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tea eggs

The Chinese are credited with inventing chicken noodle soup, pasta and ketchup. According to one story Marco Polo brought noodles back from China and invented spaghetti (See Noodles, Different Foods). Many doubts have been raised about this claim. The word ketchup comes from “ke-tsiap”, a tangy sauce made from pickled fish and spices. In 1982 a group of chefs tried to resurrect some imperial dessert recipes by looking up the last emperor's brother.

Woks were first used more than 2,000 years ago. Their curved shape distributes heat evenly and causes liquid to evaporate quickly. The ancient Chinese began eating ice cream-like deserts around 2000 B.C. Ancient noblemen were particularly fond of a soft paste made with soft rice and milk, packed with snow. By the 13th century a variety of iced deserts could be purchased from vendors on the streets of Beijing. Marco Polo reportedly brought recipes from ice-cream-like chilled milk deserts from China.

During the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.), a ruler appointed his favorite cook to prime minister. Yi Ya was a legendary chef from the ancient Zhou Dynasty. Noodles that were 2,500 year old were found in 2005 During the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) the Chinese developed the first true restaurants. By the Sung dynasty these had become multipurpose private rooms where men went for food, sex and drink. In the 10th century, the Chinese enjoyed dumplings, broad noodles with meat and vegetable toppings that often varied from region to region. On the streets of large cities you could get takeaway food like candied fruit and stuffed baked buns.

Chillies arrived from the New World in the Ming dynasty of the 15th and 16th centuries. Verity Wilson, an expert on Chinese culture, told the BBC: "But now they've been absolutely incorporated into the Chinese way of life, and we can't really think about Chinese cooking without chillies. And the other thing we think about is teapots. Teapots have very much become an item associated with China. But pre-Ming dynasty, there were no teapots in China. So I think all those things which we take to be quintessentially Chinese have actually been absorbed by the Chinese from other cultures." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 ***]

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Eating China Blog eatingchina.com/blog ; Imperial Food, Chinese Government site china.org.cn; Wikipedia article on History of Chinese Food Wikipedia ; Chopstix chopstix.com ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; Chinese Food Recipes chinesefood-recipes.com : Food Tours in China, China Highlights China Highlights

Ancient Food in China

The earliest identified crops in China were two drought-resistant species of millet in the north and rice in the south (see below). Domesticated millet was produced in China by 6000 B.C. Most ancient Chinese ate millet before they ate rice. Among the other crops that were grown by the ancient Chinese were soybeans, hemp, tea, apricots, pears, peaches and citrus fruits. Before the cultivation of rice and millet, people ate grasses, beans, wild millet seeds, a type of yam and snakegourd root in northern China and sago palm, bananas, acorns and freshwater roots and tubers in southern China.

The earliest domesticated animals in China were pigs, dogs and chickens, which were first domesticated in China by 4000 B.C. and believed to have spread from China across Asia and the Pacific. Among the other animals that were domesticated by the ancient Chinese were water buffalo (important for pulling plows), silkworms, ducks and geese.

Wheat, barley, cows, horses, sheep, goats and pigs were introduced to China from the Fertile Crescent in western Asia. Tall horses, like we are familiar with today, were introduced to China in the first century B.C. In the late 2010s, in a tomb excavated in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, archaeologists found a jar filled with eggs dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770–ca. 475 B.C.), making them at least 2,500 years old. Only shells remain. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology magazine, July-August 2019]

Fruits of Chinese Origin

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Chinese Mushrooms
Professor Derk Bodde wrote: “Some of the commonest plants grown by us today are of Chinese origin. Among fruits there are the peach and the apricot, which very possibly entered Europe together with the silk trade during Roman times. Many of our citrus fruits, likewise, were originally native to Southeast Asia, including southern China. There they were long known and cultivated by the Chinese before being brought, usually by the Arabs, to the Western world. [Source: Derk Bodde, Assistant Professor of Chinese, University of Pennsylvania, November 8, 1942, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu]

“The orange, for example, was not known to Europeans until introduced by the Arabs in the eleventh century. In Holland and Germany it is still called the "Chinese apple." The lemon, too, was brought by the Arabs from India to Europe a little before 1400. It had already been cultivated in South China, however, for some time before it spread to India. Another important citrus, our American grapefruit, is a considerably modified descendant of the Chinese pomelo. In this case, however, the fruit did not travel over the southern route by way of India. It was taken in the eighteenth century from China by way of the Pacific and Cape Horn to the West Indies. From there it spread to other parts of the Americas. That is why the grapefruit, even today, is almost unknown in Europe.

