8 foods that originated from China
April 13, 2022

While you might think that Manchurian chicken dumplings or triple schezwan fried rice are Chinese dishes, most Chinese food is far from what is regularly dished out at most Indian Chinese restaurants. Today’s food might be greasy, unhealthy and fast, but it’s completely unlike the food that originally came out of China. The land behind the bamboo curtain is home and creator in fact to many healthy, delicious foods that we actually associate with other nations.

However, trade took Chinese foods as far as Italy and the United States where they were localised, refined and have become a staple part of our diets.

The Chinese similar to the budding chef’s at Michelin star restaurants today , experimented with their foods, including fermenting and freezing predominately to preserve their proteins. Today, we need to thank them for many of the foods we think are our own inventions.

Inchin Closer takes a look at 8 foods that originated from China. The first, is a staple of Southern India, a common breakfast favourite and a healthy snack that has been reinvented in multiple formats.

Idli

The steamed rice Idli originally came from China via Indonesia, where black urad dhal batter was flattened and cooked. This version of the Idli was called iddalige in Kannada and was neither fermented, nor steamed to fluffiness.

In Sanskrit the Manasollasa of 1130 AD mentioned ‘iddarika’ and describes it as made of fine urad flour fashioned into small balls and then spiced with pepper powder, cumin powder and asafoetida. In Karnataka, a century later, the idli is described as being ‘light, like coins of high value.’. 

But how did the humble Idli come to India via Indonesia?

Hindu kings from Indonesia, often came to India between the 8th and the 12th centuries, looking for brides. They brought with them their cooks who came with the skills of fermented products, like tempeh (fermented soy cakes), kecap (from where we get ketchup) and something called kedli, which food historian K T Achaya says, is like an idli. Since Indonesia had strong trade links with China, the origin of the Idli is said to have first come from China to India via Indonesia who added the vital step of fermenting rice.

Ice cream

Ice cream was first invented in 200 BC in China when a milk and rice mixture was frozen by packing it into snow. It was taken to Italy by explorer Marco Polo, who introduced the Italians to a slush of frozen milk and spices bound together by rice flour which has today been reinvented into 100’s of flavours of gelato.

Yes, the origin of Italy’s gelato ice creams, comes from the Chinese concept of freezing milk and juices for travellers along the silk route. When freezing milk became popular, the Chinese starting freezing juices otherwise known as the world’s first snow cones. As the popularity of these refreshing summer treats grew, and methods of preserving and transporting snow improved, they slowly became available to traders. The Chinese built pits to preserve the ice for cool summer drinks where travellers and merchants would stop to refresh themselves with delicious iced juices.

Soon enough, pushcarts selling milk ice and fruit ices were commonplace on the streets of Peking in summer – giving us the world’s first ‘ice cream’ vendors.

Chinese ode, written by poet Yang Wanli in praise of an icy, crunchy refreshment that “appears congealed and yet it seems to float”, suggests something similar was being enjoyed in China as early as the ninth century.

Ketchup

If you like your fries with ketchup, you will be surprised to know that the condiment that most favours our favourite spuds comes from China. Yes! While you will see more American’s eat Ketchup than Chinese, here’s how the preserved fish sauce morphed into tomato ketchup.

Invented in China in 300 BC, the word ketchup is derived from the Chinese word ke-tsiap, meaning a pickled fish sauce. The pickle, which was added as a flavouring, is believed to have originated in Vietnam, before travelling to South Eastern China, from where it went to Malaysia and Indonesia where its name morphed into kechap and ketjap respectively.

It was eaten in South East Asia with rice for a while, until English sailors enamoured by the rich, thick, dark sauce took it back to the west where chef’s tried to replicate its texture and flavour in the 17th century. They used anchovies or oysters, mushrooms, and walnuts to recreate those flavors. In turn, ketchup came to mean a condiment consisting of mushrooms.

English sailors took this mushroom sauce to the New World or America where local chef’s replaced the mushrooms with easily available tomatoes creating the tomato ketchup that is bottled and sold worldwide as one of the world’s most formidable condiments.

