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There is Nothing That Cannot be Eaten: Food in Tang Dynasty China

What did people eat in Tang Dynasty China? What is the best way to eat bear and golden carp?

The huge expanse of territory that constituted the Chinese Tang Dynasty Empire meant a huge range of different types of food were available to those who could afford them. Pears, apples, nuts, persimmons and other fruits in profusion were available for most of the year, while an even larger range of vegetables added variety and savour to the many kinds of meat and fish the world had to offer. Pork was the most popular type of meat throughout the whole of Chinese society, as of course it is today, while lamb was the next most important, in the north at least. Those northerners also particularly enjoyed the meat of the Bactrian camel, taking particular relish in the hump, which might be either boiled or grilled according to taste. A well-known recipe for bear meat involved boiling the head and meat until rare before marinating it in soybean paste, then steaming the mixture with additional herbs. Chinese society was in touch with the Southeast Asian islands and so had access to the spices there, as well as the oriental medicine schools which helped locate tasty and occasionally genuinely healthy additions of herbs and other natural products to enhance the food.

The traditional tastes of Chinese food have remained constant ever since this time, more than 1200 years ago – garlic, soy, pepper and salt, these were the basis of Tang Dynasty food just as much as they are for people visiting a Chinese restaurant or cooking Chinese food today. It is testament to the remarkable solidity of Chinese society that this is the case. Further, the regional divisions of taste also remain essentially the same – lamb in the north remains popular but is still not eaten in the south, for example, while Sichuan (Szechuan) retains its reputation for spiciness. Some dishes, though, have evolved: a recipe for sweet and sour fish, for example, calls for the gutting of a golden carp (but leave the scales on) and marinate it in vinegar and honey with added salt. Then fry the fish and serve it whole – similar but slightly different to the kind of fish dish available in thousands of ethnic Chinese restaurants across Southeast Asia, for example.

Inevitably, the diets of the rich and poor varied enormously. While the former could enjoy the exotic products of the Tang Empire, the poor majority of the peasantry subsisted on a no doubt tedious diet of cereals, only occasionally enlivened by a sliver of meat or fish, possibly dried or salted. Life has always been tough for the poor. Perhaps that has contributed to the omnivorous nature of Chinese people – when hungry, and with proper preparation, everything can indeed be eaten.

For further details, see Charles Benn’s excellent China s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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