“Other plants in China, though as yet unknown in the West, may some day find an equal welcome. Among them are the deliciously sweet lichee nut, which is really a juicy fruit, though it is known in this country only in its dried form; the curious aquatic vegetable known as the water chestnut; the Chinese persimmon, which grows to almost twice the size of the persimmon native to this country; and the succulent shoots of the young bamboo, which are a favorite article in the Chinese diet.

Food in China, 3000 Years Ago

What did Chinese people eat 3,000 years ago? How did they cook? What kind of tableware or cooking utensils did they use? The increasing number of archaeological finds over the past few decades, especially the discoveries of ancient bronze wares, have shed new light on these questions. Many of the unearthed bronze wares were found with the remains of food or wine. [Source: China.org, March 13, 2003, This article first appeared in 2003's third issue of Collections, a Chinese language monthly magazine ~]

ancient ritual food vessel

According to China.org: “People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties highly valued their way of dining. Delicious and nutritious food was regarded as the basis of ordinary life. Inscriptions engraved on ancient bronze items showed rice and wheat were the major staple foods since the Shang Dynasty. Shi Jing (The Book of Songs), one of the seminal works of the Chinese civilization, featured records of growing grain as well as grain processing. According to Li Ji (Records of Ritual), one of the five early Chinese classics, people at that time had begun to make cake with flour. Generally, the staple food was either boiled in a li or steamed in a yan (See Cooking Below). ~

“As far as meat went, archaeological findings showed Shang people enjoyed a wide variety of animals including horse, cow, chicken, pig, sheep and deer. Of course, only the upper-class was able to enjoy these delicacies. For common people, however, fish was probably the best food they could attain. Over a dozen kinds of fish were mentioned in Shi Jing. Fish-shaped jade items were often excavated, which proved the prominent role of fish in people's daily diets. ~

“People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties set forth culinary standards that are still followed today, such as the practice of cutting food into bite size pieces during preparation and not at the table. They stressed both the food and the culinary vessels must be cleaned completely before cooking. They also decreed that harmony among ingredients with respect to their size, shape, fragrance, taste and texture should be the goal of the chef. Diets should be changed with different seasons. To gain a balanced diet, vegetables and fruits were assorted with the main dishes. Seasoning varieties were also dazzling with sweet, hot, sour or spicy flavours, which made the dish tasty and healthy. Sauces made of meat, fish and oyster were also popular. ~

It said people in the Zhou Dynasty had also learned to grow fruit trees in orchards. A poem in the “Book of Songs”, a collection of poetry from the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century -771 B.C.)to the Spring and Autumn Period (770 – 475 B.C.), says food kept in “ling yin” — meaning cool places — will stay fresh for three days in the summer. [Source: Zhang Xiang, Xinhua, November 20, 2010]

Food from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.)

Han Dynasty model of a pig pen

The Book of Rites, a Chinese history book compiled in the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-9), put melons, apricots, plums and peaches among the 31 categories of food favored by aristocrats of the time.

In October 2010, Chinese scientists announced that ancient Chinese emperors living in inland China may have dined on seafood that came from the eastern China coast more than 1,600 kilometers after investigating an imperial mausoleum that dates back 2,000 years. “We discovered the remains of sea snails and clams among the animal bone fossils in a burial pit,” Hu Songmei, a Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology researcher told Xinhua. “Since the burial pit appears to be that of the official in charge of the emperor’s diet, we conclude that seafood must have been part of the imperial menu,” Hu said. [Source: Zhang Xiang, Xinhua, October 30, 2010 \=]

In August 2014, archeologists announced they discovered a 2,100-year-old mausoleum built for a king named Liu Fei in present-day Xuyi County in Jiangsu, China. In the tomb was a kitchen with food for the afterlife. Livescience.com reported: “Archaeologists found an area in the burial chamber containing bronze cauldrons, tripods, steamers, wine vessels, cups and pitchers. They also found seashells, animal bones and fruit seeds. Several clay inscriptions found held the seal of the “culinary officer of the Jiangdu Kingdom.”“ [Source: livescience.com, August 16, 2014]

Food During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 to 906)

