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A Food Trip Through Ancient China

There’s always a rich history behind food. After all, the food that we are familiar with today are just modern iterations of recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. Chinese cuisine, in particular, has a lot of dishes that have been around for centuries, but while we’re all familiar with the classics like dumplings and noodles, there are some dishes that have fallen through the cracks of history or can only be found in a specific region in China today. So let’s take a trip through Ancient China and see what the food was like. 


Breakfast: Guinea Fowl Stir-Fry with Pickled Melons

There are two types of people in the morning: those who crave a savory breakfast, and those who prefer it sweet, but this dish is a mix of both. There’s no official name for it, but this dish was first recorded in the Qing Dynasty and is made with guinea fowl meat or yêjī (野鸡) and lettuce melons or guājī (瓜齑). Guinea fowls are leaner and more flavorful compared to chicken meat, while lettuce melons are a type of melon that is mildly sweet but taste more like a vegetable. Both ingredients are difficult to find outside China, which explains why the dish isn’t popular around the world. Making the dish involves pickling the lettuce melon for half a month in a mixture of black soybean sauce, vinegar, and other spices. Once the melons have been pickled, they are then chopped and stir-fried in a sweet noodle sauce alongside the guinea fowl meat, bamboo shoots, and nuts. The end result looks a bit like Mapo Tofu, and it is best paired with porridge or with a bowl of rice that’s drizzled with tea. You can check out the full recipe in the video below.

Lunch: Fake Fried Meat

Fake fried meat is better known as Seitan or miàn jīn (麵筋) in Chinese. It might not sound appealing at first, but it has recently become very popular in the vegan community because of its resemblance to chicken meat and because of how easy it is to make. This dish was first recorded in the Southern Song Dynasty, where it was supposedly served regularly at the Empress’ banquets. Making this dish is quite simple because all you need to do is combine flour and water to form a dough and rinse it repeatedly until the water runs clear. This process washes off all the starch from the dough, leaving you with a spongy ball of gluten, which serves as your “fake meat.” You can either roll the dough into smaller balls and deep fry it, cut it into strips to make kebabs, or tie it into knots and pan fry it to make imitation chicken meat. These videos show you exactly how to do it.


Snack: Rou Jia Mo (a.k.a Ancient Chinese Hamburger)

Nothing screams American more than a hamburger, but ròu jiā mó (肉夹馍)  is actually a version of hamburger that originated from Ancient China, between the Qin and Zhou Dynasty. It is regarded as one of the oldest types of hamburgers to exist, and it even predates its American counterpart. Rou Jia Mo is technically a hybrid between a burger and a pulled-pork sandwich, as it’s usually made with pork belly that has been braised in spiced liquid until it’s tender enough to be shredded. The shredded pork is then sandwiched between the Mo, which is a type of Chinese bread that’s white in color. Rou Jia Mo is now a widely consumed street food in China, and the closest dish that resembles it here in the Philippines is the Cua Pao.


Dinner: Mutton Soup (Mutton Paomo)

You’ll likely hear mutton soup a lot when you watch a show or movie that takes place in the Medieval Times, which gives the impression that it’s another Western dish. Granted, mutton is a very common livestock around the world back then, so its origin can’t exactly be credited to a country in particular, but the Chinese version is called yángròu pàomó (羊肉泡馍). Paomo can be traced back to the Xia-Shang-Zhou period and became a popular dish during the Qin and Han Dynasties. The dish basically consists of lamb meat that has been simmered in water and spices until it becomes a broth (with the secret ingredient being apricot seeds). The dish is usually paired with sesame seed flatbread, which can either be dipped into the broth or sliced open to form a pocket for the mutton to be sandwiched in. The full recipe is in the video below.


Dessert: Ice Cream

Photo from Haiku Deck

Sorbet, icecreamThe invention of ice cream is something that’s often credited to Western countries, and while there is indeed a version of flavored ice in Rome and Persia, the Chinese version of ice cream resembles the modern iterations the most because it was the first to use milk. Chinese ice cream dates as far back as the Han Dynasty, where a salt mixture was used to lower the ice’s temperature in order to make ice cream faster. During the Tang Dynasty, buffalo or goat milk was added to the ice cream and flavored with camphor, which is the same ingredient used in Vicks Vaporub. This likely meant that all ice cream was mint-flavored back then. 


Weekend: Millet Wine

Photo from Shanghai Daily

If you want to go drinking with your friends on a weekend (or whenever it was socially acceptable to drink back then), you will likely be having millet wine. Millet is a type of crop that was widely used during the Xia and Shang dynasty due to its short growth period and resilience against drought. It is used to make everything from noodles to medicine to wine. Millet wine began as an offering to ancestors and gods, but it eventually became a common drink that was even more popular than tea at some point.


The Next  Day: Century Egg

Photo from Delish

Century egg or pídàn ( 皮蛋) is probably something you are more familiar with, although there seems to be polarizing reactions to it because you either love it or hate it. It’s understandable though, since century eggs are essentially raw duck eggs that have been fermented in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, and rice husks for 4 weeks,  so it’s definitely an acquired taste. It was believed to have been invented during the Ming Dynasty as a hangover cure, so if you had a little too much millet wine the night before, you will likely be having century eggs and congee for breakfast.

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