Ancient Chinese food was based around rice as far back as 5000
BCE. Interestingly, the evidence from around the Yangtse River watershed points
to not only boiled rice but to the fermented product that we know as rice wine.
It was probably an accidental discovery, but one that has remained very popular
throughout Chinese history.
Wild pig species are native to southern China and appear to have been domesticated around 2000 BCE. It's not known at what stage hunting was replaced by domestication and farming of pigs - bones don't tell that story - but this was probably after the introduction of chickens.
Chickens were probably adopted from the area that we now know as Thailand. These were almost certainly domesticated before pigs. Even today, Dai people (Dai and Thai being pretty much interchangeable) live in Xishuangbanna, the area bordering the modern SE Asia countries of Laos and Myanmar (Burma).
In the north, where it was too cold for rice, the local farmers grew millet and some sorghum. These could also be boiled into porridge, or fermented to produce alcohol.
One ancient Chinese food item not developed elsewhere is tofu. This fermented bean product was thought to have been made from about 1000 BCE. The soya bean is tasty and supposedly endowed with healthy characteristics. It is meant to be particularly good for diabetics. Soya milk is another product still consumed today.
Food preservation techniques allowed the ancient Chinese to keep seasonal crops year round. Salting of meat and pickling of vegetables have long added to the variety of foods, especially over the winter period. Many people still eat rice porridge with pickled vegetables for breakfast. It's simple to prepare and easily digested.
When looking at ancient Chinese food we shouldn't forget the popular drinks. Boiled water has always been the favourite as it has long been a principle that food and drink should be consumed when at a temperature similar to the bodies so as not to disturb the natural balance. This preference may have lead to the discovery of tea leaves as flavouring.
Certainly the early Chinese seem to have experimented with lots of plants and drying methods to produce a wide range of tasty and healthy beverages. The favourites now are:
Green teas - especially those from Longjing near Hangzhou;
Fermented teas - Pu'er Tea and Oolong are perhaps the most famous of these; and
Flower teas - such as Jasmine and Chrysanthemum.
Ancient Chinese Food may not have been the most varied. This was largely because of China's relative isolation. Only when hardy adventurers traveled along the Silk Road routes did wheat, cattle and sheep arrive in China. More variety was introduced when China expanded southwards, and especially when sea trade brought lots of exotic foodstuffs to Guangzhou (Canton) and beyond. Those developments were for later.
About the Author
Ian Ford has lived in China for most of the last 7 years. He has prepared a food guide, Eating Out in China, with background information to Chinese food, over 60 recommended dishes and handy reference sheets. The sheets are for you to take on your travels and have these recommended dishes (and variations) in English, pinyin and Chinese characters. To find out more, go to http://www.eatingoutinchina.com