When you think of Chinese food you think of rice, and rice was the first grain that was farmed in China. There is archaeological evidence of rice farming along the Yang-tse River as early as about 5000 BC. People cooked rice by boiling it in water, the way they do today. Or they made it into wine. Rice wine has been popular in China since prehistory.

But rice doesn’t grow in northern China, which is much drier and colder. People in northern China gathered wild millet and sorghum instead. By 4500 BC, people in northern China were farming millet. They ate it boiled into a kind of porridge.
Another food people associate with China is tea. Tea grows wild in China. By about 3000 BC (or it could be much earlier), people in China had begun to drink tea.

When people could afford it, they bought or grew vegetables to put on their rice. Soybeans, for instance, are native to China. So are cucumbers. For fruits, the Chinese had oranges and lemons, peaches and apricots. The native flavorings are ginger and anise (Americans use anise to make licorice).On special occasions, people also put little pieces of meat on their rice. By 5500 BC, the Chinese were eating domesticated chicken, which came originally from Thailand. By 4000 or 3000 BC, they were eating pork, which was native to China. Sheep and cattle , which were not native, reached China from West Asia also around 4000 BC. Since meat was so expensive, and because Buddhists didn’t eat meat, starting around the Sung Dynasty (about 1000 AD) people also put tofu, or bean curd, in their food as a source of protein.

Because China doesn’t have big forests, it was always hard to find fuel to cook with. Chinese people learned to cut up their food very small, so it would cook quickly on a very small fire.


The Chinese diet is generally regarded as a healthy one. The Chinese are very concerned about eating habits which are seen as an important factor affecting health. There is a Chinese proverb “Illness starts from what goes into one’s mouth while trouble starts from what comes out of it.”

A typical Chinese diet, which includes a lot of vegetables, fish and seafood but very little sugar or dessert, is proved to be healthy. Besides stir fry and deep fry, the Chinese use a wide variety of cooking methods: steam, boil, stew, roast, bake, and generally avoid excessive greasy food.

The majority of Chinese are not vegetarian. Some are vegetarian because of personal choice and some because of their religion. Many Buddhist believers do not refrain from eating meat, except on special occasions such as the first and fifteenth day of each month according to the Lunar calendar, the birthday of Guan Yin (the main immortal they worship) and so on.

There are several Chinese concepts of healthy eating habits. The most basic one is the balance of yin (feminine) and yang (masculine). Failure to maintain this balance is the root to many illnesses: excessive yin leads to weakness and excessive yang to restlessness manifested in inflammation and ulcers. Yin food includes fruits and vegetables whilst yang food includes meat.

The concept of yin and yang encompasses other dichotomous concepts of liang (cold) and (hot), run (soothing) and zao (irritating), xu (weakening) and bu (strengthening), qing (clearing) and du (contaminating,) etc.

Only Chinese herbal doctors and specialised books will be able to give an exhaustive list of foods falling into each concept mentioned above. However, it is a fact that the Chinese pay attention to what they eat. Healing by eating (following an appropriate diet) is very popular and widely accepted by the Chinese. Occasionally they prepare a soup of special ingredients to maintain the balance of yin and yang.

Diet is a particular concern for people who have fallen ill. It is not uncommon to see Chinese patients refusing, to take meals from the hospital and their families bringing in food especially prepared for them.


added 3/1/09


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