There is a famous saying in China that says “People regard food as their prime necessity (民以食为天)”. Indeed, food is an important part of Chinese culture. Let’s look back through time and find out those fascinating food facts during Shang and Zhou dynasty (the Bronze Age) as well as Tang and Song Dynasty (China’s Golden Age).
China’s first recorded history begins with Shang Dynasty. Back then, people normally used fire to heat the food, we can tell from the signs of fire and smoke on the cooking utensils found in the Yin Ruins.
Food was divided into two groups, grain foods and dishes. The most common grain was millet. The glutinous millet was more expensive than the non-glutinous kind, because the glutinous millet was what they used for making alcohol, and people of the Shang dynasty had a reputation for their alcoholic indulgence. The alcoholic drinks of the time had about the same alcohol content as the beer we have today.
For dishes, meat dishes and soups were popular. People hunted in big groups and practically ate everything they got – elephants, rhinoceros, rabbits, deer, fish, tortoises, etc. They not only consumed the meat but also carved the famous oracle bone script onto those bones and shells of the prey.
Zhou dynasty is a period when food culture started to form and develop. According to “Rites of Zhou”, there were 3,983 officials who were in charge of the royal household. Among them, 1,683 were on food and drink related positions, you can tell how much people valued their food at that time.
An interesting phenomenon was that during Zhou Dynasty, besides daily life and agricultural activities, food was closely related to the rites too. People presented food as the medium between heaven and earth. Depending on the significance of the rites， different kinds of food was put into different amount of these ancient cooking vessels called “Ding (鼎)”. If the rite were held by the emperor, then there must be nine vessels filled with beef, lamb, pork, fish, dried meat, intestines, fresh fish, and fresh dried meat; if the rite were held by normal scholars, then there should only be one vessel filled with pork alone.
People of Zhou Dynasty were particular about their food. They used different oil to cook different meat, and they chose to eat the food that fitted the season. They loved food pairing too. For example, they believed that beef and non-glutinous rice would be perfectly together, the same with lamb and glutinous millet, pork and millet, geese and wheat, fish and wild rice.
In the history of China, the society in the Tang Dynasty was highly prosperous, the material life and the spiritual life reached the highest level that was not seen in previous generations. The exchange between the Tang Empire and abroad brought in exotic and eating habits that contributed to the diversity in Tang dynasty diet.
Many of the common food and cooking ingredients in Tang times were the same as today: rice, garlic, salt, spinach, turnips, soybeans, grapes, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, pomegranates, jujubes, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, yams, taro, etc. Before Tang, maltose and honey were the main sweeteners. Then granulated sugar made from sugar canes appeared and was used in cooking and in making desserts.
For staple food, rice, congee, steamed buns, wonton and all sorts of cakes were fairly common. Originated from the Western Regions, the sesame cakes (similar to today’s naans) were very popular back then.
All kinds of meat and various seafood and fish were consumed: pork, chicken, lamb, oysters, shrimps, carps, bass… Although rare, there were recipes for steamed, boiled, and marinated bear!
Fish was normally eaten raw at the time. Thin slices of raw fish came with spring union, garlic, orange sauce or mustard sauce. Unlike the sashimi today, the raw fish Tang people used was mostly from the rivers.
During this period, the daily diet of the common people changed from two meals to three meals. People had more leisure time to think and try different ways of cooking. They invented or brought popularity to a list of food that are still loved by people today, such as ham, braised pork in brown sauce, hotpot, fried bread stick, rice dumpling and popcorn.
Rice wasn’t just a kind of staple food. Song people used rice to make all sorts of pastries – honey cake, flower cake, chestnut cake, bean cake, etc. Various kinds of meat were available, but beef was rarely eaten, since the bull was an important draft animal.
From the Song period, works such as “Dong Jing Meng Hua Lu (Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital)” preserve lists of names for dishes in menus for restaurants and taverns, as well as for feasts at banquets, festivals, and modest dining. Judging from the listed seasonings they used for these dishes, such as pepper, ginger, soya sauce, oil, salt, and vinegar, Song era cuisine is perhaps not too different from the Chinese cuisine of today.
There had been food safety laws since Zhou Dynasty. At Song Dynasty, in order to regulate the booming food industry, food safety laws became more comprehensive. The government set up different guild for different business, such as liquor shop guild and restaurant guild. Any business owner that sold similar goods must join the relevant guild so that they would be under supervision of their guild.