Wild Rice and Wild Manners are Tamed.
Exercise 3: Ancient China
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Exercise 3: Ancient China

Ancient China 5000 BC

The Chinese developed methods of irrigation and other means of farming very early on. As early as 4,500 BCE, a type of grain called foxtail Millet was grown and stored in underground caves. By 5,400 BCE, Rice was cultivated along the Yangtze River. Eventually diets shifted due to climate change—when the Earth turned down the thermostat and colder weather set in.

As the big chill waned, however, Rice returned to the Yangtze region. People began dabbling in something new around 10,000 years ago--sowing, harvesting, and selectively breeding Asian Rice. We can thank these early “Genetic Engineers” for Sticky Rice. *Smart Kitchen also has a Resource on The History of Rice, which you may find interesting.

There is written documentation that China developed sophisticated culinary skills as early as the 5th century BCE. These skills spread, along with China’s powerful culture, to the adjacent areas of her part of the planet. Known as "The Inner Canon of Huangdi" or "The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon," this document is an ancient medical text in which the composition of the Chinese diet is described. Among the foods listed are the Five Grains. The list of grains vary, but according to Confucius the Five Grains are Soybeans, Wheat, Broom Corn, Foxtail Millet, and Hemp. Though, you would expect Confucius to have eaten Rice, Rice is not included in the list of the Five Grains because it had yet to be cultivated by the Han Chinese.

According to legend, Emperor Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), appointed his prime minster Yi Yin based on his renowned cooking skills-different mythologies have Yi Yin as a talented slave of Tang’s wife or never a slave but a gifted cook that had to be begged to join the court. Regardless of Tang’s background, history shows Yi Yin and Tang of Shang defeated King Jie of Xia and founded a new dynasty and new cooking methods. Bronze wares have been unearthed by archaeologists that point to the Shang people using cooking techniques such as Steaming, Stir-Frying, Pan Frying, and Deep-Frying. They also mastered wine-making, (their best was made with Millet). A balanced diet was achieved with Side Dishes of Vegetables and Fruits accompanying main dishes. The domestication of Chicken, around this time, helped out too.

Each Chinese dynasty ended up taking its own culinary exploration. People of the Shang and Zhou (1046-256 BCE) Dynasties created culinary standards that are still in place today: culinary vessels must be completely clean before cooking, a balanced diet was important, harmony among ingredients was paramount, and diets should change with the seasons. The Song Dynasty (960 BCE-1279 CE) ushered in the Common Era and is known as the most culturally active period in Chinese history; this time period also provided the first well-documented evidence for restaurants. With the bustling trade and booming economy of the Song Dynasty, there existed a class of merchants wealthy enough to demand exceptional service in a culture that could provide it. A 1275 account of the dining experience states: "As soon as the customers have chosen where they will set, they are asked what they want to have. The people of Hangchow [transliteration of Hangzhou] are very difficult to please. Hundreds or orders are given on all sides: this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something chilled; one wants cooked food, another raw, another chooses roast, another grill. The orders given in a loud voice, are all different, sometimes three different ones at the same table. Having received the orders, the waiter goes to the kitchen and sings out the whole list of orders, starting with the first one. The man who replies from the kitchen is called the Head Dishwarmer, or the Table-setter. When the waiter has come to the end of his list, he takes his tray to the stove and then goes off to serve each customer with the dish ordered. He never mixes them up, and if by any unlikely chance he should make a mistake, the proprietor will launch into a volley of oaths addressed to the offending waiter, will straightaway make him stop serving, and may even dismiss him altogether."

Here’s hoping those poor waiters were paid more than our minimum wage ones today! Restaurants differed from taverns or hostels where diners had no choice of menu. Some establishments specialized in particular foods or regional cooking, while cheaper restaurants served noodles with vegetables or cheap meats. While Rice became the staple crop of the poor, Hot Peppers were called “meat for the poor” since they went well with rice and meat. Su Shi (also known as Su Dong Po), statesman, poet and gastronome, (but not the forefather of the Japanese Sushi), wrote extensively on food and wine during this time. In fact, a Recipe for Dongpo Pork, a Braised, Pork Belly dish, is still popular today.

The emergence of foods such as Sorghum, Carrots, varieties of Lemons, and Eggplants appeared in China as contacts with the West developed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), thanks to the conquests of Kublai Khan. It was at this time that Marco Polo arrived on the scene. Rumor has it Marco Polo brought Pasta back from China, but the fact is that Italy had also been making Pasta for quite some time. During the Yuan Dynasty, doctors began codifying the use of food as medicine; it was also during this period that acupuncture became used extensively. After 1368, feudal society was on a slow decline while capitalism started taking hold. Corn, brought by Spain from the New World, and Sweet Potatoes, from Vietnam, made their way into the Chinese diet. Eventually Sweet Potatoes became the staple food of the poor.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last imperial dynasty of China, saw a further rise of culinary arts. Their defense policy might be described as bribery. Rather than repair The Great Wall and guard it with troops, the Qing preferred to buy off nomadic threats with titles and imperial banquets. Records of imperial banqueting were published, describing the elaborate ceremonies and feasts at the royal palaces. There were imperial kitchens—one for the emperor and one for the empress—with staffs of over 200 officials, cooks, and eunuchs. There were special kitchens for tea-making and baking and departments of meat, vegetables, rice cooking, and more. The Bureau of Archives of the Imperial Buttery, established in 1771, kept dated daily records of dishes prepared for and consumed by the emperor and his family. The records go into minute detail from who made the dish and where it was served to the utensils used. The Qing dynasty had come a long way from subsisting on boiled grasses, Out on the Open Plain.