In ancient times, the Chinese had outlined the five most basic foodstuffs known as the five grains: sesamum, legumes, wheat, panicled millet, and glutinous millet. The Ming dynasty encyclopedist Song Yingxing (1587–1666) noted that rice was not counted amongst the five grains from the time of the legendary and deified Chinese sage Shennong (the existence of whom Yingxing wrote was "an uncertain matter") into the 2nd millenniums B.C., because the properly wet and humid climate in southern China for growing rice was not yet fully settled or cultivated by the Chinese. [Source: Wikipedia +]

During the Tang, the many common foodstuffs and cooking ingredients in addition to those already listed were barley, garlic, salt, turnips, soybeans, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, pomegranates, jujubes, rhubarb, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, yams, taro, etc. The various meats that were consumed included pork, chicken, lamb (especially preferred in the north), sea otter, bear (which was hard to catch, but there were recipes for steamed, boiled, and marinated bear), and even Bactrian camels. In the south along the coast meat from seafood was by default the most common, as the Chinese enjoyed eating cooked jellyfish with cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, cardamom, and ginger, as well as oysters with wine, fried squid with ginger and vinegar, horseshoe crabs and red swimming crabs, shrimp and pufferfish, which the Chinese called "river piglet". +

Some foods were also off-limits, as the Tang court encouraged people not to eat beef (since the bull was a valuable working animal), and from 831 to 833 Emperor Wenzong of Tang even banned the slaughter of cattle on the grounds of his religious convictions to Buddhism. +

Methods of food preservation were important, and practiced throughout China. The common people used simple methods of preservation, such as digging deep ditches and trenches, brining, and salting their foods. The emperor had large ice pits located in the parks in and around Chang'an for preserving food, while the wealthy and elite had their own smaller ice pits. Each year the emperor had laborers carve 1000 blocks of ice from frozen creeks in mountain valleys, each block with the dimension of 3 ft (0.91 meters) by 3 ft by 3½ ft (1.06 meters). There were many frozen delicacies enjoyed during the summer, especially chilled melon. +

Tang Banquet

Food in the Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Chinese cooking reportedly reached its peak in the Song dynasty when cooks experimented with herbs and spices from all over Asia brought into the port of Hangzhou, the Song capital. Noblemen had banquets that lasted for days and featured dishes like "Dragon Meets Phoenix" and "Seven Stars Encircle the Moon." Marco Polo was so taken by Hangzhou he wrote, "So many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in paradise."

Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History: “Reliance on rice increased during the Song Dynasty. Double-cropping came into fashion and rice use was able to increase. Some champa, rice, originally introduced from India, was coming to China as a tribute from the Champa state in Vietnam. Also growing in popularity, though less so, was red and black rices; these were grown locally. Thanks to the increase of and faster shipping of foods, litchi and sugar cane use spread throughout the country. Other foods did, as well. Some cities such as Hangzhou and Kaifeng set up special areas for the sale and distribution of these and other foods. Perishable foods were wrapped in lotus leaves for shipment; these were often the 'bags' used to carry them home from the marketplace. [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

“With increased quantity and availability, rich and poor had access to more kinds of foods, and they began to learn differences in food quality. They were now able to eat three meals a day, and large numbers of people did. Snacks became an adored item these days and many kinds were available for purchase, particularly during night markets.

“The variety of available dishes they offered, and one such boasted 100-Flavors Soup, Milk-steamed Lamb, Oven-strewn Hare, etc. One of these places listed two hundred thirty-four famous dishes their guests could choose from. 'Imitation' dishes became popular not just for Buddhist guests but for everyone who wanted to enjoy them. Barbecue shops increased as did oil-baked-pastry shops. ***

“Meat use expanded. Restaurants, more and more, used all parts of the pig, lamb, sheep, cows, and goats. Even horses, rabbits, deer, goat, frog, fish and other manners of seafood use increased during Song Dynasty times. Some meats were made into fermented pastes and sauces during the start of this dynasty, but near its end this use declined and virtually disappeared after the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (1280-1368 and 1368 - 1644 CE, respectively). But before they did, unusual foods such as yellow sparrows, mussels, crabs, and the heads of pigs were enjoyed fermented from raw or from their cooked states.

