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The Evolution of Chinese cooking

Chinese cuisine as we now know it evolved gradually over the centuries as new food sources and techniques were introduced, discovered, or invented. Although many of the characteristics we think of as the most important appeared very early, others did not appear or did not become important until relatively late. The first chopsticks, for instance, were probably used for cooking, stirring the fire, and serving bits of food and were not initially used class eating utensils. They began to take on this role during the Han dynasty, but it was not until the Ming that they became ubiquitous for both serving and eating. It was not until the Ming that they acquired their present name (筷子, kuaizi) and their present shape. The wok may also have been introduced during the Han, but again its initial use was limited (to drying grains) and its present use (to stir-fry, as well as boiling, steaming, roasting, and deep-frying) did not develop until the Ming. The Ming also saw the adoption of new plants from the New World, such as corn, peanuts, and tobacco.

The “Silk Road” is the conventional term for the routes through Central Asia linking the Iranian plateau with western China; along this trade route passed exotic foodstuffs that greatly enlarged the potential for Chinese cuisines, only some of which preserve their foreign origin in the radical for “foreign” that remains in their name. “It would surprise many Chinese cooks to know that some of their basic ingredients were originally foreign imports,” . “Sesame, peas, onions, coriander from Bactria, and cucumber were all introduced into China from the West during the Han dynasty”

Four distinct school of cooking emerged. The “Four Schools” refers to Shandong’s (called after its former polity of Lu), Jiangsu’s (called Yang after its most famous branch), Cantonese (called after its former polity of Yue), and Szechuan’s (abbreviated to Chuan) cuisines. Over a period of time four more school of cooking emerged, recognized as distinct Chinese schools themselves: Hunan’s cuisine (called Xiang for its local river), Fujian’s (called Min for its native people), Anhui’s (abbreviated as Hui), and Zhejiang’s (abbreviated as Zhe)

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