China’s path to new crops

Jeremy’s latest newsletter includes this nice write-up of a recent paper on the origins of Chinese food, under the title I’ve stolen above. Here’s the rest of the newsletter. We blogged here about the paper Jeremy discusses in the podcast episode mentioned at the end. LATER: There’s also a belated article in Archaeology.

Path dependence is the idea that the choices available today are constrained by choices that were made some time back. A new research paper in PLOS One looks at the way existing cooking techniques affected new crops as they made their way into China.

Wheat and barley arrived in China about 4000 years ago. But while the people of western China adopted the new plants quite quickly (you can tell by looking closely at their bones) those in central China were apparently not as keen.

The reason, according to the researchers, reflects north-south differences in cuisine that can be detected 8000 years ago. Northeners had millet as their staple grain, while southerners ate nuts, tubers, fruits and rice. Overlaid on this, central China is part of the northern complex, where millet was prepared by boiling or steaming the whole grain. Western China’s approach to wheat and barley was to mirror their neighbours to the west, grinding the grains to make flour that was baked into breads.

It took much longer for cooking methods in the east to adapt to the new cereals, not least because it takes far longer to boil wheat than millet, and the taste is quite different. There is some evidence, too, that in the course of this adaptation, wheat itself was selected to be more amenable to boiling and steaming.

This east-west vs north-south story adds detail to the [Eat This Podcast] episode with Martin Jones on Prehistoric food globalisation.

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