Song Dynasty Cookbooks

Song Dynasty silver chopsticks, cup and spoon

Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History:“Many anecdotal food canons were published during” the Song Dynasty; “so were a few recipe books. The latter were a great improvement over earlier ones. One of these was the first ever to provide ingredients in measured amounts; it was called Madame Wu's Recipe Book and Wu Shih Ching Kuei Lu, in Chinese. This book was the first to offer more than simplistic generalized instructions, though they were a far cry from methods listed in steps, as they are these days. Instead, Madame Wu's book offered instructions such as 'bake on top of the stove' or 'drip oil over them' or 'cook... until very soft.' There was an oft quoted one that said 'cover the pot closely and add one or two mulberry stones which makes the meat tender.' Another frequently mentioned one is 'in summer, cook meat with only vinegar.' [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

“One poet, Yu Shipi, wrote about eating plain meat, brains, frog's legs, pigs' knuckles, fish maw, and other exotica. He liked them and said that these unusual foods were served to the Crown Prince. Some culinary, he discussed, included blanching kidneys and cooking them with wine and vinegar, sauteing quail with bamboo shoots, cooking crab legs with venison, preparing river prawns in soup with fish maw, and stewing whitefish in wine. How long any of these were prepared and/or cooked or how they should look when done, he mentioned not. That seemed to be left to the knowledge or imagination of each individual cook. ***

“Books of these times were more booklets than books, as we know them today. For example, one popular one was just a few pages. It was called Menu of Delectables. Others were a mite longer such as A Chef's Manual, or the Imperial Food List. A one hundred-plus page volume was titled Basic Needs of Rustic Living. There was another of one hundred fifty-pages titled Records of the Corrigible Studio. ***

Restaurants in the Song Dynasty (960–1279)

Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History: “More fermented wines, distilled alcohols, and other beverages were developed during Song times. Tea use increased in popularity and soon surpassed the consumption of alcoholic beverages. One of the latter that did increase considerably was koumiss, a drink made of mare's milk.” Places to enjoy foods and drinks “meant increases in places to consume them away from home, and that was why more restaurants were built. Some had housing for prostitutes next door when more men were eating away from home. Some had rooms within for guests to bed down before making their long journey home. Some of these eateries offered entertainment such as sing-song girls, poetry readings, and other delights. With these many more eateries came need for more folk to cook in them. [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

restaurants depicted in the Song-era Qingming Festival painting

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “In both Song period capitals, in northern Kaifeng and in southern Hangzhou, there were large entertainment or “red light” districts (wazi, wa-tzû) offering any kinds of amusements. In the theater houses and in the teahouses it was possible to see mimes, dance spectacles, acrobatics, circuses with animals, and magic shows. Prostitutes lured customers by singing and dancing, and the alleys were lined with fortune-tellers and street musicians. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “When taking tea, the Song people would customarily crush the tea cakes into tiny tea powder, place the powder in the tea bowl and add water; after some stirring the tea would be ready for drinking. Therefore a layer of white foam would often float to the surface of the tea, which would have suited well the black glaze of this tea bowl. The Song people had developed the practice of "tea competitions", and the coloring and foam appearing after stirring of the tea were both important criteria considered by the judges. Black glaze on tea bowls set off the white tea particularly well, and for this reason these tea bowls became extremely popular during the Song Dynasty. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Foods in Obtained from the Silk Road and the New World

From the trade overseas and over land, the Chinese acquired peaches from Samarkand, date palms, pistachios, and figs from Greater Iran, pine nuts and ginseng roots from Korea and mangoes from Southeast Asia. In China, there was a great demand for sugar; during the reign of Harsha over North India (r. 606–647), Indian envoys to the Tang brought two makers of sugar who successfully taught the Chinese how to cultivate sugarcane. Cotton also came from India as a finished product from Bengal, although it was during the Tang that the Chinese began to grow and process cotton, and by the Yuan dynasty it became the prime textile fabric in China. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to Silk Road Foundation:"Barbaric food" became widely admired. In everyday things, the Chinese had learned from India ways of making sugar from cane, wince from grapes, and of making optical lenses. Spinach, garlic, mustard and peas introduced from the Silk Road, were now grown in China. Of these the most popular were little "foreign" cakes of various kinds, especially a steamed variety sprinkled with sesame seeds, and cakes fried in oil. The art of making these had been introduced from the West but they were ordinarily prepared and sold by Westerners. Of course some of the foreign recipes required expensive imported ingredients was costly. Especially popular were aromatic and spicy dishes. [Source: “Exoticism in Tang (618-907), Silkroad Foundation”, Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ]

Crops like the potato, the sweet potato, the peanut, corn, the chili pepper and the tomato were introduced to China and Asia from America as they were to Europe, and their impact was just as profound. It is hard to imagine spice Hunan and Sichuan food without the chili pepper.

