December 2017
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Foods from Afar

hot pepperAccording to statistics, seventy to eighty thousand species of edible plants exist on the earth, among which are about 150 species that can be grown in large quantities. However, only 20 species of those are being used widely in farming today, but already make up for 90% of the world’s total grain production. Domesticated animals and plant species are essentially the basis of global agricultural production. The fishing industry, which relies on wild animals as basic provision, outputs nearly 100 million tons of food annually for global consumption. Just as other countries of the world, the trade and spreading of foods, edible plants and animal species in China have been a nonstop process since ancient times. Not only did this broaden the range of the Chinese’s food supply and made Chinese cuisines even more full of tasty dishes, but has also caused changes in Chinese dietary habits and put more life and variety into Chinese food culture.

Besides a small number of food species that were introduced to China by pre-Qin Dynasty period, a larger scaled food trading and spreading happened over two thousand years ago during the tremendously prosperous and powerful West Han Dynasty. Grape, pomegranate, sesame, lima bean, walnut, cucumber, watermelon, muskmelon, carrot, fennel, celery, Chinese parsley (coriander) and other food species, which had its origins in the Xinjiang (Uygur) region of China or West and Central Asia, made their way into central Han Chinese territory by way of the Silk Road. And it was from that time, the Chinese and foreign cultures experienced more communication as the days went by. Many foods that were not indigenous to China began to appear on Chinese dining tables.

The corn, which has its roots in the Americas, was introduced to the Orient through Europe, Africa and West Asia. The potato, a cross between principal food and a vegetable, came to China via the southeast coast of China; at first it was only planted in Fujian and Zhejiang regions. Sunflower seeds made its way into China from America during the 17th century; 200 years later, cooking oil was extracted from it, making the Chinese line-up of oils even more complete. The mung bean (gram), of the pod-bearing crops, has its roots in India, and was brought to China in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.). Spinach, a kind of vegetable, came by way of Persia during the reign of Emperor Taizong (627-649 A.D.) of the Tang Dynasty. The eggplant, which was first found in India, along with the teachings of Buddhism, spread into China in the Northern and Southern Dynasties ( 4 2 0 – 5 8 9 A.D.) . Many crops with unmistakably Chinese origins such as peanut, garlic, tomato, balsam pear, pea and other food types were replaced by premium foreign species.

Early fruits introduced to China mostly came from West Asia (e.g. grapes), Central Asia ( e.g. early apples), the Mediterranean (e.g. olives), India (e.g. oranges), and Southeast Asia (e.g. coconuts, bananas). Other fruits such as pineapple, tomato, persimmon, strawberry, apple, durian, grapefruit and more, which have become the principal fruits for the Chinese, were imported from Southeast Asia, the Americas, or Australia/ Oceania in modern times.

Hot pepper, already a popular type of spice for Chinese dishes, has only had about 300 years of history with the Chinese. Historical records show that hot peppers came to China by sea from Peru and Mexico during the late-Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). Sugar, the main source of sweetness in cooking, saw its production in China after Emperor Taizong’s ambassadors to Central Asia during the Tang Dynasty, learned sugar-making skills. What the Chinese see as high-class food, namely the shark’s fin and bird’s nest, were introduced to China from Southeast Asia in the 14th century. Starting in the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911 A.D.), they have become lavish foods for the wealthy only. With the widespread influence of Western cultures, exotic beverages such as coffee, soda, fruit juices as well as all kinds of alcohol drinks are no longer a rarity in Chinese eyes.

In terms of dishes, the earliest foreign recipes were introduced to China in the Tang Dynasty. As frequent trade between China and other countries flourished, the Arabs, who brought their Muslim foods, made great contributions to diversifying the Chinese dietary customs and adding to the already plentiful selection of Chinese culinary techniques. In near-modern times, Western foods appeared in China. Not only can all types of Western restaurants be found around many commercial ports, Chinese and Western food even fused together to create a new style of gourmet technique. This is most exemplified in the Yue (Cantonese) style of Chinese foods.

In recent years, as Sino-foreign economic and cultural exchange became more intimate, the importation of premium animal and plant species from foreign countries has already become a crucial part of the Chinese import business. More and more foreign foods have found their ways into the home of common Chinese families. However, the Chinese government, just as governments of other countries, is beginning to see the large quantities of imported, or invading foreign species as a threat to domestic biological varieties. Laws and policies on protecting national ecological security have been drafted and implemented.

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