Why Chinese Food uses so much from the Americas? So. You’re making mapo tofu, and as one does as you make Mapo Tofu, you finish it off by hitting it with a generous slurry of water and cornstarch.
It’s a common move in Chinese cooking – you see it in stir-fries, n’ you see it with soups.
But after the nth time of reaching for the cornstarch, you might naturally start to wonder why Chinese food seems to use so much of it. After all, doesn’t corn comes from the Americas?
Why does this ostensibly ancient cooking tradition seem to use so many New World vegetables? In other words, what did Chinese cooking do before cornstarch?
Why Chinese Food Uses So Much From The Americas?
China is the dragon of the east, an ancient inscrutable land, ruled by a rigid despotic bureaucracy, with cycles of basically-identical-dynasties stretching 5000 years to the dawn of human civilization.
Pagodas dot the land, and as the commoner toil away on their rice paddies, the elites debate the ideal of the Confucian gentleman.
Old, static, never changing, closed to trade, closed to the world.
That is, of course, until some fine enterprising dope-dealing chaps from the East India company sent some gunboats down the Yangzi, China awoke from its slumber, and was forced to change.
Now, this is not a history channel. But if you’ve still got even a shred of that kinda conception, I’d really recommend reading
more on Chinese history.
For the unaware, Imperial China was anything but static.
There was conquest, rebellion, palace intrigue, philosophy, philosopher kings, tyrants, art, literature, exploration, religion, and some of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet.
The history of the Chinese empire is one that’s just as dynamic as the Roman one.
And you can see that in the cuisine.
See, before imperial China began its rapid expansion, according to the records we have, the elites ate pretty simple fare.
And while they did enjoy a fermented meat sauce called ‘yun’ that formed the predecessor of modern soy sauce, if you look at the eight delicacies in the Confucian Book of Rites, they were basically all boiled or grilled meat eaten alongside white rice.
The first major shift in diet appears to have been during the Han Dynasty’s western expansion, with the establishment of the West region protectorate in what is now modern-day Xinjiang.
Famously, the official Zhang Qian was sent to the west to deepen diplomatic relations with the new protectorate, and back with him came garlic, broad bean, cilantro, welsh onion, and sesame, among others.
And from Zhang Qian forward, this’s a pattern that you see again and again in Chinese culinary history.
A number of ingredients that you might think of as almost quintessentially Chinese came into China through those northwest trade routes.
Bitter melon came from India via the silk road, and ditto with Loofah Guard and Eggplant.
Spinach and Watermelon, meanwhile, were eaten in Persia and Central Asia long before they were in China.
And as the centuries moved forward, the empire’s maritime connections to Southeast Asia ended up leaving just as big of an imprint.
The most commonly eaten rice in South China today is called zhanmi, or Champa rice.
As the English name suggests, it was brought in from South Vietnam and was a quick-maturing rice promoted by the Song dynasty.
And of course, those same Indonesian spices that drove Europe to the region like mad were also shipped up to China centuries earlier.
After all, clove – a critical component in “Chinese five spice” – comes from southeast Asia.
And another, fennel seed, originally came from Persia.
So it’s against this historical backdrop that on the exact opposite side of the world three Spanish Nao commandeered by an
ambitious Genoan first laid anchor outside a small island in the Turks and Caicos, and global cuisine changed forever.
Now, the mass movement of plants, animals, diseases, and people between hemispheres that accompanied the American conquest and genocide has been coined the “Columbian Exchange”, and if you happened to learn about it in high school, your textbook probably had a graphic kinda like this:
But. If you look closely, the thing that’s so glaringly missing there is anything to the east of, like, Germany. See, the Iberian naus and galleons didn’t just hop around that North Atlantic gyre – they went everywhere.
Crosby, the historian that first popularized the term, put it pretty well: “before the Columbian Exchange, there were no oranges in Florida, no bananas in Ecuador, no paprika in Hungary, no tomatoes in Italy, no pineapples in Hawaii, no rubber trees in Africa, no cattle in Texas, no donkeys in Mexico, no chili peppers in Thailand and India, no cigarettes in France and no chocolate in Switzerland.”
This was a global phenomenon.And in China? As you’d expect, the cuisine rapidly adopted any new world plants of use.
Decades before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth, peanuts were being farmed in the sandy loam of the Yangzi river delta.
A century before Frederick the Great was dubbed “The Potato King” for helping spread the tuber around Prussia, it was
considered a delicacy in Ming Dynasty courts.
And it was the spread of corn and, notably, sweet potato that led to the empire’s massive population boom during the Qing dynasty.
This was not some sort of insular cuisine closed off from the world – in some ways, it was always at the cutting edge of those trade flows.
And in that way, I think a lot of people continuously underestimate just how modern ‘Chinese cuisine’ actually is.
While there are certain dishes that you can interestingly draw a line straight back to the warring states period, those are the exception.
Just think about any of the Chinese dishes that you know and love.
Kung Pao chicken? fried up by the Qing dynasty Mandarin Ding Baozheng in the mid 19th century.
Everyone’s favorite Mapo Tofu?
Invented by a street vendor in Chengdu in 1874.
And even Cantonese tradition of Dim Sum started to resemble its modern form at Guangzhou teahouses in the 1910s and 20s.
But in a way, this stuff shouldn’t really be all that surprising in the end.
Because all around the world, a lot of cuisines are perhaps surprisingly modern. Escoffier was finishing codifying French cuisine at around the same general time that Pho was beginning to take off in Vietnam and the Waldorf hotel in New York was whipping up its first Eggs Benedict.
With a few notable exceptions here or there, most of our favorite dishes – the world over – don’t go back much further than a few centuries.
What food was like before the Columbian exchange is definitely an interesting question, but probably more relevant to the historian than the cook.
So right. What did people in China use to thicken sauces and soups before they started trading with the Iberians?
Well either mungbean starch or water chestnut starch, depending on where you were in the empire.
What do people usually use today? If it’s not cornstarch it’s potato starch.
And that’s probably what you should use too.
So food history is very murky… the resources that we leaned on here were this book, which is a very good book on Chinese food history, but, in Chinese only.
Another one is Mann’s 1493 [not 1943], so if you have any disagreements, just feel free to leave a comment down below… and we are always happy to geek out this kind of stuff with you.
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