In some cases, the New World foods were actually adopted faster in East Asia than they were in most of Europe. And they fit very particular ecological niches that were quite important. The potato, the sweet potato, corn, the peanut, all made it to China by 1600, on a very small scale, but they really took off in the eighteenth century. Not only did they improve and boraden Chinese cuisines, they also increased agricultural yields and helped feed China’s huge population. Corn, for example, is grown today across vast swaths of northern China that is too far north to grow rice and is better suited for corn than wheat. [Source: "Miracle Strains, " by Susan V. Lawrence, Far Eastern Economic Review, 162/15, April 15, 1999 ]

Susan V. Lawrence wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “When Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on the moonlit hills of San Salvador on the night of October 12, 1492, he could hardly have guessed at the impact that his discovery would eventually have on China, half a world away. In the subsequent decades, Spanish traders carried high-yielding crops from Spain's dominions in the Americas to the Philippines, which was Spain's main foothold in Asia. In the late 1500s, those crops, among them corn, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and peanuts, made their way to China. There, beginning in the second half of the 1600s, they fuelled a population explosion... which saw numbers swell from 150 million in the early 1700s to 450 million by the mid-1800s.”

Food During the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Tea house in Shanghai
Jacqueline M. Newman wrote in Food in History: “During and after the Yuan and Ming dynasties, foods such as eggplant, radishes, ginger, melons, pears, and citron, and soy pastes were added to the fermentation process. These, too, eventually, went out of fashion. Only soy paste and sauce use remained; and that is still true today. However, while they were popular, these fermented meat, fish, and vegetable pastes and sauces were used with whole or pieces of chicken, fish, and other animal foods.” [Source: Jacqueline M. Newman, Food in History Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 20 and 21 ***]

Yuan Mei, an 18th-century mandarin, is regarded as the Brillant-Savarin of China. After abandoning his career as a Beijing bureaucrat he settled n Nanjing, where designed his own garden and wrote the influential cookbook “Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment”. It is believed he didn’t cook himself but was an astute observer, collecting recipes from Buddhist monasteries and taking notes when he had dinners with members of the elite. He gave detailed instructions to his chefs and disliked ostentatiousness, once writing of going home hungry after a flashy 45-dish banquet. [Source: The New Yorker]

General Tso chicken is one of the most famous Chinese dishes in the West. It is named after General Zuo Zonong,, a fierce warrior born in Wenjialong in Hunan in 1812 who was credited with crushing a number of rebellions that threatened the Qing dynasty. It is not clear how the dish became named after him. There is a Hunan dish that bears his name but it is quite different from the sweet and spicy offered at restaurants in the United States.

Eating in 19th Century China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ If the problem of life in China were narrowed down to the issue, whether to eat to live, or to live to eat, the choice of a Chinese would not be long in doubt. In fact it would not be in doubt at all. It is true that there is a very ancient classical dictum which avers that the Superior Man does not have his thoughts on food, but on doctrine. But it must be remembered that this saying was uttered a long time ago, and that it predicates nothing about any except Superior Men, a race of beings, who, if they ever existed in China, are now, like the megatherium, the deinosauros and the pterodactyl, known only in the plaster casts of museums, or rather by a vague tradition, unaccompanied by even a stray bone, as a voucher. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“The ordinary Chinese of to-day does not meditate on doctrine, but he does meditate on food. If one hears a snatch of a Chinese conversation anywhere, and begins to unravel a stray thread, the result will be to show that the subject is either food, or else it is money considered generally in relation to its capacity as a provider of food. The procurement of food in China is a serious matter; in fact it is the one serious matter of life, in presence of which all other matters fade into comparative insignificance. When one considers what a vast multitude of human beings are to be provided for, it does not seem so strange that there are millions in China at any particular time, who do not know what it is to have a full meal, and who are actually in a condition of chronic starvation. In view of the gaunt possibilities of the future, it is not to be wondered at if the business of eating assumes a prominence, to which in the lands from which we come, we are strangers.

