, nutmeg, saffron, and peppercorns. Buddhism also became very popular during this time and increased the use of tofu throughout the country due to their vegetarian and vegan practices (Chen). The Song dynasty (960-1297 CE), was ruling when a new rice variety was introduced from the area currently known as Vietnam. This rice varietal produced to harvests a year, doubling the output of Chinese farmers, allowing the country to sustain a much larger population. In addition to this new rice varietal, three distinct regions and cuisines developed throughout China: Northern, Lower Yangtze, and Sichuan (Chen). Modern Chinese cuisine developed under the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1389-1911 CE, during this time there was a lot of peace in the area, allowing for much development culturally and culinarily. Ingredients from the new world, or the Americas, caused a new food and agricultural revolution throughout the country. Corn, sweet and white potatoes, green and red chili peppers, as well as tomatoes, snow peas, and watercress all became notable items throughout the country, being planted where they could, and often taking root on previously unused land. The three previous regions that had developed slowly changed over time and four major regions were fully developed by the end of the dynastic rule in 1911; North China, East China, Central China, and Fujian-Taiwan. All four of these regions have distinct subregions which have subtle differences due to the local ingredients but combined they provide a cohesive profile of the parent region they are a part of (Chen).

From 1911 until 1949 after overthrowing the Qing dynasty, the Republic of China took power ending the period of dynastic rule. After defeating the Empire of Japan in World War II, the communist party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang party and has ruled China ever since. In 1978 the government introduced various economic reforms which have caused the country’s economy to expand at a very large rate, becoming the second largest economy in the world. This has done a lot to globalize all things Chinese, including their food and culture (Chen).

The four main regions in China have distinct cuisines, based largely on their geographical boundaries and differing climates. In northern China, staple crops are wheat, millet, soybeans, and rice imported from the south of China. Other notable produce grown in the region are: persimmons, nuts, jujube dates, apples, napa cabbage, bok choy, onions, and monkey’s head mushrooms, giant shrimp from the coast is also known throughout the country. The growing season in the north is short with cold winters, which necessitates the use of preservation techniques like pickling, fermenting, drying, and salting; strong liquors made from grains are also found in abundance in this area (Chen).

Chinese meals are typically served family style with multiple dishes either served all at once or one at a time. A typical lower-middle class Chinese family with three to six people will serve four modest-sized dishes, on soup, plus white rice. The larger the group being served the more dishes, but each dish is still shared by everyone eating at the table (Chen). Chopsticks have been used by the Chinese for over 3,000 years and have greatly affected the way they consume and prepare their food. Solid food, such as vegetables and meats, are cut into bite-sized pieces by the cook before serving and/or cooking because there are no knives at the table. Common western cutlery is considered barbaric by the Chinese and the only utensils used are chopsticks and the flat-bottomed Chinese spoon. This spoon is much larger than the average western spoon and is able to sit flat on the table without spilling its contents (Chen). When taking food from the platter it is customary to only take from the portion which is closest to you and not to cross chopsticks with someone else (Chinese Cuisine). In a similar style to western tableware, a small plate is present for each person to use for bones and other inedible parts of the meal. During large banquets, this plate is cleared during each course and a new clean one is brought out. Rice is typically served at the end of each meal, however during large banquets it may come out with each applicable course, and/or be brought out at the beginning of the meal for each person (Chinese Cuisine).

The most commonly used tableware in China is made out of porcelain as it does not react to acidity or alkalinity, as well as being a great insulator for near boiling tea and soups. Porcelain can also have ornate images and design baked onto them without the fear of them fading, which was important for the wealthy and nobles who used this to display their wealth. However, the common Chinese family has very simple tableware, the most important piece being the individual’s rice bowl. To “lose your rice bowl” is a euphemism for losing one’s job as you would no longer be able to fill it and feed yourself. Proper holding of a rice bowl is to support the bottom with your fingers while the thumb is held on the rim; holding the bowl in the palm of your hand is considered bad manners. When eating rice, the bowl is brought up to the lips and the rice is pushed into the mouth using chopsticks (Chinese Cuisine).

When the cook is preparing the food, it is cut into pieces no longer than two inches, most likely due to the diameter of the average rice bowl (Chen). Variety is very important in Chinese cooking, not only does each dish have a variety of textures, colors, and flavors, but each dish during a meal varies in these aspects as well. The Chinese menu focuses on harmony through contrasting ingredients, and not repeating a flavor profile or main ingredient throughout the meal. This allows for a more appealing meal, as well as one which is much more balanced in flavor and nutrition. Serving delicate dishes before more robust ones allows for the desired flavors to be featured without being overpowered by the flavors of previous dishes, especially those which are very pungent and spicy (Chen).