Pasta

In 2005, archaeologists discovered a spaghetti like tangle of noodles in North Eastern China. This finding was the world’s oldest and best preserved pasta held perfectly well under an upturned earthen pot. This is proof that pasta or its original form of hand pulled noodles indeed originated from China.

Created from a paste of ground millet and water, the Chinese ate pasta with pork and mutton, much like its eaten today. When Marco Polo, also of ice cream fame, came to China in 1274, the Chinese had well established their pasta cuisine. In the 17 years that Marco Polo ­spent in China, dining with the likes of Kublai Khan, he certainly sampled the various forms of Asian pasta. According to one edition of Marco Polo’s “Description of the World,” which the Venetian merchant wrote after returning home from the East, he ate dishes similar to macaroni during his stint. From that brief mention, a legend arose that the famed explorer must’ve introduced pasta to Italy. What else could explain the gastronomical bridge between two distant countries?

Sushi

Sushi was not invented in Japan, but in China as a way of preserving fish. The Chinese would wrap the whole fish in cooked rice and salt to preserve the meat. Often the fish which would eventually pickle could be preserved for upto a year, after which the rice wrapping was thrown out and the preserved, picked fish consumed.

The combination of rice and fish, originated in the third century along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. By the 12th century, this method of fermenting fish had travelled from the Mekong to China, and then on to Japan, where it was called narezushi. However, in the 16th century, in the Edo period, vinegar replaced salt in the preservation process, which was a major step forward in the development of sushi. It also gave birth to the name sushi – which translates to “vinegared rice”.

Today with vinegared fish, smaller quantities that offer quality produce and variety to satiate tailored tastebuds is what makes modern sushi unique to Japan.

Kiwi fruit

Originally known as the Chinese gooseberry, the kiwi fruit is native to China and not New Zealand like its commonly thought. The name was changed by marketing experts, who couldn’t sell the furry fruit as a gooseberry and therefore decided to alter its name to the more cute sounding kiwi.

Its original name in Chinese, mihoutao — “macaque fruit” — refers to the monkeys’ love for it, according to the 16th century Chinese medicine encyclopedia, the Compendium of Materia Medica. New Zealand’s agricultural exporters Turners & Growers started calling their U.S.-bound Chinese gooseberries “kiwifruits” on June 15, 1959 after the colloquial name of New Zealand’s furry, brown, flightless national bird. It also helped that Kiwis had become the colloquial term for New Zealanders by the time.

Alcohol

In China, alcohol is also called the “Water of History” because stories of liquor can traced back to almost every period in Chinese history. 

The earliest known evidence comes from 7,000 BCE in China, where residue in clay pots has revealed that people were making an alcoholic beverage from fermented rice, millet, grapes, and honey.

In the beginning, millet was the main grain to make alcohol, the so-called “yellow wine.” Then rice became more popular. It was not until the 19th century that distilled drinks became more popular. After the fermentation process, Chinese alcohol has a balmy fragrance and is sweet-tasting, with no sharpness. Traditionally, Chinese distilled liquors are consumed together with food rather than drunk on their own. Alcohol always accompanies delicious dishes, either when people first meet or when old friends have a reunion.

Miso

Now known as a Japanese seasoning, Miso first originated in China in the third century BC or earlier where fermenting soya beans with salt was perfected. It is still known as jiang in China. Food historians think that soy products like miso, soy sauce, and tofu came to Japan in the 6th or 7th century with the spread of Buddhism, as it was an important part of a vegetarian diet.

Hishio (醤) and other fermented soy-based foods likely were introduced to Japan at the same time as Buddhism in the sixth century AD. It was originally a prized delicacy, only enjoyed by nobility because it contained rice – a luxury in its day. However as word of its energy-giving properties spread, Samurai adopted miso as a staple part of their diet.

Interestingly, there was historically an element of class concerning who ate which kind of miso. Wealthy landowners, royalty or samurai would only eat rice miso that had been made using expensive polished white rice. Peasants and farm hands used any broken rice, or other grains such as millet & barley. This explains why darker miso made from these grains has a reputation , even today, as “poor man’s miso”.By the mid 14th century miso’s popularity had spread and was being enjoyed by everyone from royalty to farmhands; who would use it as an alternative to currency during hardship.

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