“In the matter of eating, we have no hesitation in declaring Chinese civilisation to be far in advance of ours. The Chinese recognize the element of time in the consumption of food, as we do not. Work, they wisely say, may be hastened, but not food. Although they are by no means considerate of foreigners in this particular, yet among themselves, , the announcement that any one is eating, is considered a valid excuse for his delaying almost anything to almost any extent. The Chinese seem to understand by instinct, that this is as satisfactory an apology as that of the famous French lady, who begged to be excused to a caller as she was " engaged in dying! " Whatever may be the abstract merits of a vegetarian diet, it cannot be said that the diet of the Chinese is to be admired in any respect, if we take that of the common and lower classes as a sample. But despite its coarseness, and its frequent lack of the requisite nutritive quality, it is eaten in a way, which is a silent admonition to the restless and over anxious foreigner, who is in too much haste, and who has his mind too full of a multitude of other subjects, to get the benefit of his food. If the quality of ordinary Chinese food is not up to a high standard, ample amends is made by the consumption of such a quantity as would seem incredible if we were not daily witnesses of the fact. In Western lands, an invitation to a meal, is very likely to be regarded as a "bore, " and this quite irrespective of the merits of the food, of which we are by no means sure to take any account.

Food in the Mao and Deng Eras

In the Mao Era, there were few shops, restaurants, vendors and markets. People needed ration coupons to buy meat, rice milk powder and cooking oil and waiting for hours in lines to get their monthly allotments. In the 1960s, a family living in a modest apartment in Shanghai are meat about once a week. In the 1970s, sugar and cooking oil were rationed. Food coupons could only be used in local markets to buy rice and vegetables. Friendship stores were the only places foreign goods could be bought. They were famous for their sullen, slow service and accepted only foreign exchange certificates.

left In the Mao era fine dining suffered as it was associated with the excesses of nationalist and warlord regimes that preceded the Communists. Mao himself disliked refined foods, preferring the spicy Hunan spicy cooking and ingredients like pork fat. During the Cultural revolution, senior chefs were taunted and harassed by their students and restaurants were ordered to serve “cheap, substantial food” for the masses.

Mao liked spicy Hunan cooking with course ingredients. His favorite dishes reportedly were pork fat and hing shao roud (braised pork). Even when he was a communist revolutionary he enjoyed food. When a foreign reporter interviewed him in Yunnan in 1945 and raised questions about a feast featuring exotic fish that he was enjoying while foot solders were eating rice and bamboo shoots, Mao said, “We are Chinese first and we love good food.” Deng Xiaoping spent five years in France. While he was there he developed a taste for croissants (in a 1974 stopover in Paris after a trip to New York he ordered 100 croissants).

Until the 1990s many Chinese didn’t have refrigerators, processed food was rare and people ate mostly local, seasonal produce. In recent years — as China has quickly modernized and refrigerators and supermarkets have become more common and agricultural fields near urban areas have plowed over by developers — processed foods, supermarkets chains and non-local non-seasonal food have become more common. As the Chinese have become richer they are eating more meat at the expense of grains and vegetables.

Food Supply in the Mao and Deng Eras

“While food production rose substantially after 1949, population increases were nearly as great until the 1980s. Production of grain, the source of about 75 percent of the calories in the Chinese diet, grew at an average rate of 2.7 percent a year between 1952 and 1979, while population growth averaged almost 2 percent a year. Total grain output per capita grew from 288 kilograms a year in 1952 to 319 kilograms in 1978, an increase of only 11 percent in 26 years. In 1984, however, a remarkably good harvest produced 396 kilograms of grain per capita, an increase of 24 percent in only 6 years. In 1985 grain output fell below the peak level of 1984, to 365 kilograms per person, and recovered only partially in 1986 to 369 kilograms per capita. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Other important food items that remained in short supply before the economic reforms included edible oil, sugar, and aquatic products. Production of oil-bearing crops increased at an average rate of about 2 percent a year from 1952 to 1979, and annual consumption of edible oil was less than 2 kilograms per person in 1979. Between 1978 and 1985, output grew at over 16 percent a year, and annual consumption increased to 5.1 kilograms per person. Sugar production grew at an average annual rate of 4.5 percent after 1952, but in 1979 consumption per person still was only 3.5 kilograms per year. From 1979 to 1985, sugar production grew by 10 percent a year, and the total amount of sugar available per person rose to 5.6 kilograms in 1985. Output of aquatic products rose at an average rate of only 2 percent a year between 1957 and 1978 and declined slightly in 1979; between 1979 and 1985, however, output grew at an average rate of 8.5 percent a year, and individual annual consumption rose from 3.2 kilograms to 4.9 kilograms.*

