Ancient Noodles and Culinary Rulers- A History of Chinese Food

Ancient Noodles and Culinary Rulers- A History of Chinese Food
Aug 02, 2014 By

It’s six o’clock on a Wednesday evening and every table in the restaurant is occupied, chopsticks at the ready. Menus with almost as many pages as a Chinese cookbook are brought out and before a dish has landed on the table it’s a feast for your eyes: an extraordinary array of images showing brightly colored vegetables and bite-sized pieces of meat all served in a sauce with the perfect combination of sweet and salty, bitter and sour, and of course a touch of spice. These culinary delights have evolved over millennia as emperors have come and gone and China’s gates have opened and closed. But in the last 50 years, economic reforms have had a "new dynasty" type effect on many aspects of life in China, including the cuisine.

An assortment of Chinese food
Source :

Evolution of Chinese cuisine      

China’s record of food goes back almost as far as its 5000-year history of civilization. In 2005, fossilized noodles made from millet were unearthed in China’s Qinghai Province and were subsequently dated at over 4,000 years old. It wasn’t until later, during the Shang dynasty (1600-1029 BCE), that the development of cooking techniques really took hold. Yi Yin, a skilled chef and also the prime minister at the time, developed many cooking methods that are still used in kitchens to this day. He believed not only in the medicinal benefits of cooking things like herbs, but he also used his philosophies of cooking to provide advice on how to rule the kingdom (Imagine Gordon Ramsey advising David Cameron on foreign policies and social welfare reforms!). Like Yi Yin, Confucius also believed in the philosophy of food and put forward the concept of "living to eat" rather than "eating to live".

By the 7th century there was a distinctive separation in the cuisine of the northern and southern parts of China, and by the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), foods such as mushrooms and herbs, were being discovered for both their nutritional and medicinal properties. Foreign cultures have also modified the cuisine of China. The invasion of the Mongolian’s, for example, heavily influenced the cuisine, bringing with them different styles of cooking such as grilling and the hot pot, as well as a diet rich in meat and dairy products. But it is the Ming dynasty (1368-1662 CE) that much of China’s modern cuisine can be traced back to. During this period global trade routes were opened up and new foods like the sweet potato, peanuts and later chilies were introduced; all of which now form a major component of Chinese food.

The traditional Chinese diet

After 2000 years of imperial rule, Chinese cuisine had evolved many times, resulting in a low fat, high carbohydrate and high fiber diet based around cereals and vegetables. Regional differences in growing conditions led to the prevalence of rice in southern locations and wheat in the drier northern parts of China. Location also played a role in the consumption of animal products. Typically, in more rural areas meat and animal products were relatively scarce, so they were only consumed during special occasions such as festivals or celebrations.

China’s long and diverse history has also led to extremely efficient cooking methods. During times of hardship it was considered wasteful (and perhaps still should be) to boil food in water and then throw away the cooking liquid, which was full of nutritional goodness; hence the evolution of soup. Not only that, but in order to save precious cooking fuel, food was chopped into smaller portions as a means of speeding up the cooking process. This also negated the need for expensive cutting knives at the dinner table; chopsticks would suffice.

The modern Chinese diet

The last one hundred years have been equally turbulent in China, with civil wars, foreign invasions, and ideological shifts all taking place. Not taking into account events such as the famine associated with the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950’s, it is the more recent economic reforms, beginning in the early 1980s, which have begun to heavily influence the modern Chinese diet. Research shows a shift from a grain-based diet to one that is more diverse but which is higher in fat due to the increased quantities of animal foods and edible oils being consumed. Patterns of animal food consumption are most noticeable in the urban population and also those in higher income groups. For example, in 1997 the daily intake of animal foods per capita for rural residents was only 116.7g compared to urban residents with 178.2g. Additionally, high-income residents consumed almost 2.5 times the amount of animal foods than those with low incomes during the same period (Du et al., 2002).

This rapid increase in the consumption of meat, primarily pork, has also highlighted the move in the last few decades from a closed, autarkic country, to one which is now dependent on imported products to feed the nation. For example, China now imports up to 60% of the world’s supply of soya beans solely to feed the pork industry. In addition, continuing issues with food safety are causing consumers to seek imported brands over Chinese products; this was especially noticeable in the sales of international dairy products after the 2008 melamine contamination in milk and infant formula in China.

The shift from a traditional Chinese diet of grains and vegetables, to one that is somewhat "westernized", is evident by the increase in consumption of foreign food items such as chocolate, dairy products, biscuits, and potato crisps flying off the shelves of the foreign-owned chain supermarkets. Not to mention the epic growth in fast food restaurants across China; virtually every street in Beijing now seems to have a KFC or a McDonalds. This, of course, has led to an increase in the prevalence of obesity and diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. In fact, the World Health Organization estimated that almost 40% of China’s population in 2010 was either overweight or obese.

