A ceremonial meal as portrayed in engravings from the shrine of Han Dynasty Gen. Chu Wei, who died circa 50 AD.
Food

How wheat became a staple in China

Dec 04, 2018

Flour, water, and salt—these three simple ingredients mixed together produce an endless variety of dishes in Chinese cuisine.

From perfectly formed strands of lamian 拉面 (noodles) to the tender skin of jiaozi 饺子 (dumplings), these doughy delights owe their versatility to wheat.

Over millennia, Chinese cooks have tamed this tough, hard-to-process grain into beloved delicacies. Here is a brief history of how wheat kneaded its way into Chinese cuisine.

An ear of wheat with seeds covered by inedible husks.
An ear of wheat with seeds covered by inedible husks. / Photo: Adam Oelsner and Hannah Bae

Ancient roots

Wheat reached China around 8,000 years ago in 6000 BC, according to Huang Hsing-tsung in Fermentations and Food Science, part of an epic book series on Chinese civilization and science. This was several millennia after people around modern-day Turkey domesticated wheat.

By 2000 BC, the Chinese began to cultivate wheat regularly, but for centuries, it remained a second-rate grain. The Chinese boiled wheat like they did rice and millet, Huang explains, but it was unsatisfying and hard to eat.

The turning point came with the emergence of a new technology: rotary grindstones that could produce high-quality flour. Huang writes that the proliferation of these food processing tools around 300 BC paralleled the emergence of wheat as a major component in the Chinese diet.

With flour readily available, Chinese chefs began to grasp the possibilities of using wheat’s gluten-forming proteins to create delicious, elastic dough that formed the basis of new wondrous foods.

A man from the Han Dynasty grinding flour as depicted in “Fermentations and Food Science.”
A man from the Han Dynasty grinding flour as depicted in “Fermentations and Food Science.” / Photo: Adam Oelsner and Hannah Bae

Wealth food

In massive kitchens that served the upper classes, inventive cooks created noodles and dumplings from wheat flour, food historian Rachel Laudan writes in Cuisine and Empire.

During the Han Dynasty, which spanned roughly 200 BC to 200 AD, lucky diners enjoyed dumplings “prepared with costly meat, ginger, onions, spice, and black beans (presumably fermented) to neutralize the meaty smell… wrapped in exquisitely thin dough and steamed,” Laudan writes.

Average people, in contrast, subsisted on vegetables, other grains such as millet, and scant amounts of meat and seafood. This disparity was the case for most of the world’s non-nomadic population at the time, according to Laudan.

A ceremonial meal as portrayed in engravings from the shrine of Han Dynasty Gen. Chu Wei, who died circa 50 AD.
A ceremonial meal as portrayed in engravings from the shrine of Han Dynasty Gen. Chu Wei, who died circa 50 AD. / Photo: Adam Oelsner and Hannah Bae

Mass appeal

The introduction of new agricultural techniques made wheat a major food crop, and the popularity of noodles and dumplings grew steadily after the Han Dynasty.

Archaeological finds dating as far back as the third century, about 100 years after the Han Dynasty, show how advanced wheat flour recipes had already become.

Preserved remains of dumplings and wonton were discovered in a tomb in northwestern China’s Xinjiang province, and Huang notes that there were several types of raised, leavened buns similar to today’s baozi (包子) already being consumed around that time.

Fossilized dumplings unearthed from a tomb in Xinjiang province, northwestern China.
Fossilized dumplings unearthed from a tomb in Xinjiang province, northwestern China. / Photo: PLoS ONE

A sixth-century manual of agriculture, food processing, and cooking called Qimin Yaoshu (齐民要术), or Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People, offers vital information on noodle recipes of the time.

The book offered 13 ways of turning dough into noodles, Huang notes, with five involving roasting, baking, or frying; four involving boiling or steaming; and four involving dough made with rice flour.

Making full use of wheat’s versatility, people also processed the grain into sweet malt syrups, meat substitutes like seitan, mold-inoculated ferment cakes for winemaking, and other completely new foodstuffs.

By the 14th century, Chinese people of all classes, not just the rich, enjoyed dumplings and noodle soups, which, Huang says, “could quite credibly pass off as noodle dishes served in Chinese restaurants today.”