Pork, eggs, and vegetables were increasingly available before the 1980s. Annual consumption of pork — the most commonly eaten meat in China — grew from 5.9 kilograms per person in 1952 to 7.5 kilograms per person in the mid-1970s. In 1979 a sharp increase in procurement prices for pork brought about a surge in supply — to 9.6 kilograms per person. Beginning in 1980, availability increased steadily, reaching 14 kilograms of pork per capita in 1985, an increase of 9 percent each year from 1978. Consumption of fresh eggs followed a similar pattern, climbing from an average of just over one kilogram per person in 1952 to almost two kilograms in 1978. The economic reforms elicited rapid increases in the supply of eggs, as they had with pork, and by 1985 consumption had more than doubled, to 5 kilograms of eggs per person a year, for an increase of over 14 percent a year.*

Vegetables were the major supplement to grain in the Chinese diet and were very important nutritionally. In 1957 annual vegetable consumption per capita in Chinese cities averaged 109 kilograms and by 1981 had grown to 152 kilograms. Household survey data indicated that in 1985 vegetable consumption had leveled off, at 148 kilograms per person per year in urban areas and 131 kilograms in the countryside, as people used their higher incomes to increase their purchases of more expensive foods, such as meat, fish, and edible oil.*

As of the late 1970s, famine and malnutrition were no longer major problems in China, but the average diet lacked variety and provided little more than basic nutritional requirements. Protein, in particular, was barely adequate for health maintenance. By the mid-1980s the availability of food had improved dramatically. Bustling street markets offered a good variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, and per capita consumption of high-protein foods — meat, poultry, eggs, and fish — increased by 63 percent over the 1979 level, to nearly 27 kilograms a year in 1985.*

Golden Mangoes

20111123-aisa obscura mango2-300x214.jpg
Mao and mangoes
In the Mao era mangoes were greatly treasured. After Mao received a box of them as a gift from the foreign minister of Pakistan he had some distributed among groups of Communist Party workers. The fruit were received as proof of Mao’s godlike love of his subjects and were treated with religious awe. Some of the mangoes were boiled down and made into a precious elixir; others were pickled in formaldehyde and preserved on altars. Afterwards copies of mangoes were preserved in cases like the bones of saints. A multitude of objects with images of them were created.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution,Benjamin Ramm of BBC wrote, “To quell the forces that he had unleashed, Mao sent 30,000 workers to Qinghua University in Beijing, armed only with their talisman, the Little Red Book. The students attacked them with spears and sulphuric acid, killing five and injuring more than 700, before finally surrendering. Mao thanked the workers with a gift of approximately 40 mangoes, which he had been given the previous day by Pakistan's foreign minister."No-one in northern China at that point knew what mangoes were. So the workers stayed up all night looking at them, smelling them, caressing them, wondering what this magical fruit was," says art historian Freda Murck, who has chronicled this story in detail. "At the same time, they had received a 'high directive' from Chairman Mao - saying that henceforth, 'The Working Class Must Exercise Leadership In Everything'. It was very exciting to be given this kind of recognition." “This power shift — from the zealous students to the workers and peasants — offered respite from the anarchy. "Some people in Beijing told me that they perceived that Mao had finally intervened in the chaotic random violence, and that the mangoes symbolised the end of the Cultural Revolution," Murck says. [Source: Benjamin Ramm, BBC, February 11, 2016 ==]

The mango craze began In 1968, when Mao decided to bring the Cultural Revolution movement back under the control of the Party. But officially he pronounced that from now on the working class should be leaders in everything. It was at precisely this time that Mao received a box of mangoes as a gift from the visiting foreign minister of Pakistan. The very same night Mao ordered that these exotic fruits should be presented to the workers. The mangoes were quickly seen as a symbol of Mao’s benevolence and devotion to the masses, and became the focus of cult admiration. The symbol soon entered popular culture, with mangoes decorating cups, bowls, cigarette packets, badges, blankets and other everyday objects. For more than a year China was gripped by mango fever. And then the mango vanished from the propaganda repertoire, as quickly as it had come.

Image Sources: Beifan.com; Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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