So thinking back to the brimming restaurant at the start of this story, it is clear that China’s long and rich culinary history is still embraced today. But as this country strives to catch up with the Western world, it is also the fast food outlets, serving deep-fried nutritionally pointless food, that are packed to the gunnels. It seems that China’s cuisine is still evolving, and like chili peppers and potatoes, perhaps chicken burgers and milkshakes will soon be a natural part of that ever-expanding restaurant menu.

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on without written permission from constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: China’s culinary delights have evolved over millennia as emperors have come and gone and China’s gates have opened and closed. But in the last 50 years including the food. economic reforms have had a “new dynasty” type effect on many aspects of life in China


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



The traditonal Chinese diet was starvation and/or malnutrition in the 19th and 20th century.

Aug 03, 2014 01:50 Report Abuse



I live in Nanning and here the quality of food is pretty poor. Having been to many restaurants here there are very few that I would recommend for their quality of food. Vegetables tend to taste the same wherever and whatever you eat due to msg, salt, garlic and ginger on everything. whilst historically it may have been seen as economical to use every animal part for food these days I see nothing economical about ordering a pork or chicken dish to find that only about 10/15% of what I ordered is actually meat, the rest is inedible bone, sinew, fat etcetera. Please don't take the easy route of blaming foreign fast food outlets for the rapid rise of obesity here. Firstly the fault lies with the person buying the food, yes that's right the customer. I eat at McD's and KFC occasionally (maybe 3 times a year) and I don't gain weight. How much of Chinese food is cooked in oil, salt and msg? The other aspect of this is as people here are getting wealthier they buy more and more food. It is up to the individual to moderate the amount of food they push into their mouths. It is the restaurants job to sell you the stuff, it your responsibility to say no some times. If as your article says the traditional food was a bowl of rice and a few veggies then it is little wonder that people in the UK used to say Chinese food must be healthy because you never see a fat Chinese person. Th real reason they were never fat was because they never had enough to eat and what they did eat did not provide a properly balanced nutritional diet.

Aug 02, 2014 15:43 Report Abuse



KFC and Mcd does give me a hearty heartburn...if nothing else...

Mar 12, 2015 22:43 Report Abuse



Yeah! Live to EAT!

May 19, 2014 16:30 Report Abuse



Honestly, if China didn't have food, what would they have?

Aug 02, 2014 09:18 Report Abuse



"This also negated the need for expensive cutting knives at the dinner table; chopsticks would suffice." This is incorrect. Knives were never laid out on a table as it would provide a weapon to your "guest", and also, due to Confucianism, a knife disrupts the harmony of the dining experience (he was a vegetarian, and knives reminded him of the slaughter of animals). But mainly, it was to keep readily available weapons out of reach of guests.

Feb 04, 2013 09:37 Report Abuse



" This, of course, has led to an increase in the prevalence of obesity and diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. In fact, the World Health Organization estimated that almost 40% of China’s population in 2010 was either overweight or obese." Oh yeah, here we go again. Find a way to blame the foreigners for China's problems. Bugger off. Maybe... just MAYBE they are getting fat cause they're eating too much of their traditional food because they can afford to buy more? !

Feb 02, 2013 13:53 Report Abuse



My Chinese wife, if there was no other way out, would eat those 4000yr old noodles.Living in country NSW, Australia we have to travel 600ks to Sydney to find authentic Chinese food. Our hinterland has no "Chinese" food. Funny to hear from the local Chinese restaurant owner that he didn't cook any "Chinese" food. I love most Chinese food, but I can't handle grissle. One thing I have learnt is that virtually all western food is fried, so we now hardly have any such food. My wife wont let me in the kitchen anyway. Looking at Chinese people in the street I find the survey suggesting 40% of them are overweight, but the number of western junk food outlets is scary, but packed out. Must say that yak hotpot in Tibet was a bit like "lucky dip"

Feb 02, 2013 09:36 Report Abuse



@13david. Sorry mate I don't agree with you. I am also an Australian and I can tell you, growing up as a child, my mother very rarely fried food. Most western restaurants I go to also do not fry most of their food. I don't know how you came to that conclusion.

Aug 02, 2014 09:17 Report Abuse



Ignorance is inborn in the English speaking's only a toss up who is more ignorant, US or China...virtually identical in every respect...

Mar 12, 2015 22:39 Report Abuse