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Old February 14th, 2011, 08:55 PM   #1
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Food and drink in ancient China and Japan


I also wondered what the ancient Chinese and Japanese ate. I know salt and spice back then were hard for the common peasants to come by so I'm assuming the food would be more tasteless than the food today.
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Old February 15th, 2011, 05:11 AM   #2
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I also wondered what the ancient Chinese and Japanese ate. I know salt and spice back then were hard for the common peasants to come by so I'm assuming the food would be more tasteless than the food today.
Fish and rice, like their modern descendents
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Old February 15th, 2011, 06:17 AM   #3

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For Japan, it really depends on what region you're talking about. Regional variation was significant, even in Ancient times.
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Old February 15th, 2011, 08:37 AM   #4

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Fish and rice, like their modern descendents
In Japanese society, it depended on who you were and, as LBG points out, where you lived. If you were a peasant, you'd rarely get to eat white rice - you'd be more likely to have millet, barley or sweet potatoes as your staples, depending on whereabouts in the country you lived.

Polished white rice was the preference of the upper classes, but this deprived it of some essential vitamins, which were not obtained from side dishes and could lead to beriberi, which became known as the "Edo affliction".

On rarer occasions, a peasant would get fish, but vegetables would be more common, simmered or pickled, such as umeboshi (dried pickled plums). One thing the Japanese did not eat very much of was meat, due to religious restrictions. This proscription was often ignored or relaxed for soldiers on campaign, however.
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Old February 15th, 2011, 09:42 AM   #5

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If you're interested in Medieval Japanese food culture, Eric Rath is THE MAN to look for.

Amazon.com: Japanese Foodways, Past and Present (9780252077524): Eric C. Rath, Stephanie Assmann: Books
Amazon.com: Japanese Foodways, Past and Present (9780252077524): Eric C. Rath, Stephanie Assmann: Books


You can download this article for free:

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Old February 15th, 2011, 10:21 AM   #6

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Hey! Who moved my post here? Now I look foolish for recommending works on Medieval Japan's food in a thread about Ancient Japan.
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Old February 15th, 2011, 10:32 AM   #7
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Well a lot of the Chinese food we eat today are recent inventions. Some of the vegetables my family eat now, my parents and grandparents wouldn't eat it in the 1950s because they didn't those vegetables could be eaten.
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Old February 15th, 2011, 09:07 PM   #8

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What I am about to say only applies to pre-Song Chinese dynasties:

The pinciple staple diet in the north was millet, while in the south it was rice. Because the majority of the population were in northern China, it is safe to conclude that the principle diet was millet in general. The reason for the millet/rice division by north/south can be explained by geographical difference. The north has a typically dry climate that allows millet to thrive in situations where other crops would wilt. The south has a wet winter and dry summer, suited for rice. Due to the lack of cultivated land in China, meat would be a rarerity for all but the aristocrats and well-to-do merchants. Proteins are instead supplemented by the practice of horiculture, in which fish are raised in rice paddies. In the north where there were no rice paddies, protein-rich soy beans(ie tofu) are the primary substitute for meat. Winter wheat or barley may be planted before summer millet for extra food, but these were not a common occurence and were not preferred in meals. Instead, wheat and barley could be mixed with soybeans and left to ferment, producing soy sauce.

As for Japan, sources for ancient Japan are regretably lacking. Those that exists come from China and are in the Chinese view. Due to the small number of contacts between the ancient Chinese court and Japan, these sources have questionable accuracy. The small amount of sources I do have only says "They serve food on bamboo and wooden trays, helping themselves with their fingers (early rice ball Onigiri?)". I am positive archeological finds would reveal more, but that is not within my area of expertise.

Last edited by HackneyedScribe; February 15th, 2011 at 09:35 PM.
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Old February 16th, 2011, 12:52 AM   #9

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I should point out that what I wrote really applies to medieval Japan rather than ancient Japan, of whose food I know naught.

The Nihon Shoki and Kojiki, the two oldest books in Japanese literature may have passing mention of food and drink, and they date back to the 8th century.
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Old February 16th, 2011, 07:48 AM   #10

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I should point out that what I wrote really applies to medieval Japan rather than ancient Japan, of whose food I know naught.

The Nihon Shoki and Kojiki, the two oldest books in Japanese literature may have passing mention of food and drink, and they date back to the 8th century.
As I said earlier, regional variation was pretty significant for Japanese cuisine. Even in the "Ancient times." As you got closer to the capital, people ate whatever the local crops were. Rice has been cultivated in Japan for over 2,000 years, so that's a staple almost anywhere. Beans and wheat were introduced shortly thereafter. As you ventured farther away from the capital, the cuisine began to vary. You also saw more consumption of meat as you traveled away from the capital, because people ate whatever the hunters brought home. In Hokkaido, local Ainu ate everything from fish and rice to dogs and wheat.
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