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3,000-year-old Food for Thought
What did Chinese people eat 3,000 years ago? How did they cook? What kind of tableware or cooking utensils did they use?

The increasing number of archaeological finds over the past few decades, especially the discoveries of ancient bronze wares, have shed new light on the ancient civilization, among which Chinese culinary culture has proven to be an important part of their life.

Chinese cuisine was said to have originated during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC), a most important time for the Chinese nation to rise to prosperity.

Unearthed relics and records have helped historians piece together Chinese cuisine's past.

The Chinese have always considered cooking to be one of the first steps out of savagery into civilization.

Legend has it that cooking and food were so important in ancient China that Emperor Tang, founder of the Shang Dynasty, appointed as his prime minister Yi Yin, a renowned cook who created China's cooking culture.

During the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), half of the staff of the imperial palace -- more than 2,000 people -- were engaged in preparing food for the emperor and his family.

Bronze Vessels

Archaeologists have found that in addition to pottery vessels, a dazzling variety of bronzes were once popular cooking utensils and tableware among the upper-class, which played a significant role in the study of Chinese culinary history.

Many of the unearthed bronze wares were found with the remains of food or wine.

Historians had argued that Shang people living over 3,000 years ago had mastered cooking techniques like steaming, stir-frying, frying and deep-frying.

According to Li Xueqin, an expert on Chinese bronzes at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, these pieces were regarded as sacred vessels and only used during complex ritual ceremonies.

Generally, the bronze vessels are divided into four categories according to their uses: cooking vessels, food containers, wine vessels and water vessels.

As Li wrote in his works Chinese Bronzes, the ding was one of the most important types of bronzes used for cooking meat.

It is either three-legged and round or four-legged and rectangular, which was designed to elevate the vessel and provide a space underneath for a fire to be built.

The li was another kind of cooking vessel characterized by its pouch-like hollow legs. Liquid could flow to the legs and be heated more rapidly.

The ding and li often came with spoons featuring a long handle and a sharp tip, which was used for picking meat out of the vessel.

The yan was a steamer. It has pouch-like legs that can be filled with water like a li. Its upper part was like that of a ding. A rack was connected to the base so it could hold the food to be steamed.

Historical documents showed each type of vessels was designed for a specific kind of food and could not be misused.

As for the bronze wine vessels, the jue and gu were the most common.

The jue was an odd-looking wine cup with three long, flat, pointed legs. It had a handle and a long spout with an upward tail that served as a counterweight.

The most peculiar features were two small umbrella-like columns on the top.

Research shows the two columns might have been used for hanging spice bags, which were immersed in the wine.

Another assumption is that since men did not shave their beards at that time, the columns were used to divide their beards and prevent them from being stained by the wine.

In the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, the bronze wares were not only used for cooking, but were an indication of social status.

Often, a series of ding of varying sizes showed the rank of the owner, depending on how many pieces were in a set. According to historical documents, emperors in the Western Zhou Dynasty could use nine ding, dukes could only use seven, senior officials five and lower-ranking officials three.

Commoners were forbidden to use them and violators could be punished by death.

Ancient Cuisine

People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties highly valued their way of dining.

Delicious and nutritious food was regarded as the basis of ordinary life.

Inscriptions engraved on ancient bronze items showed rice and wheat were the major staple foods since the Shang Dynasty.

Shi Jing (The Book of Songs), one of the seminal works of the Chinese civilization, featured records of growing grain as well as grain processing.

According to Li Ji (Records of Ritual), one of the five early Chinese classics, people at that time had begun to make cake with flour.

Generally, the staple food was either boiled in a li or steamed in a yan.

As far as meat went, archaeological findings showed Shang people enjoyed a wide variety of animals including horse, cow, chicken, pig, sheep and deer. Of course, only the upper-class was able to enjoy these delicacies.

For common people, however, fish was probably the best food they could attain.

Over a dozen kinds of fish were mentioned in Shi Jing.

Fish-shaped jade items were often excavated, which proved the prominent role of fish in people's daily diets.

Chinese began to consider food preparation as an art over 3,000 years ago.

People of the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties set forth culinary standards that are still followed today, such as the practice of cutting food into bite size pieces during preparation and not at the table.

They stressed both the food and the culinary vessels must be cleaned completely before cooking.

They also decreed that harmony among ingredients with respect to their size, shape, fragrance, taste and texture should be the goal of the chef. Diets should be changed with different seasons.

To gain a balanced diet, vegetables and fruits were assorted with the main dishes.

Seasoning varieties were also dazzling with sweet, hot, sour or spicy flavours, which made the dish tasty and healthy. Sauces made of meat, fish and oyster were also popular.

On the imperial palace menu was the drinking side of the dining experience.

Artifacts produced during the Shang Dynasty consisted mainly of wine vessels. It shows the important role wine drinking played in the lives of Shang people.

According to historical documents, the best wine at the time was made with millet.

Historians argued that the imperial class was so fond of a drop it led to the collapse of the Shang Dynasty.

Rulers of the Western Zhou Dynasty learned from Shang people and restricted drinking.

Ancient Chinese were also concerned about the freshness of food and worked out effective ways to preserve food.

They built large underground "Lingyin" (cold storage) areas, which were chilled enough to keep food fresh in winter. Salting meat, fish and pickling vegetables was another effective method.

This article first appeared in 2003's third issue of Collections, a Chinese language monthly magazine.

(China Daily March 13, 2003)

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