One of the most well-known dishes and styles of cooking to come out of China is stir-frying also known as Chao (Chinese Cuisine). This is a “unique Chinese technique that has been used regularly by the Chinese for at least a thousand years” (Chen). It is considered the fastest way to cook food, but the food must be cut into small pieces first in order for it to be efficient (Chen). Performed in a wok, there is a larger surface area exposed to heat than in a conventional frying or saute pan. Less oil is needed because is pools in the bottom and ingredients are frequently tossed (Chinese Cuisine). Stir-frying often takes less than five minutes but consists of several steps (Chen). Although the cooking time may vary depending on the ingredients used, root vegetables will require more cooking time than thin watery or leafy vegetables (Chinese Cuisine). When stir-frying over a low flame it is called Pa (Chinese Cuisine). A typical process of stir-frying is as follows:

  1. Preheat a wok on high heat until it is a dull red. Add a small amount of oil and swirl around to evenly coat and prevent sticking of food.
  2. Add flavoring ingredients such as garlic, ginger, or scallions
  3. Drop in pre-cut ingredients, stirring and flipping to evenly coat in oil and to move underdone pieces toward the hot middle and more done ones to the sides. Add seasonings in this step.
  4. Add water and cover if needed
  5. Stream in wine along the sides to add flavor and aroma
  6. If meat and vegetables are served together, they are cooked separately and added now.
  7. Thicken juices with starch and water to form a sauce if desired


In The Abominable Pig, Marvin Harris discusses the historical significance as well as the geographical and climatological reasons certain cultures have banned the consumption of pork, as well as other animals. He begins by stating that “an aversion to pork seems at the outset even more irrational than an aversion to beef” (Counihan 59). This is justified by the fact that among sheep, cattle, and pigs, the pig is the most efficient at converting food into flesh, at a rate of 35 percent. In addition to this efficiency, a sow can have as many as eight piglets per litter which can reach upwards of four hundred pounds in only six months. Additionally, pigs can thrive on just about any food, although they naturally forage nuts, seeds, roots, and grains (Counihan 59). All of these notions present the pig as one of, if not the most prime candidate for the animal best suited for human consumption. Not to mention the fact that about 99 percent of the pig can be used in some form or another, whether it be for human consumption or composted. These reasons, among much more, contribute to the fact that the Chinese use pork extensively in their cuisine.

The pig is an animal whose flesh is easily transformed in many ways and is easily adapted to various preservation techniques. Simply roasting whole is a popular technique, around which a whole community usually gathers and shares. However curing, smoking, and drying for long periods of time can turn a tough haunch into a delectable, succulent, prized ham, revered among nobles and common folk alike. This multipurpose animal has played a pivotal role in feeding the vast population of China throughout the centuries, allowing them to thrive and become a world power. However, a large Muslim population in the northern parts of China, and an even larger Buddhist population have helped to shape the national cuisine as well.

Muslims are forbidden to consume the flesh of swine and because of this, they have played a role in the inclusion and proliferation of other animals in the Chinese diet. Sheep and goat are the two main animals which the Muslim population spread throughout the northern region as they are popular herding animals, as most Muslims were nomadic herders. They also contributed the Mongolian Hot Pot which has been a popular cooking technique, especially in restaurants for over four-hundred years (Chinese Cuisine).

As Margaret Mead states in her article Why Do We Overeat?, Americans have not had the problem of having too little to eat for over a hundred years now, save for the great depression (Counihan 19). We are a country of over consumption of not only food but other goods as well, with about two-thirds of our population being overweight or obese. China on the other hand, because of its large population throughout history has had a tough time providing enough food for all its people. Although Chinese cuisine as a whole focuses on the consumption of vegetables, meat, other protein, and fruit, the majority of calories comes from the consumption of rice at the end of the meal. Serving the rice at the end ensures that everyone is filled as much as possible from the nutrient dense plants and meat and that any other room they have is filled with calorically dense rice. This technique has allowed the Chinese people to survive and even thrive in a country which has mostly arid land not suited for many crops. Even to this day, China has one of the lowest rates of overweight and obese people with less than 5% of the population in 2009 being obese (Puska). The majority of the obese and overweight in China are in their major cities which have become much more westernized with fast food becoming more popular than classic Chinese cuisine. Although having enough or slightly more than enough food is good for population growth and the overall health and longevity of a population, a lesson can be learned from classic Chinese cuisine. Focusing on nutrient dense foods over calorically dense ones, followed by the calorically dense can help to ensure a healthy body, as well as prevent the overconsumption of calories; which leads to an overweight and unhealthy population with a high disease and mortality rate.

Throughout the history of China, there have been many different rulers who have brought different foods and cultures into the country. From the development of the silk road bringing garlic and sesame, to the introduction of a twice harvesting rice from Vietnam, China has been a melting pot of foods from all over the world. Religions such as Islam and Buddhism have helped to shape the cuisine both regionally and nationally, bringing different cooking methods and focusing on different foodstuffs. The invention of tofu during the Han dynasty by Taoist monks gave the Chinese people an inexpensive and efficient source of a complete protein, that was able to be stored at length. Consciously or subconsciously, the Chinese have developed a cuisine which can sustain the largest population possible on the least amount available.


Works Cited

Chen, Pearl Kong., Tien Chi. Chen, and Rose Y. L. Tseng. Everything you want to Know about Chinese Cooking. Woodbury, NY: Barron’s, 1983. Print.

Chinese Cuisine from the Master Chefs of China. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983. Print.

Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Puska, D., C. Nishida, and D. Porter. “Obesity and Overweight.” OBESITY AND OVERWEIGHT (2003): n. pag. Word Health Organization, 2003. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.


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